September 21, 2020: “The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival” by Kate Zambreno

Monday again, Story366!

It is Monday and I’m back at it, fully engaged in teaching and learning and reading and writing. On Saturday, I was away on a Scout campout, as I’ve detailed, so I wrote two posts on Friday and set one to go live Saturday morning. Saturday, then, was the first day this year that I didn’t read from a book or write a blog post. While the Scouts finished up with their climbs, I found a large rock in the middle of a meadow, in the sun, and stretched out, snoozing for a few minutes. As I drifted off and listening to some sick goat bleats—this ranch had free-range goats, mules, and horses—I thought about that, books. When I sit down to read these books every day, it usually bookends or is bookended by a nap/some naps. There I was, napping in the sun, nature all around me, the most serene environment, and I couldn’t help but think, “Shouldn’t I be reading a book right now?” What this means is, I’ve conditioned myself to associate naps with reading, and vice versa. It’s a Pavlov’s dog, only quieter than a bell (though I do snore) and with a different type of reward. However you add it up, sounds like a pretty good life, these daily naps and books. I highly recommend it.

Today I read from Kate Zambreno‘s 2019 collection, Screen Tests, out from Harper Perennial. I’ve seen Zambreno’s work before and have always liked it, so it was nice to have a complete book of her stories here, to read and enjoy them one after another. Let’s talk about it.

Before I get into any specific piece, I should at least try to describe, or define, what Zambrano does and calls short stories. Her protagonists throughout Screen Tests often seem like her, as they include details from her life that appear to be true: She’s a writer; she lives in New York and teaches at colleges there; she’s from Mt. Prospect, Illinois; and she has a husband and a certain amount of kids. So, in a lot of ways, these feel like nonfiction pieces, as opposed to fiction. However, since I wanted to cover this book—which, to note, uses the term “short stories” in the colophon—I did some exploring and verified that Zambrano does indeed use her own life details, but also fudges those details when she needs to, like, to make the story better. So, she’s like every creative nonfiction writer, only Zambrano is at least copping to it and calling it fiction.

In addition to all this, Zambreno’s stories mostly feature her—the real and fudged Kate Zambrano—approaching a subject and then riffing on that subject for two or four or whatever pages. I read two dozen of these pieces today and don’t think I ever came across a true antagonist, plot, rising action, or much in the way of resolution. Instead, this Zambrenoesque character comes across a topic, starts to think on it, and then Zambreno the actual writer just sends her character down the rabbithole, one thought leading to another, one train leaving the station and then traveling until it reaches its destination.

The first story, “Susan Sontag,” is a good example of this. It starts off with the narrator wondering what people think about when they’re alone. By the third sentence, she’s using a magazine article about Sontag that she read as a springboard, how she read that Sontag notoriously hated crowds. We get a little investigation into the narrator’s own preference of solitude, but she always goes back to Sontago—Sontag’s books, Sontag’s relationships, Sontag’s books on people shelves when she goes to parties and would rather look at them than talk to live people. She also wonders what would happen if she ran into Sontag at a party, the introvert world perhaps closing in on itself.

The second story, “The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival,” is what I’m focusing on today, and is probably the best example of what I’m talking about. Here, the narrator persona, is a writer, and is asked to be a panelist at The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival in Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg’s home town.

She’s written a couple of articles on Seberg’s career, years prior, but this grass-roots panel has contacted her, anyway, offering her a meager sum and no travel expenses; she’d lose money on the trip. She’s thinking of going, anyway, though she refers back to that trait in “Susan Sontag,” claiming to never go anywhere she’ll run into people. Still, she starts to read up on Seberg again, this time with better research tools. We’re treated a lot of facts about Seberg, and the plot of the story basically has the narrator looking up Seberg on Google and Wikipedia. She’s fascinated by what she finds out; admittedly, I didn’t really know who Seberg was and this info was a helpful reminder of her success in French cinema—e.g., she’s from Iowa, but was picked out of eighteen thousand hopefuls by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc. She had a solid career after that, though she committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 41.

See, now I’m doing it, just trailing off with facts about Jean Seberg! This character—who does seem to be the same character in every story—is curious; that and she likes to talk about what she’s discovered. In the form of these stories, that’s called narration and exposition. For some reason, it works—I really enjoyed seeing this person delve further and further into a subject, basically because she feels like knowing more and then feel like sharing what she’s discovered. Isn’t that what we all do now, in the Internet age? At least those of us who like factoids, who like the sound of our own voices relaying those facts to others, new authorities on a particular bit of trivia.

Zambreno has a soft spot for American icons and European stars of yesteryear, as we get stories on Amal Clooney, Samuel Beckett, John Wayne, Gertrude Stein, Andrew Dworkin, a bunch of French film directors, and even more on Susan Sontag.

There’s also stories where the narrator investigates herself, like “Double.” This one has her thinking about how her Wikipedia entry lists her as 41 (at the time the story was written) on the “People Who Are 41” page, but she’s actually 40, as her birthday is December 30 and she hasn’t turned 41 yet. It’s weird to her that she’s lumped in with a friend who has been 41 for months and months, but not with another friend, born the next year, just a couple of weeks later. So, she has other interests besides her celebrity investigations—pretty much anything can send her down the path.

All in all, Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. It’s an investigation into information, a fascination with odd facts, and a testament to what can be considered fiction, how diverse this field can truly be. Best of all, all of these pontifications and declarations come to us in tight, poetic prose, mimicking, perhaps, the stream of consciousness of the speaker, a lovely rhythm that made me read on and on, sentence to sentence, story to story. I really love this book, this reading experience, and commend Zambreno for doing something so original, and so effectively.