STARRED REVIEW
June 2020

Drifts

By Kate Zambreno
Rather than combat “monkey brain,” as her yoga instructor calls the conscious mind in its chaotic, web-enabled 21st-century state, Zambreno’s “drifts” lean into it, seeking to honor and somehow capture the distracted present tense.
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In Drifts, Kate Zambreno ponders an early self-portrait by German artist Albrecht Dürer. Drawn from his own mirrored reflection, the portrait is realistic except for Dürer’s hand, which had been too busy sketching to model for the drawing. “Perhaps it’s impossible to record the self at the immediate moment of contemplation,” Zambreno writes. She tries it anyway: “The publishing people told me that I was writing a novel, but I was unsure.”

Zambreno is the author of six previous books, most of which defy easy categorization. Roxane Gay, in her 2012 essay “How We All Lose,” describes Zambreno’s Heroines as a “hybrid text that is part manifesto, part memoir, and part searing literary criticism” and praises its unashamed subjectivity. This description could readily apply to Drifts. The title comes from Zambreno’s experiments with a new form. Rather than combat “monkey brain,” as her yoga instructor calls the conscious mind in its chaotic, web-enabled 21st-century state, Zambreno’s “drifts” lean into it, seeking to honor and somehow capture the distracted present tense. “I wanted my novel, if that’s what it was, to be about time and the problem of time,” as well as  “the problem with dailiness—how to write the day when it escapes us.”

The cast of characters includes the writer’s partner, her dog, her neighbors and her correspondents, but also Rilke, Kafka and Dürer, to name a few. And yes—quite a lot happens, even if the action isn’t necessarily the plot. To that end, Drifts is a kind of inverted mindfulness exercise in book form, fixed on pinning moments down like so many butterflies. Zambreno has abstained from the novelist’s traditional task of keeping a story arc aloft. 

If this sounds like veiled criticism, it isn’t, though it probably should be taken as a warning to anyone hungry for more conventional fare. But for readers in the mood for an adventure, this is a giddily enjoyable read, emotionally conspiratorial in tone, full of brilliant critical observations and realistic depictions of the dramas in a modern artist’s daily life, the small ones as well as the life-altering ones.

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Drifts

Drifts

By Kate Zambreno
Riverhead
ISBN 9780593087213

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