Between Genius and Banal: The World of Kate Zambreno’s ‘Screen Tests’

Two hundred pages in, a short note encapsulates the knot of affinities and repulsions wound by Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests, a collection of pulsing writings on personal fascination, theory in the form of a strobe. It is a brief moment, in a book made up almost entirely of brief moments. Hardly a sentence, more like a reinscription of one: “I write in my notebook: ‘Elizabeth Wurtzel vs. Kathy Acker?’” Like most of Zambreno’s wandering theses, the meaning proposed is born not of action, that driving force of narrative, but of arrangement and display. The line is less an aphorism or poetic fragment than a premise for an imaginary scenario, a face-off of sad-girl luminaries; Zambreno proposes ideas like how a child might move paper dolls around, testing the possibilities of selves and others. (I do not mean that as a diminishing comparison. There is no intellectual project I value more than the world-building of young girls in play.)

Wurtzel, the author of the once zeitgeist-defining memoir Prozac Nation, about being overmedicated and underenthused in the early 1990s, has entered the ring because Zambreno—in the middle of an essay on Acker, the counterculture icon and experimental novelist—has just seen Wurtzel in Zambreno’s regular West Village coffee shop. Wurtzel is eating a sandwich, wearing a scrunchie in her blond hair. From our vantage, she seems unremarkably competent: food-eating, hair-having. Zambreno, however, describes herself, the next day, at the same place but sobbing, glazed with snot and tears, publicly grieving everything from broken friendships to bad publicity.

While she acknowledges that Wurtzel is “one of [her] wounded monsters”—a category of admiration—the author ultimately gives the winning point to Acker, aligning herself against her café-mate: “The difference is maybe multiplicity. A refusal to commodify a coherent self. Or ugliness.” Here, Zambreno departs from her dolls. The structure of this existential competition is entirely of her doing and therefore optional in its antagonism. In this playacting, there is a potential for much more than either/or architectures, which Zambreno chooses to elide. There are so many other prepositions, so many other ways of organizing bodies in fantasy, so many mutual ways to mourn. Imagine, Wurtzel and Acker. Wurtzel with Acker. Wurtzel by Acker. Wurtzel for Acker! In! As! Of!

This solidarity blindness seems to pervade the work, except for instances of Zambreno’s attachment to certain abstractions: the ugly, the mad, the aforementioned sad. While she is eager to pose large questions about femininity and its accompanying horrors, the presence of other women induces, in her words, a “prickliness I feel for my peers, a paranoia.” These peers, some of whom are named and others are not, are dismissed as “all the other feminist writers on the Internet,” part of a “witty, bitchy, popularity contest.” Their crimes against Zambreno specifically remain undisclosed.

Screen Tests is primarily a collection of vignettes, short-short stories, and floating semi-essayistic musings—half proverb, half situational comedy. The connective tissue between each piece is an iconographic figure meeting the unexpected material of the everyday. Chapter titles read “Blanchot in a Supermarket Parking Lot,” “Patty Hearst Wins the Westminster Dog Show,” “Nico in the Kitchen Cutting Her Bangs,” “Beckett in Shorts,” like captions for absent photographs. These scenes hook into that needling eye of desire many of us share: the desire to see our heroes washing dishes or eating breakfast, angry or asleep, undeniably ordinary. Like the superstars in Andy Warhol’s screen tests, Zambreno’s are seen blinking, chewing, using, sighing, flirting, dozing, crying, but in a way that only solidifies their aura of difference from the reader.

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