Kate Zambreno, Green Girl

Publisher: Emergency Press

2011, 251 pages, paperback, $16

she’s fresh. she’s sick. She’s a green girl.

With her intelligent and ambitious second novel, Kate Zambreno explores the alienated experience of the young girl who understands herself through icons and roles: the celebutante, the femme fatale, the tragic Hollywood blonde. Green Girl depicts the episodic life of the girl who’s led nowhere except back to the relentless facts of her disposable existence. Though aware of her exterior artifice, she cannot locate the self behind the perfect porcelain surface.

What is a green girl? Green girls are fresh-faced ingénues with depraved resumes, vacant shop girls waiting to be discovered, wannabe Jean Sebergs and Catherine Denueves hiding behind cheap movie star sunglasses. They lose themselves in the rush of underground metros and the mazes of too expensive department stores. Green girls are icons of ruin, beauties without dreams, modern day Ophelias who refuse to crack. They have no direction, their plans extending only as far as the next costume party. Green girls are naïve yet hopeless.

They are consumed by the agony of becoming:

“What does she want to be? A green girl doesn’t like to consider this question. She already is. She is waiting around to be discovered just for being herself.”

Ruth is a green girl, a “girl-as-philosopher,” our heroine and anti-heroine. An American haunted by a failed love affair and dead mother, Ruth wanders around London, harboring conflicted desires about the young woman’s constant state of life in the spotlight. She wants to be seen, yet wants to remain invisible. When Ruth chops off her long hair during a crisis, she wonders, “What happens to a woman when the eyes are no longer on her?” Ruth panics. What will happen to her sense of self when she’s no longer lusted after?

Throughout the novel, identities are referential. She’s Isabella Rosselini in Blue Velvet. She’s Edie Sedgwick as herself. Hollow at the center, our heroine defines herself through the films of Godard and Polanski and the perfect combination of lipstick and a little black dress. Movie theaters are sacred spaces and life is as artificial as a film to Ruth and her best friend Agnes. The girls bond and fight over watching classic films, dressing up for parties, and competing with each other for the attention of men. Ruth remarks about the nature of the friendship, “We occupy the same cage, that’s all.” She loves Agnes because she understands her, but also hates Agnes because she’s as self-centered. Zambreno’s fearless examination of the lives of girls who worship at the altars of the femme fatale doesn’t let anyone off the hook, neither her readers nor the heroine herself.

Green Girl creates a delicate balance between Ruth’s narcissism and the prose’s awareness of the protagonist’s deficiencies. The novel features a malevolent maternal narrator who cares for Ruth, but also wants to punish and strangle her for her indifference toward her situation. Though never identified, the mother-narrator follows Ruth and Agnes and at times criticizes the girls’ approach to life. The narrator exposes the grotesqueness of Ruth’s self-absorption and constant self-consciousness when she asks, “Oh these green girls do they have reverence for anything except the fragility of their own pendulum of mood?” The distance created through this unfamiliar point of view offers a perspective on a protagonist that could otherwise become one-dimensional because of her existential ennui and solipsism. Zambreno also balances the characters otherwise drawn through negative space with her powerful observations about life experienced as an aimless young woman. She writes, “Being a girl is like always being a tourist, always conscious of yourself, always seeing yourself as if from the outside.”

Ruth’s unmoored, a lost girl looking for she-doesn’t-know-what. How will Ruth save herself? How will we all be saved from ourselves? Ruth escapes to the Oxford Circus to hear the Hare Krishnas dance and beat their drums. She muses on the martyrdom of saints, of transcendence through self-annihilation. Perhaps our anti-heroine simply must come into her own. She must become herself. When a boyfriend models a character after Ruth in his novel, she compares herself to the process of writing fiction:

“But this green girl does not have any material besides herself. She was a rough draft. She was impressionable, everyone left their impressions on her. To be a writer she would have to take herself back as a character. She would have to escape from her life as muse. Escape form her role as the blank slate which everyone scribbled on.”

Tony Kushner writes in his playwright’s notes to Angels in America, “The moments of magic are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.” Zambreno lets the wires show through Green Girl’s narrative structure. Her experimentation with fragmented narrative and unconventional prose allows readers to see the scaffolds of a narrative as it’s constructed. Each section begins with quotes from sources as diverse as Roland Barthes, Clarice Lispector, St. Teresa of Avila, and The Smiths. The references illuminate Ruth’s taste, obsessions, and mental state as she wanders through her life.

Though Zambreno’s approach causes the novel to seem like a pastiche at times, her deft incorporation of allusions reflect the movement of a novel whose protagonist feels as if she’s come to both an inner and exterior dead-end. Near the close of the novel, the narrator observes Ruth, “Sometimes she narrates her actions inside her head in third-person. Does that make her a writer or a woman?” These difficult, meta-fictional questions lie at the heart of Green Girl. What does is mean to be a writer, to give design to life? How does one bring a character into being? How does one become oneself? Zambreno doesn’t offer answers here. Rather, she turns us toward reflective surfaces to gaze within and wonder if it’s possible to ever escape ourselves.

—Jane Hawley