“The book I should have written”: A Review of Kate Zambreno’s ‘The Appendix Project’

Kate Zambreno spent thirteen years writing The Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e)), a meditation on grief and meaning following the death of her own mother. When the book was published in 2017, what happened to the drafts of its former iterations? What happened to the book it could have been? As Zambreno asks, “How can a book contain somehow the furious energy of its failure, of its processes, its drafts, its many notebooks?”

As Zambreno continues to mourn the loss of her mother, she also mourns the loss of the project that gave shape to her grief. The Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)) reconsiders the cross-outs and erasures, digressive thoughts and interests that helped shape the earlier text but were not included in its final form. What if the content that matters most is actually the fragments that don’t fit?

Throughout The Appendix Project, Zambreno references other artists, particularly ones also grieving the loss of a loved one. They sit in empty rooms. Among many such examples, she describes Roland Barthes looking through boxes of family photos, trying to find one that captures more than the flat likeness of his late mother (as recounted in Camera Lucida), Marcel Proust writing In Search of Lost Time, swaddled in seven wool blankets, blue satin drapes drawn tightly over his windows, no mother left to call him from his room, Chantal Akerman filming in her elderly mother’s Belgium flat, the older woman coughing in the dark, off camera.

Zambreno writes of Ackerman’s scene, “To think about a life and its confines. How can writing approach this space of contemplation. How to represent privacy and sadness in a work… I sense the grieving daughter, editing this work, pausing, watching her mother in decline. Her presence and then her absence.”

Zambreno gracefully weaves her struggles and those of artists she admires into a text that contemplates the boundaries of representation and experience, the desire for a book to transcend itself, for life to transcend its loss. Her essays allow us to think through what might still be possible when words fail and we linger in our questions long enough to imagine answers we have not yet created.

As Zambreno writes, “I can see a possible book, the book I should have written, that was not about my mother or about my father, but about the stutters of American history, where I wrestled with my uncertainties, where I came to terms with my wrongness, where I thought tenderly through the lives of others, not in ways that served my own project, but where I served them, and thought through them, where I was the ghost, hovering over, attempting…attempting what? Perhaps attempting to come closer.”

In its attempt, The Appendix Project does what Roland Barthes, perhaps most frequently cited by Zambreno in the appendices, says some photographs can do. It launches “a desire beyond what it permits us to see.”



Caitlin Johnson

Caitlin Johnson is a poet and essayist based in Los Angeles. She has a MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Leveler. She is working on her first collection of essays, 'Samples.' You can also find her @caitlinlorrainejohnson or caitlinlorrainejohnson.com.

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