On "the Agony of Becoming"

by Subashini Navaratnam

26 March 2015

Green Girl is Kate Zambreno's searing meditation on a young American girl's coming-to-being in London.
 
cover art

Green Girl

Kate Zambreno

(Harper Perennial)
US: Jun 2014

It’s hard to write about Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, because the Green Girl is potentially all of us. Although explicitly gendered as female and straight, Zambreno’s Green Girl is less about a character, Ruth, than it is about a condition: that of being a Young-Girl, “the model citizen of commodity society”, as theorised by French radical collective Tiqqun in its Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. Theory of the Young-Girl ran into criticism for being misogynist, but to critique it as such is to miss the point of its attempt to situate changing social relations within contemporary forms of capitalist exchange. As Sarah Gram explains in her lucid essay, “The Young-Girl and the Selfie”, the discomfort with Tiqqun’s tone and stance (while valid, though not valid as an outright dismissal of this theory puts forth) “hinges on the question of whether we (as former/continued young girls and Young-Girls) carry the burden of responsibility for engaging in this particular mode of citizenship”. (Textual Relations, 1 March 2013)

Similarly, Green Girl is a comment on contemporary first world femininity even though its portrayal of it—harsh, bracing, bitter—might run into criticisms of “internalised misogyny” by middle-class liberal feminists expecting a Lean In version of empowerment feminism. It is primarily about Ruth, an American transplant working in a large department store in London that Ruth refers to as “Horrids”.

The books structure reveals two narrative styles; one a first-person, unnamed “I” who refers to Ruth as “my wonder child”, who, at the start of the novel, “pushes her out into the world”. This narrator comes to stand in for the authorial voice, the social media gaze, the reader’s gaze, and the voyeur’s gaze all at once. The workings of Ruth’s mind is revealed to us presumably through this narrator, and sometimes impersonally through third-person narration. In effect, this is how girlhood—especially attractive, white girlhood—is performed: in front of an audience, and signified as something to aspire to, especially through American and Western European cultural hegemony that pushes this idea of ideal femininity around the globe through mass-market entertainment, “high art”, literature, and music.

That we are first introduced to Ruth through the authorial instruction “The establishing shot” suggests a filmic quality to the novel, and indeed, Green Girl is less a realist novel with a straightforward chronology than it is a novel of images and vignettes, a combination of French new wave cinema by the likes of Godard and Varda, and the Nouveau roman best exemplified Marguerite Duras. Strong influences of Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector, and Sylvia Plath abound.

This new edition of the book, by Harper Perennial, includes an interview with the author, scenes not included in the first edition of Green Girl (that was put out by an independent press, Emergency Press, in 2011), as well as a brief essay by Zambreno on the nature of the flaneur and the flaneuse. It’s this essay, in particular, that lays down quite explicitly the framework within which Zambreno’s novel operates, and its scope and ambition in referencing everything from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project to Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. The London we see through a young woman’s eyes is often hostile and unnerving. Ruth’s skin is too thin for urban living; she takes in too much, and is unable to keep much of the city and its sights, smells, and sounds out.

Ruth exists as a scream on mute. Her internal self is a roiling mass of dissatisfaction, blunted anger, and irritation, but her external self, as we see through the help of the narrator who helpfully provides continuous scenes of extreme close-ups and long shots, enables us to see how desirable Ruth is to men—“She has perfect French breasts”—and thus situates her as the Young-Girl Tiqqun describes, desired mainly for her value. When men fuck Ruth, Zambreno leads us to see, it’s less about fucking Ruth than it is about fucking the image Ruth (re)presents. It is fitting then, for girls like Ruth who have been conditioned to see themselves as value, that sex often feels like giving off themselves without getting anything in return.

If Tiqqun wants to make the point that all Young-Girls are whores, then Ruth is the martyr who “has fucked and fucked until there is nothing left of her”. In fact, Ruth does wonder at one point “what it would be like to prostitute herself. To be a beautiful young girl fed to the lions. Like a sort of martyr.” It does seem at one point that Ruth has fucked for all of (y)our sins, not out of lust or curiosity. For example, although it’s described as “experimentation”, the incident where Ruth has sex with a bartender in the alleyway is suggestive for the fact that Ruth “has vacated the premises” while the act takes place, and because she feeds off on the desire that he feels for her. There is no indication that Ruth wants this guy, in particular. She only knows that she is wanted, and so she makes herself available.

This is brings us back to Tiqqun yet again: “There is no more chastity in the Young-Girl than there is debauchery. The Young-Girl simply lives as a stranger to her desires, whose coherence is governed by her market-driven superego.” Further, “sexuality is every bit as central for the Young-Girl as each one of her couplings is insignificant”. In effect, the Young-Girl is often desired and despised, but most often in our present day, the Young-Girl is a sacrificial lamb under capitalist conditions where relations of production must always be obscured and mystified.

It’s possible to be irritated with Ruth while empathising with her, but some may have a tendency to read Ruth as helpless and passive, and the narrator’s voice—one part concerned mother, one part mean girl getting off on watching Ruth fumble and fail—helps us to situate Ruth as babe in the city, and reminds us time and time again that she has suffered “violations” to her body, that her condition is dependent on others around her being nasty, mean, indifferent, and brutish. Part of this is tied to her labour as a shop-girl and the indignities of modern working conditions. That the city is a frightful place for women comes as no surprise, but it is interesting to note the trend, in books and TV, that the woman under siege by all sorts of outside forces are (still) white, conventionally attractive, and while working in precarious labour, not entirely poor.

But Ruth, too, functions as the gaze. Hers is unrelenting, as sharp and gimlet-eyed in her assessment of others as the narrator’s gaze is on her. Early in the book, Ruth looks at a group of middle-aged, presumably middle-class women and “follows their fat white calves, flaky with dry skin, up the escalator”, she observes women in burqas, and here the narrator’s tone becomes caustic, slyly knowing, poking fun of Ruth at Ruth’s expense while still maintaining her (normalised) white gaze. Ruth has heard something of burqas, she knows vaguely where Bangladesh is, but, as the narrator reminds us, “It’s not like she has time to read the newspapers.”

What is this assertion doing? On one level, it mocks the misogynist tenet about women in general being silly and frivolous, about young girls who think of nothing but themselves; on another level, this is true, in Ruth’s case, who is so full of herself, so consumed with herself, that throughout Green Girl the most depressing thing is the absolute lack of sustained interest and curiosity on Ruth’s part towards another person or thing. When Ruth’s gaze falls on the women in burqas, she sees their clothes as “garbs of solemnity”. (“Can the Burqa-ed Woman Laugh?” is an essay that deserves to be written, no doubt.) Ruth observes the mass of humanity in the mall food court and observes their “lumpy asses pressed against each other”, “cramming monster sandwiches made of piles of red-tinged meat down their throats”, and in one stream of conscious chant, notes the various “bodies, bodies, bodies” that she encounters daily at Horrids.

Ruth is a pretty young girl, and is besieged by compliments when she is most empty inside. Zambreno presents this girl so that we can hate her too, voyeuristically and with envy, because doesn’t everyone want the pretty girl to fail? On the same level, the repeated claims about Ruth’s vulnerability, beauty, and pure porcelain-skin body, slender and French-breasted (soiled by too much sex with the wrong men, soiled by dirty glances from dirty men) sits uncomfortably with Ruth’s plain disgust and bewilderment with most of humanity; aging female bodies, fat bodies, strange brown bodies garbed in robes of solemnity.

Bengali boys on Brick Lane accost her and she’s overwhelmed. Yet, however little desire Ruth has for all men in general, or for heterosexual contact in any way, there are men who do end up in her bed, or end up having sex with her. For Young-Girls like Ruth, all men are potentially irritating or dangerous, but some men are worth getting naked with. Why? “To see herself as desirable in their eyes. That is the trade.” This is a moment of remarkable clarity for Ruth as she prepares to give some bartender a blow-job she doesn’t really want to give. Yet she “allows filthy paws on her pristine body”. To go back to my earlier point about Ruth “vacating the premises”, it’s important to consider Sarah Gram’s point in her reading of Tiqqun: there is a danger in assuming that the Young-Girl, beleaguered and martyred as she is, exercises no responsibility.

How much of this martyrisation of Ruth is ironic depends on what kind of Young-Girl you are, reading this book. Young girl narratives proliferate in books and TV, and readers and viewers around the world are always ready, or trained to, through these narratives, to empathise with the misunderstood, beautiful young white woman in the imperial core nations of the first world. But it’s impossible to remove the beautiful white flaneuse from other considerations of race and class. “Green girls are used to the attention of strange men”, Zambreno writes, but the quality of attention changes depending on the green girl’s class, race, and place in the hierarchy of the beauty economy. Being invisible is its own kind of pain, and the dangers that come with being taunted for being ugly and/or of the wrong race is often more immediately terrifying than being told to smile because you’re beautiful.

The ideal, desirable white Young-Girl in the first world always has a shadow sister in the third world whose story is not marketable if it doesn’t feed the “neutral” free-market’s vulture-like need for narratives of empowerment or stories about “triumph under adversity”, i.e., narratives that present capitalism as the only natural and civilised choice, despite the “hardships” people (and always those people, over there, making our things and cleaning up after all) might endure living under it. It’s this lack of self-awareness in Ruth, despite her disguised intelligence, that is particularly hard to endure at times. Ruth doesn’t the newspaper or care about politics and this is why she’s still green. But willing herself to remain in this green state is its own kind of complicity.

The Green Girl is individualised in Ruth because that is often how stories are told in the bourgeois tradition of the novel, but Zambreno’s project is more complex (Of Ruth: “Sometimes she narrates her actions inside her head in third-person. Does that make her a writer or a woman?”), especially when considered alongside her other books, O Fallen Angel and Heroines, both provocative, angry, explosive, and indicative of a deep, probing, contemplative intelligence. This book presents the Green Girl as cipher, exactly as the clueless Polonius might have seen her, but also, in the 21st century, as brand.

Ruth is always advertising herself, be it her sadness, her irritation, or her coquettish desirability, even when, or especially when, she wants to be left alone. As Tiqqun writes, “The Young-Girl is lost in her price. That’s all she is now, and she’s sick to her stomach.” Zambreno has written a painful novel about the internal conditions and contradictions of one such Young-Girl in a capitalist world where people are seen only in terms of their value. Ruth, therefore, wants only to “scream. And scream. And scream.” One hopes that as Ruth becomes less green, she is able to scream not only for herself, but for other Young-Girls, as well.

Green Girl

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