A Novel Caught Between 2 Plagues

A Novel Caught Between 2 Plagues

Looking at both the AIDS crisis and the Covid pandemic, Kate Zambreno’s To Write as if Already Dead grapples with how illness changes our conception of self.


Toward the end of his short life, the French photographer and writer Hervé Guibert was bereft: dying of a virus that had killed or was killing many of his closest friends and lovers, without access to the social and economic capital that might save his life, and exiled from his great love—fucking. He couldn’t even manage to kill himself properly: “I can’t rid myself of my self,” he remarked in his diaries. One wonders to which self he was referring: the materially decaying house of the body; the metaphysical subject position we might call “consciousness”; or perhaps the writerly legacy he was hastily securing with his final texts.

Guibert’s obsessive documentation of the AIDS pandemic, particularly as it infiltrated his own body and ravaged his once astonishing—as sEdmund White referred to it, his “hyacinthine”—beauty, is surely his great literary contribution. White remarked that Guibert envisioned AIDS as “his destiny and his subject, one that would bring together his hatred of his own body, his taste for the grotesque, and his infatuation with death.”

Having been brought so violently to heel by the crisis points of our collective vulnerabilities in our pandemic year, I am distracted lately by the question of how one writes a book of the body in a sea of grief—a book of the body that attends to its materiality and foregrounds that it is the thing through which writing moves. As the narrator of Kate Zambreno’s restless new hybrid text, To Write as if Already Dead, considers, “A chronology of the body is not linear.” And it is particularly true—we know, having reckoned with the foundational limitations of our bodies during a year in which a virus set countless bodies against themselves—that trauma and grief disorient our senses of time and reason, jumbling narrative.

It is inarguable that we have experienced our present condition under disparate circumstances, but death will come for us all; it is, as this book reminds, the great leveler. That shared truth is more crucially subordinated to capitalism and becomes a question of to what extent we are granted comfortability, compassion, and care in our limited time here. As Judith Butler inquires in Precarious Life: “what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?” Who is allowed to matter? Whose world accumulates meaning? How do we narrate this processual experience leading to the inexorable end?

In To Write as if Already Dead, the author-narrator (known only and henceforth as Kate) is attempting to complete a commissioned study of Guibert’s controversial illness “novel,” To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. As Kate traverses Guibert’s past—his stages of illness, which intervene in his race to complete several books before his body gives out—she concurrently documents her own precarity: the instability of adjunct labor, her variable relations to insurance coverage and health care, and a series of illnesses during a difficult, medically designated “geriatric” (she is 42) second pregnancy at the height of the pandemic lockdown in Brooklyn last summer.

I am reminded of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s figural compositions in fiber, which she imagined as a material representation of the Tibetan Buddhist principle of the bardo—the place between states of being—particularly the bardo of dying; as she wrote, “the space between contracting a terminal illness and death itself.” Sedgwick’s theoretical work often jostled against this space in its examinations of and reckonings with cancer, which eventually killed her, and the AIDS crisis, which she witnessed intimately, having come up in the 1980s and ’90s in gay and queer circles disproportionately impacted by the virus.

To this concern, the tactility of her sculptural work situates Sedgwick’s sense of the bardo in the material and sensuous experience of living inside a body that will falter and eventually fail. It is this in-betweenness that haunts To Write. Navigating AIDS, cancer, Covid, and other vulnerabilities, To Write seeks a mode of resistance to the ways these deadly phenomena infect the psychic life of our art. Sedgwick and the writers Kathy Acker and Susan Sontag (both also felled by cancer) are crucial interlocutors in To Write, literary foremothers in a micro-canon of the ill body that seeks to give an account of the ill self.

Kate at times seems to thrive in the physical estrangements of suffering, as did Guibert, mobilized by its specter to create art. “Alienation stimulates me,” Kate remarks, pitching a novel to an editor friend, although the scene leaves us suspicious of her faith in this statement. In his journals, Guibert reflects: “Impression that my books are alive whereas dead myself I ran all my life through them.” Kate, again: “I have to write [this study] now… I need to push it out through my body.” We make our books of the body, To Write wagers, not because we can, but because we must; or, more unnervingly, because we are but shells in which the spirit of writing is animated.

When Kate confirms her pregnancy, she must (like Guibert) submit to the ceaseless procession of medical professionals and doctor’s visits, fearing, as the pandemic escalates, that she will have to give birth in the makeshift hospital at the Javits Center. Pregnancy is, she thinks, a kind of death in and of the self: “You don’t exist as a pregnant person until you get through the first month or two alone.” And once you are a legibly pregnant person, you become superseded by the fetus: “[The doctors] don’t care if I die. I am supposed to protect this fetus, but who protects me? I’m just a vessel…. I’m just supposed to keep alive.”

For Guibert, the possibility of “keeping alive” as a person with AIDS prior to antiretroviral therapies was nearly impossible, a kind of “speculative fiction,” Kate thinks. But each is in a race to meet a deadline, of birth and death, respectively. To Write is steeped in the terror of time’s passing. The coherencies made between AIDS and the pregnant body in distress (and between AIDS and Covid) would, in the hands of a less capable artist, obfuscate their differences. But these comparisons are never made at the expense of particularity or insensitive to the conceptual failures of their own approximations. After all, Kate considers, “No one can ever really know the experience of your body.”

Indeed, by situating these two particular bodies (Kate’s and Guibert’s) in a global continuity of historical plagues, Zambreno fluently interrogates how the traumatic specificities of the individually ill body signal and converse with a broader illness in the body politic. Her examination of the consequences of structural violence in our intimate lives—powerfully punctuated by recursive anxieties about living as an uninsured or otherwise politically “dispensable” person in a world that will handily divest itself of responsibility for such people and bodies—stresses (in a phrase lately recited ad infinitum) that the cruelty is the point.

This expansion of narrative scope marks a fascinating shift in Zambreno’s corpus toward externality and a kind of communalism. Her writing has always been deeply interior, using personal (or authorial) experience to explore the past, whether on the madwomen of modernism or French New Wave cinema. What sets To Write apart from her past work might be the urgency with which it is rendered, knitting Guibert’s plague years into our immediate and actionable present.

In writing of the simultaneity of the traumas caused by AIDS and Covid in both global and individual contexts, Zambreno elucidates how negligent governing bodies weaponize and demarcate certain categories of people as pollutants within the moralizing paradigm of “the plague.” (All, of course, while silencing such people’s victimizations by the state.) This process of rendering the other as abject works in tandem with capitalist logic to install a “fear of others, of being infected, of any intimacy with the outside,” as Kate comments on the ways Covid-19 helped inflame discriminatory discourses. In other words, the ruling class sets marginalized people against one another to improve the functioning of its own apparatus.

Despite the righteous rage that suffuses the text, it would be a mistake to call To Write a polemic; rather, it is a kind of culmination that Zambreno’s writing has been working toward. Her treatment of two plagues and the racial justice protests of summer 2020, as well as an account of pregnancy and child care under medicalized and economic duress, finds Zambreno at her most political—as well as perhaps her most hopeful.

To Write is a song of two particular bodies in pain, in their individualized grotesqueries, but also a call to imagine the ways that suffering can radically reroute desire and pleasure to newly generative channels. Kate recalls Kathy Acker’s proclamation that “I’m what happens after death, which is writing!” The experience of the body may be private, but our attempts to give an account of it repudiate the ways history and the medical establishment depersonalize us, rendering the human as clinical knowledge.

Therein, writing becomes a disavowal of the anonymity of death; it is, Kate notes, “a way to mark an ‘I’ before it is extinguished.” Just as crucially, writing becomes a way to connect with the particular “I” of the other, and a way to enact a sense of solidarity. In this recognition of the fundamental vulnerability we collectively share—the mutual beholdenness of ourselves to the other and the other to ourselves—lies possibility. If writing may sometimes operate as a betrayal, it can also act as the space in which we fabricate sites of common feeling.

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