The Days Were Long and the Years Were Longer

THE LIGHT ROOM, by Kate Zambreno

We find ourselves in the age of Covid literature. The publishing cycle, notoriously long, has caught up with the pandemic, and a book on the subject no longer seems like a novelty. But like the pandemic itself, the genre is still slippery. Are we at its height? Will it come back, in some new variant? How scared should we be?

Kate Zambreno’s elegant contribution to this growing body of work is the memoir “The Light Room.” Her ninth book, it records roughly two years, from the fall of 2020, shortly after her second child is born, through the summer of 2022, when her two daughters have returned to a recognizable childhood. Most of the observations take place either from the author’s shabby couch (when she teaches over Zoom, she uses a towel to hide the hole the dog has scratched in a cushion) or in Prospect Park, with other Brooklyn parents who are trying to keep their children busy, with birthday parties and makeshift “forest schools.”

Often, Zambreno is breastfeeding her baby or witnessing a tantrum and — despite the best efforts of her partner, John — feeling depressed. At one point, driven to her own meltdown while John tries to find a parking spot, Zambreno steps out of the car at a stoplight and walks away. Later her daughter delights in repeating, “I’m DONE, Mommy said.”

This is a book about the aloneness of motherhood — the limits of maternal attention, the dissolution of self, the mind-numbing tedium of raising small children — as much as it is about the pandemic. It’s a book about a “life inside” — not just inside the home, but inside the mind. Zambreno’s writing is sharpest, most emotionally alive, when it drills into that interior landscape. Sitting on a park bench with her infant in the winter, she writes, “I briefly allow myself a spasm of feeling miserable and contained. Allowing myself that self-pity feels close to freedom.”

At the margins of “The Light Room,” the pandemic persists. We glimpse it in the colorful masks of the children in the park, in the Halloween candy chute, in attempts to schedule vaccines. Mostly, though, Covid is not the protagonist but the force that keeps the family indoors, that amplifies their isolation. The hours bend and blend. The winter drags on. The days, “so sweet and so awful,” are measured in baby teeth, in naps, in the linden tree in the park that will “green and burnish and molt and green again.” Some of the observations are as limp as the days: “Time has become so vague and strange now.” Others effortlessly wring that strangeness, as when Zambreno and John use a sucking device on their congested baby: “Strings of snot pulled from her nose. Almost pleasurable, the elasticity. Like time, it stretches.”

Woven into these moments are ruminations on natural history, education and the work of other writers and artists, including Joseph Cornell, Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Calvino, David Wojnarowicz and Hiroshi Sugimoto. The books Zambreno reads, often while nursing in the night, function as “lightboxes” from the past — a term she borrows from Cornell to title the longest section of her book. It is against these figures that she strains to define her own work. Reflecting on the fiction of Yuko Tsushima, she writes, “The ‘I’ is present but almost translucent. That’s how I’ve started thinking about these notes I’m keeping, as translucencies.” Later she wonders, “Could this notebook be titled instead ‘Iridescences’?” At times, I wished Zambreno were concerned less with forging and naming a new form (“Perhaps I am a writer of the interior”) and more simply inhabiting that interior, where she has so much natural authority.

“The Light Room” is ultimately, as Zambreno writes, “a collection of meditations.” Some may indeed find them “translucent” — light-catching, yes, but also insubstantial. Readers looking for sturdier insights into what the virus has meant for human history are unlikely to discover them here. But there is comfort and intimacy to be found in the nest Zambreno builds, with lint and marbles and straw, the objects that matter in her tiny universe. Its achievement is as a sustained narrative of noticing. This genre may not be new, but for all we know it may be among the most lasting literature of Covid, a lightbox for the future: the story of a mother looking for brightness in a diary of dark days.

Eleanor Henderson is a professor of writing at Ithaca College and the author, most recently, of the memoir “Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage.”

THE LIGHT ROOM | By Kate Zambreno | 256 pp. | Riverhead Books | $28

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