Wolves in Disguise
Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel dissects the willful blindness and rigid oppressiveness of contemporary American life
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
At the end of Kate Zambreno’s 2011 novel Green Girl, Ruth, the titular heroine, goes to the Tate Britain museum to see Francis Bacon’s 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. As she stares at the triptych, contemplating the three half-abstract, half-anthropomorphic figures, twisting and tortured against a burnt orange background, Zambreno lets us in on Ruth’s thoughts:
The open mouth. What is there to do but scream? And no sound comes out. We have lost ourselves. We offer ourselves up to our popes of abandon, of frenzied despair. Our identities gone. Our faces blurred, racing.
When pressed to vocalize her opinion by her male companion, however, Ruth is unable to find any words. All she can answer is “It’s horrible and beautiful. Like life, horrible and beautiful.”
This assessment of existence — as well as the level of inner life provided to the main character — is a generous step forward for Zambreno. In her previous novel, O Fallen Angel — loosely inspired by the same Bacon painting and now being reissued by Harper Perennial — life is pretty much only horrible. A twisted fairy tale in three intersecting parts, Zambreno’s 2010 novel dissects the willful blindness and rigid oppressiveness of contemporary American life, unsparingly charting its murderous consequences.
The first of the three sections, which alternate throughout the book, introduces us to the character of Mommy. In a long, unbroken paragraph, Zambreno begins by mimicking the sing-song tone of a children’s book to situate us in the world of a rule-abiding suburban family: “She is his Mrs. and he is her Mister the Mommy and Daddy.” As the section continues, the language becomes a playful stew of reading primer exposition, clichéd language, and punning wordplay, all designed to take us into and around the limited consciousness of Mommy.
This matriarch, we soon learn, is a stickler for defined familial roles and is terrified of anything outside her suburban enclave. “When she was a little girl,” Zambreno writes, “she had her whole life mapped out a whole houseful of children! In their pajamas with the footsies for Christmas morning!” Anything that differentiates from this fantasy, imbibed from her own parents and passed on to her children, is inadmissible in her world. She turns off the news when anything unpleasant comes on and her only experience of other countries is the simulacra provided by a trip to Disney’s Epcot Center.
But the world is stubborn; it just won’t cooperate with Mommy. Not only does her brother turn out to be gay, but her daughter, Maggie is a very bad seed. Unlike her brother, who has followed accepted practice by marrying and reproducing, Maggie finds herself locked in a downward spiral of drug use and random fucking, and is later diagnosed with bipolar depression. In the Maggie sections of the book, Zambreno breaks up the breathless sections of prose that she uses in the Mother section into tiny paragraphs — perhaps reflecting Maggie’s clipped consciousness — but maintains the same heady stew of language.
Indoctrinated by her mother’s love of fairy tales, Maggie sees her life as being defined and betrayed by these stories. “Maggie used to dream of Prince Charming,” Zambreno writes, but “Prince Charming is really a wolf in disguise.” Maggie is unable, given her natural curiosity, to limit herself to the role dictated by her mother. As a result, she sees herself as bad, and then, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy, acts out the way she feels, throwing herself to the metaphorical wolves (i.e. fuck-and-run men). In grimly hilarious prose, Zambreno charts this descent: “And Sleeping Beauty didn’t make him wear a condom and now she has pelvic inflammatory disease and crotch-itch and genital warts, but oh, the memories.”
But for all its dank humor and brutal dissection of the nuclear family, O Fallen Angel is also a philosophical novel, deeply concerned with the problem of freedom. For the Sartre-reading Maggie, the question of purpose is foremost. She knows that she wants more to life than to “always [do] the dishes and [hold] a steady job,” but, after seeking freedom from that life, she can’t conceive of any alternative. And, so, at the end of the book, homeless, jumping from one man’s bed to the other, she achieves the only freedom available to her, one that isn’t really free at all. For her mother, who by contrast, rejects anything out of the accepted order (“What’s the use with all that freedom Mommy thinks”), things end nearly as bleakly, as this paragon of repression transforms into something like a tragic character, unable to escape her own overwhelming fear.
If this deliberately myopic woman chooses to see the world only as benignly angelic, then she finds her dark counterpart in a self-appointed avenging angel. The third section of the book follows a madman named Malachi, based on Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith, who receives messages from the air and rebroadcasts them to passersby near the highway. This prophet of doom, the “messenger angel” who has “come down to warn the people,” views the world in its proper state of grotesquerie. Like Bacon channeling his vision into writhing abstractions, Malachi looks at TV sets and sees “Guillotined heads. The disembodied.” He contemplates our “cell phone towers of Babel.” He wants to offer the world a “spectacle of human suffering” to break through our distractions. If Mommy, then, insists on viewing the world in its narrowest terms and Maggie is overwhelmed by the enormity of a ruleless life, it is Malachi who provides a wider perspective, an essential third viewpoint. That his own existence proves as futilely mortal as that of the other two characters means that Zambreno’s acid vision is a fully committed one, but it also serves as a stern reminder that, even in defeat, our so-called false prophets may still have plenty to tell.