A novel Kate Zambreno reads during the first year of the pandemic opens with a description of an apartment walled by windows on all sides. The novel’s protagonist has recently separated from her husband, and she takes this sun-struck apartment for her three-year-old-daughter. Zambreno, a Guggenheim fellow, professor of writing at Columbia University, and author of Drifts and To Write as If Already Dead, has two young daughters of her own. The Light Room, her latest mode-warping work of memoir, chronicles many of the writer’s own aching attempts at maternal insulation—both from the virus and the protracted, insistently recurrent periods of isolation it causes, and from life’s more daily challenges to her daughters’ fragile capacities for innocence, imagination, and play.
Zambreno’s book gathers a series of diary-esque recordings. Straddling two years, her baseline subject matter is domestic, replete with the quotidian sensations, colors, and textures of cramped pandemic life. Expansion occurs through Zambreno’s wide-ranging and deeply felt artistic preoccupations. Chief among these are concerns with time and, by extension, light: as Annie Ernaux observes, photographs—which effectively equate to moments in time—are really only variations of light and shadow, shuttered and snatched away to be kept at an instant.
These instances—their comings and goings, their realization in delicate gradations of exposure and concealment—haunt Zambreno. Especially raising two daughters during the pandemic, knowing that it will “never be like this again […] so sweet and so awful.” Especially during a period when time itself has become amorphous and bizarre, defying articulation so that Zambreno feels compelled to develop her own, light-infused vocabulary for particularly poignant or hard-to-pin-down moments: the “glimmers” of holding her daughter’s hand through “blue-hour walks” and pressing up against the apartment radiator to greet inaugural January snowstorms; the summery “iridescences” of “soap bubbles, slicked limbs, and gasoline sheen”; the “translucencies” of weepings, exhaustions, and the “full and fleeting” cycle of seasons. Itself titled “Translucencies,” the book’s sixth and final section adopts the third person to recount the pandemic’s dwindling months, a period when Zambreno appears detached or otherwise removed from immediate experience altogether.
The writer’s need for a new language for time arises not only out of the pandemic’s temporal distortions, but out of Zambreno’s ongoing struggles with depression. She reflects:
I’ve been trying to guard myself against despair. And my daughter against despair. Such an intense desire to give her a solstice feeling. To give her light amid the darkness. To remind ourselves the light is returning. Every moment is so full. Every minute exhausting, agonizing, with punctures of joy and beauty.
While never explicitly sourced, this depression appears a by-product of the pandemic. Or is it one of motherhood? There are the temper tantrums, the inevitable compromises between creative enterprise and childcare, the marital strain. Either way, the sheer, occasionally joy-punctured exhaustion of Zambreno’s body- and headspace is epitomized by the palpable paradoxes of her chosen mimetic form: fragmentary yet sustained, contained yet unending. Moving from one eruption of prose—one installment of erudite observation or sociological rumination—to the next, the reader never loses awareness of things stopping, pausing; and then, in the next instant, going on.
Confined to her Brooklyn apartment and teaching college courses over Zoom, it is little surprise that Zambreno begins to think about space as well. Here, she seems ambivalent. Studying artist Joseph Cornell, she wonders why “a small life is always read as a terrible life,” transcribing her friend’s observation that “perhaps interiors and circumscribed walks are the elements that compose your [Zambreno’s] soul.” She takes distinct pleasure in populating her apartment with toy farm animals and collaborating with her daughters to create collections in the style of David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box—an exercise which culminates in a series of disembodied yet oddly gratifying, lyrical catalogs. This appreciation of the possibilities posed by small, dense worlds is also reflected by Zambreno’s prose: her delicate balancing of verbs and nouns in particular registers as simultaneously deft and weighty, carrying the various, erratic contentments which might be discovered beneath bedsheets or behind kitchen shelves in all their cozy specificity.
Of course, Zambreno is anything but immune to the fulfillments of broader horizons. On a particularly cold day in Fort Greene Park she insists that “to be all together outside is happiness. Standing in the mud surveying the distance is some of the most alive and present I have ever felt.” In the calm between variant-driven virus storms she accompanies her daughters through outdoor excursions, playdates, and birthday parties in far-flung corners of Prospect Park. These expanses, literal and otherwise, are evoked by the book’s physical breadth—its continuity, its scrupulous, processual assemblage of one day after another. There is affirmation here.
Still, one may question whether Zambreno fashions for her daughters a “light room” of their own in the end. Can such a room exist? After all, windows which allow for sun admit gray and clouds, too. To stay inside is to forgo the pleasures of the world outdoors, just as to remain outdoors is to ignore the myriad worlds within closer reach. If Zambreno offers us a windowed space, then, its blessing lies not so much in any sunlight refuge as in the clarity and breadth of the view it provides: that being is at once shorter and longer and smaller and larger than we can ever hope to know.
The Light Room
By Kate Zambreno
Published July 4, 2023