O Fallen Angel

By Kate Zambreno

Chiasmus Press
April 2010, Paperback
164 pages


Reviewed by Angela Stubbs


Written with the ferocity and lyricism of a modern-day Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel, winner of Chiasmus Press’ “Undoing the Novel” contest, also incorporates a myriad of stylistic forms that echo Beckett’s minimalist approach to writing. Perhaps it’s just that the power of the words she uses presents a unique philosophy of human culture. Zambreno never censors her bleak view of the everyday life of the dysfunctional, middle-class American family. Inspired by Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” this novel juxtaposes the images of the painting with the brutal reality of suburban life and the physical and mental manifestations that often result when we silence pain and suppress fears. It goes beyond the contrast of text and visual images to create a complex triptych where we are subjected to the horrific actions and inactions of its characters, and the familial atrocities that emerge as a result. 

Distorted realities, whether in written form (echoing Jelinek), or viewed as art (like Bacon’s triptych, formerly on display at the Tate Modern), address Zambreno’s desire to uncover what it means to be silenced in a society that’s all talk. The epigraph to O Fallen Angel is from Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” “Every human being is an abyss. One grows dizzy looking down,” implying an inherent disconnect indicative of familial and societal hysteria as witnessed in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and work by Fitzgerald and Breton.

We’re subjected to the lives of three characters, Mother, Maggie, and Malachi, whose stories are divided into three separate narratives yet inexplicably linked in insecurity. Their dialogue takes turns addressing the innate need we all have to be heard and the manner in which we suffer when we lose our voice(s).

Hysteria, and the way it affects these characters, is a recurring, if not central, theme to O Fallen Angel. Often, they seem characters out of Artaud, constantly rebelling against a world that could exist without them. This causes hysteria to emanate when logic and reason would otherwise prevail. Zambreno’s dialogue has a boldness comparable to Acker’s, reflects a mental hysteria also found in Freud’s Dora, and in the defiant style and descriptions of Bataille’s My Mother.

Each section examines the human condition from various points of view. All take place in a Midwestern, provincial landscape fraught with the small-mindedness of a 1950s housewife-turned-religious zealot, a promiscuous and devalued daughter and an equally insane version of the Unabomber.  Zambreno plays with stereotypes but underneath intended clichés and literary parallels there remains a strong undercurrent of cruelty, which ultimately turns fantastically theatrical.

Zambreno forces us to look closely at the unfortunate demise of our culture through suburban kitschiness. We witness the skewed views of a mother who passes judgment on everyone from her daughter-in-law to Jews, African-Americans and even reality-show contestants.

Mommy likes the brunette girls the best, better than the blonde ones because they are more modest but she doesn’t like the ones who seem: Jewish, black, or brown if it’s not a tan. Jesus is the key to your happiness Mommy tells Maggie but Maggie doesn’t listen Maggie says terrible things like she doesn’t believe in God how can you not believe in God Mommy gasps!

What is important to recognize in this text is the manner in which Zambreno gives her characters voice. There’s a dumbing-down of Maggie’s intelligence, a neglectful eye that allows promiscuity, drug use and psychological issues to go unnoticed even amongst family. Maggie’s existence has been reduced to a day-to-day rollercoaster of crucifixion and malady. Mommy’s answer to the problem she calls Maggie is to keep her at arm’s length while being pumped full of prescription drugs. Maggie, where her mother is concerned, exists solely in DSM-IV diagnoses and skewed memories that are Mommy’s alone.  

Maggie is depressed. Maggie LIKES to be depressed. Maggie writes in her dear, dear, diary (tear drops stain the ink): Perhaps love is a delusion and we all hide ourselves with half-lies and fiction.  Maggie writes to fill in her anonymous sketched outline. Maggie is a blank slate. Maggie is beginning to realize the life truth that no one else knows who anyone else truly is inside. Maggie’s inner life is radically different than people’s outward perception of Maggie, which makes Maggie desperately unhappy. Maggie knows from psychology that the happiest are those with the most illusions. That is Sigmund Freud. This is why Maggie is not happy—she has lost her illusions. Maggie is a lost girl. Maggie is drifting in a sea of anonymity and anomie.

O Fallen Angel is a tribute to all the damaged girls, all the toxic teenagers, college roommates, and friends you’ve known who were all at once the best and worst versions of themselves. This work spews back at society the vile, misguided judgments we place upon one another with the style of a post-modern poet and the mind of Woolf. The reality and banality of suburbia, its conventional ideals and preconceived notions regarding gender and voice are quickly demystified as Zambreno examines the root of our culture clashes. Here we are asked: what are accepted/rejected ideas on madness and the cruelty of the monotony of the middle-class landscape?  Reminiscent of Baudelaire, Zambreno takes that madness and hysteria to a new level, where their yin and yang drive these powerful, sparse pages.