The first time I read Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel was in 2012, not too long after it was first released on Chiasmus Press in 2010, and it felt like something I’d been starving for: the story of a girl raised by a housebound Mommy whose constant care is a form of creepy control, whose love is both dollifying and cannibalizing. The girl—Maggie—is stifled and self-seeking and, with limited tools with which to construct a self, self-destructs instead.
O Fallen Angel is Zambreno’s first book—she went on to garner a larger readership with her novel Green Girl and her critical book Heroines, both of which establish Zambreno as a formal innovator who is in constant conversation with dead critical theorists and Hollywood starlets, who returns from these conversations with new language with which to write the experience of the girl. Compared to Green Girl and Heroines, O Fallen Angel feels young, but in the best way—it’s desperate, searing, hurting, angry and unforgiving.
When I first read the novel five years ago, I loved it because I related so hard. Finally there was a mother in literature who wanted to “freeze [her children] when…they’re at the age before they start disagreeing with you,” who wanted to keep her self-harming girlkid out of therapy because psychologists “blame everything on the Mommy.” Maggie’s Mommy’s dollification is so extreme it even leads her to fantasize about Maggie’s death—in death, “finally Maggie will let Mommy dress her…and finally Maggie will be her girl yes her girl.” Finally there was a girl in literature who, raised by such a mother and just like me, was so unequipped to live her own life that she was fired from all her waitressing jobs, that she sought self-worth in the beds of brooding, bohemian boys, that she got rejected from in-patient psychiatric care because even her suicide plan wasn’t specific enough. And maybe it’s true that we see girls like Maggie in stories from Mary Gaitskll and her acolytes, but O Fallen Angel is the first book that I’ve read that is some degree of diagnostic, that shows the reader how the girl got that way.
And maybe—like the therapist of Mommy’s fantasies—Zambreno’s narrator blames the Mommy, but Mommy’s story, albeit judgmentally, gets told, too, and so O Fallen Angel gives us an intergenerational story of women teaching girls how to accept oppression, how to self-oppress, and why.
O Fallen Angel is told in the form of a triptych, narrated closely in turns to Mommy, Maggie, and the god Malachi. Mommy’s sentences are long and smushed together, free of the constraints of commas and periods, often including rhyming folk-wisdoms and bits of Bible verses that seem to be Mommy’s only external reference points with which to make sense of the world, but for Mommy they are enough. Maggie’s references expand to include fairy tales and Hollywood movies from the 50’s and 60’s, clearly inherited from Mommy, which have taught her to be prince-seeking; that the only way out of her Mommy’s American Dream is to latch her sense of self to a boy who looks like Marlon Brando and run to the other side of the proverbial tracks. Maggie’s also got what she’s learned from her brief stint as a psychology major. Maggie is drugging and slutting but she’s also reading desperately, reading in order to discover or assemble a self, but the thing is she’s too young and too sheltered; she hasn’t read enough to have left her hometown ideology behind for good, she hasn’t read enough enable her to know how to move around safely in Chicago, the city to which she’s relocated.
In 2012, maybe I hadn’t read enough, and I was reading desperately, self-seekingly, too, and I glossed over the cultural differences between Maggie’s family and my own, made the book into a book about me. But it’s 2017 now and I’ve gone through my Saturn return, and O Fallen Angel is being re-released on Harper Perennial in the very same month that Donald Trump has been inaugurated into the U.S. Presidency, and it feels like a different book. It’s no longer just a book for sad girls raised to be selfless dollies by controlling moms—it turns out to be a book about those 53% of white women voters so many of us were so shocked to learn about, and many others weren’t; a book about the constant and attentive labor those women do to uphold patriarchy and racism and corporate capitalism and anti-environmentalism as the True American Values, the constant and attentive labor they do in service of their own oppression. If the election had gone another way, the characters in this book might seem quaint, obscure, like a dying breed. Instead, the timing of O Fallen Angel’s re-release fuckedly transitions it from Sad Girl Cult Classic to Great American Novel in écriture féminine. In Mommy’s colliding sentences, we’re able to see how thoughtless associations and oft-repeated phrases and rhymes take the place of logic:
“Mommy believes fullheartedly in the sacred institution of marriage. She believes strongly in family values and the importance of the nuclear family. It’s the American way the nuclear family the nuclear bomb the white picket fence. Mommy thinks fences are important because they keep out the undesirables like illegal aliens. God appointed Man and Woman to be together. Daddy thinks this too he gets quite impassioned talking about the subject It’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!”
Though it was first released seven years ago, O Fallen Angel feels painfully timely in its revelation of the ways in which the American Dream is a dream of white supremacy and masculine domination. In Zambreno’s deft hands, it becomes clear that Daddy is a good American worker so that Mommy can live in her dream house in the country, that it is requisite that Mommy’s dream be to live in that dream house in order to justify Daddy’s robotic employment. Zambreno shows us that Mommy’s job is not to cook (she gets takeout) or to clean (she has a brown-skinned immigrant woman to do this for her) but to oversee, to instill American values, to validate racism, homophobia, and environmental destruction—it is Mommy’s job to keep everyone dreaming. It is a full-time job.
Zambreno is brilliant at getting inside Mommy’s weird, oppressive logic. I know when I am in Mommy’s brain that contraceptives and abortions are just means by which women can be selfish, which is to say, that those women on contraceptives might not be working directly in service of the perpetuation of the American Dream, might not be doing their jobs; I know when I am in Mommy’s brain that of course it is girls’ fault if they’re raped because what selfish thing are they getting up to outside the house? I know when I am in Mommy’s brain that to be anti-racist or environmentally concerned is unladylike because what then are you implying about Mommy’s work of keeping everyone safe by moving them out to the white, white country or Daddy’s job of making SUVs? Zambreno’s Mommy-logic is perhaps illustrated most stunningly and hilariously in the passage below:
“Mommy and Daddy have been ordering a lot of take-out in Styrofoam containers…they throw the Styrofoam containers away because they do not recycle because global warming doesn’t exist! The polar bears are fine! Mommy and Daddy saw them at the zoo when they took the grandbabies! Global warming is a fiction dreamed up by the Communists! Who are trying to take Daddy’s job away!…Big strong SUVs are as American as big strong men and weak frail mommies. So to recycle would be to admit that Daddy makes evil gas-guzzling monsters and Daddy and Mommy would never do this.”
Zambreno’s Mommy-logic shows us how the Other—Mommy’s cleaning lady who can’t access an American dream so that Mommy can have hers, Mommy’s faggot brother—is a real threat. The threat is that the Other might, like Maggie’s boy from the other side of the proverbial tracks, call into question whether Mommy and her family are good, and might, more importantly, call into question whether Mommy and her family are—the ultimate American value—happy. The Other might make Mommy’s family’s start to stir in its American dream. And if it were to stir enough, if it were to fall out of the dream, as Maggie has, the reality—terrible commute, isolation, boredom, meaningless and destructive work—might be too much to take.
When Mommy thinks about her children as babies, she primarily recalls their whiteness. They had “the whitest blond hair like glowing halos” but after this halcyon angel-baby period, “their hair grew brown and darkened” and finally, Maggie’s dyed her hair black. Maggie has followed the boy across the tracks to the wrong side, has pushed against Mommy’s dollification: “You cannot simply put me away in the cupboard. I am not one of your ceramic statues to be dusted.” But the thing is, in a world which has decided that women are housebound providers and protectors of the American Dream, static and unwanting unless it’s for a (white) picket fence, Maggie is sick and Mommy can put her wherever Mommy wants.
What do we call it when Mommies teach their daughters to be stagnant dollies in service of a productive, consumptive, racist, destructive America? Is it misogyny? Is it white supremacy so deeply ingrained that one is willing to sacrifice herself for its continuation? Is it love? I’m not sure, but it’s what I see when I look at Ivanka and Melania poised and posed behind Donald Trump, and it seems to be where Trump and his cabinet of monsters have promised to return us.
It’s worth saying that, even with all the work it’s doing, O Fallen Angel is slim and hurtling. It wraps you in its characters’ compelling, charming voices, and propels you forward to its sickening end.