Kate Zambreno’s previous novel, Green Girl, set the bar high for the relatively new author. And Heroines serves to reach even higher than her original mark. It is an unusual work not just because it is a blend of non-fiction and memoir, but because it highlights, for the first time ever, an entirely new perspective on the wives of “great men” writers who also had authorial ambitions of their own. From Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald to Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys, Zambreno tells the story of how each woman struggled not only to write, but to not be deemed crazy by their husbands specifically and society in general. And this is one of the points Zambreno makes so well throughout the entire novel: a man who is irrational is a genius, while a woman who is irrational is hysterical and/or insane.
One of the phrases Zambreno frequently repeats throughout the novel regarding the way female writers were supposed to act is: “SUPPRESS EVERYTHING SUPPRESSIBLE,” an acknowledgement of how women were (and are) expected to deal with their creative leanings. Zambreno also explores the emotional damage wrought on all of the muses rendered as characters, glibly noting, “Perhaps Madame Bovary’s disease is not boredom. It’s being trapped as the character in someone else’s novel.”
Indeed, the second each of these wives/muses proved to be too “difficult” to handle, their husbands cast them out into mental institutions or traded them in for a less “emotional” replacement–their story no longer useful, merely used up. Zambreno remarks:
With Fitzgerald’s oppressive kind of love, it’s no wonder Zelda went a bit off the deep end. This was only compounded by her own novel, Save Me the Waltz, being heavily edited (with F. Scott’s influence, of course) with particular regard to her time spent in a Swiss mental institution. F. Scott viewed this as a threat to his own work in progress at the time, Tender Is The Night. Forced to stifle her ambitions and ownership over her life experience, Zelda had to kill a part of herself, as “the exquisite corpse is female.”
The actresses are okay at first with being his raw material. Nadja asks Breton to write a novel about her, June Miller wanted Anais to write one about her. Delighted, in fact, until it feels like a violation to always be drawn from. (June upon asking Henry for a divorce: ‘Now you have the last chapter for your fucking book.’) While the girls are called vamps, there is something vampiric about him. He wants to possess her somehow, to make her his possession. ‘When I admire women, I want to own them, to dominate them, to have them admire me,’ FItzgerald once wrote.”
Women who write themselves into their work are self-indulgent, while men who write their women into literature are gods. Zambreno saliently phrases this phenomenon by asserting, “In this mythical alchemy of Art she is forgotten. A heroine sacrificed on the plot of literature.” Zambreno hits home her final point by discussing how current and aspiring female writers with Tumblrs and other blogs are belittled for this form of writing, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the most honest, purest forms of modern expression. She urges her readers to “write yourself, your body, your own experience” and to stop deriding themselves for not writing in a “conventional” literary form (e.g. the Big Book à la Infinite Jest or in the hyper-literary style of Leaving the Atocha Station). More than anything, Zambreno conveys that a woman’s feelings are as valid as a man’s. Just because they write differently or more “expressively” doesn’t mean the work is “minor” or “less than.” Though one rather wishes female writers like Marie Calloway or Lena Dunham would not have taken this advice.