Review: O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

fallen-angelAnna K. Yoder, who interviewed Kate Zambreno in 2010 about her first novel, describes O Fallen Angel: “Zambreno’s first novel reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.”  Similar to these other cutting edge artists, Zambreno experiments with structure, language, and setting to present a novel that is disturbing and bizarre.

Zambreno’s triptych story is written from the point-of-view of three very different characters: Mommy, Malachi and Maggie.  The background of the book is the American Midwest, somewhere in suburbia where everyone has a white picket fence, two or three children and a respectable job.  The catholic, white, middle class, suburban family portrayed in the book appears happy and idyllic on the surface.  But just like the Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from which Zambreno takes her inspiration for the novel, the family is in reality dysfunctional, monstrous and grotesque.

When Mommy speaks, the text is child-like, simple and monotonous.  Mommy adheres to strict, Catholic rules of morality and expects the same from her children, Mikey Junior and Maggie.  Mommy’s daily life is ordered—cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, walking the dog.  Mikey is her favorite child because he did what was expected of him, he married a nice woman, not too pretty, who has already given him two children.  It is her daughter, Maggie, that is considered  Mommy’s Fallen Angel because she has not gotten married and had babies, but instead has run off to the big, bad city.  Maggie is the “bad egg,” the one that Mommy tries to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.  Unlike her brother, Maggie has not conformed to Mommy’s expectations of what a good, Catholic girl’s life should look like.  The guilt, emotional blackmail and suppression of feelings don’t work on Maggie like they do on her brother.

Maggie’s point-of-view is focused on her body—raw, corporeal, sexual.  She has sex with lots of men and confuses physical contact with love.  She goes to college as far away as she can to get out from under the expectations of her parents who don’t approve of her chosen major of psychology.  And when she drops out of college and takes a job as a waitress they try not to think about their “bad apple” and insist that any failure of Maggie’s is no fault of theirs.  Every time we encounter Maggie’s voice she seems to be losing more control of her life.  She sleeps with men to get things she needs, consumes a concoction of different substances and loses her job.  Maggie’s body, bloated and laden with genital warts and drugs is an outward reflection of the mess that her mind has become.

Malachi is the most bizarre voice of the three presented in the book.  Like his Biblical namesake, his appears to be a prophet of doom, a Cassandra like figure, as he wanders about the streets of the suburbs and observes middle-class people going about their daily routines. Zambreno also uses Malachi’s speech as a type of chorus to make political commentaries throughout her text. He reads one of his messages:

A great fireball will erupt from the sky

one cannot reason anymore with the President

one life for the life of
thousands

lies lies lies
airplanes

warlords
profits
false idols
prophet

Finally, an additional note on structure which reflects Zambreno’s nod to the Oresteia.  The House of Atreus from which Agamemnon is a descendant  is one of the most morally reprehensible and fucked up families in all of Greek myth; they violate almost every social taboo imaginable.  Zambreno could not have chosen a more appropriate model on which to base her dysfunctional, Midwestern family.  In the style of Ancient Greek tragedy, she inserts choruses within her text that foreshadow the themes and the disturbing outcome towards which her narrative is moving.  The book opens with this chorus:

There is a corpse in the center of this story
There is a corpse and it is ignored
No one looks at the corpse
Everyone no-looks at the corpse

There is a gaper’s block, it is blocking up traffic
It is in broad daylight, this dead body

There are other corpses that are ignored:
corpses far away in another country
enemy corpses

living corpses
walking corpses
working corpses

But when a mere mortal dies we do not see it
We look we gape but we do not see it
We do not mourn the ordinary

It is nothing like the death of a celebrity
To lose them, these constant images
is to remind ourselves that we will die
We will die, too, yet no one will care

Our deaths will not be televised
Then who will watch it?

As someone who grew up in a very conservative family and who was sent to an all girls Catholic high school, I found this book extremely difficult to read at times.  I always felt as if I were being crushed under the weight of the strict rules, guilt, and suppression of feelings that were engendered at school and at home.  I didn’t find my true identity until I was able to break free of that tradition and that religion being forced upon me.  My life, of course, did not take the same destructive path as Maggie’s does  in the book, but I can certainly understand why her life under her parent’s influence brought on such extreme behavior.

12 Comments

Filed under Literary Fiction

12 responses to “Review: O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

  1. Did you like this? Your last two reviews, this and Cusk, have featured writers I’ve heard highly praised and thanks to your descriptions I don’t think either one is for me. Which is actually a bit of a relief considering the number of books I have/want!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry I’ve turned you off from them, Joe. I thought this book was very good but for the personal reasons I cited I found it very unsettling. The Cusk book was excellent and I recommend that one without reserve.

      Liked by 1 person

      • buriedinprint

        Sometimes the most unsettling reads affect us more profoundly but we don’t realise it until later; I think I’d have to be in a particular mindset to take this one in, to do it justice, but it sounds worthwhile.

        Like

  2. I think you could enjoy the book more because you could relate to it so well. It doesn’t look like one I might like. Great review nevertheless

    Like

  3. Excellent review, Melissa. The book sounds as if it may have been a piece of catharsis for Zambreno.

    Like

  4. You do track down some intriguing books, Melissa – fascinating review!

    Like

  5. I actually think this sounds fascinating. Maybe not the easiest of reads though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. No wonder Maggie’s confused about love…
    I’m with Cathy – I think this sounds fascinating!

    Like

  7. Jonathan

    I think I’d like this book. On to the list it goes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like an extreme version of Revolutionary Road! I like the idea of the chorus. Do the voices alternate or are there three parts? (Apologies if you covered this and I missed it).

    Liked by 1 person

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