Green Girl: A Novel

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Overview

With the fierce emotional and intellectual power of such classics as Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl is a provocative, sharply etched portrait of a young woman navigating the spectrum between anomie and epiphany.

First published in 2011 in a small press edition, Green Girl was named one of the best books of the year by critics including Dennis Cooper and Roxane Gay. In...

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Green Girl: A Novel

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Overview

With the fierce emotional and intellectual power of such classics as Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl is a provocative, sharply etched portrait of a young woman navigating the spectrum between anomie and epiphany.

First published in 2011 in a small press edition, Green Girl was named one of the best books of the year by critics including Dennis Cooper and Roxane Gay. In Bookforum, James Greer called it "ambitious in a way few works of fiction are." This summer it is being republished in an all-new Harper Perennial trade paperback, significantly revised by the author, and including an extensive P.S. section including never before published outtakes, an interview with the author, and a new essay by Zambreno.

Zambreno's heroine, Ruth, is a young American in London, kin to Jean Seberg gamines and contemporary celebutantes, by day spritzing perfume at the department store she calls Horrids, by night trying desperately to navigate a world colored by the unwanted gaze of others and the uncertainty of her own self-regard. Ruth, the green girl, joins the canon of young people existing in that important, frightening, and exhilarating period of drift and anxiety between youth and adulthood, and her story is told through the eyes of one of the most surprising and unforgettable narrators in recent fiction—a voice at once distanced and maternal, indulgent yet blackly funny. And the result is a piercing yet humane meditation on alienation, consumerism, the city, self-awareness, and desire, by a novelist who has been compared with Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and Elfriede Jelinek.

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Editorial Reviews

Bustle
“The young woman’s existential novel for the new millennium. The book is smart, experimental, and just a little bit dangerous . . . It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever wanted a 21st century update to the Bell Jar. . . Reading it will resonate.”
L.A. Review of Books
“…elegant, crystalline, eminently readable…”
Flavorwire
“…a fresh and important new voice in literature… Ambitious but difficult to pin down, smart, stylish, and filled with supercharged prose that pulsed with the searing intensity few writers could maintain throughout an entire book...”
Shelf Awareness
“A deeply character-driven book, Green Girl allows its narrator to insert herself with pity, scorn or deliberate self-recognition, as though a god watching her creating crawl fitfully through the city streets...
The Millions
“Zambreno’s novel unfolds with a filmic quality, of scenes playing out with lyric intensity.”
Berfrois
“This is Zambreno in high form, unrelenting in her emotional sincerity and intellectual acuity, a necessary voice in a still green world.”
James Greer
“A major step forward for a talented and whip-smart writer.”
Elissa Schappell
“I can’t recall the last time I read a book whose heroine infuriated and seduced me as completely as Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl.”
Gina Frangello
“[An] electric talent . . . a risqué darling [with] serious literary cachet.”
Lightsey Darst
“If you were ever a green girl, you will recognize yourself on page after page.”
Tim Jones-Yelvington
“It cracks, it zings. It makes you call your girlfriend and read sections aloud over the phone.”
Roxane Gay
“The best word to describe Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl is searing. . . A novel about a young woman who is learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility of it.”
Blake Butler
“Brilliant. . . This is a book I could see savored by both a teen finding great solace in, and by someone like myself, who probably could not be more removed from the lifestyle of its matter.”
Pamela Lu
“Kate Zambreno writes with the clear eyes and steady hand of a vérité filmmaker.”
Kate Durbin
“Zambreno’s Ruth is literature’s lost girl. . . A harrowing, brilliant book.”
Lidia Yuknavitch
“Not since Faulkner first arrested my heart and stole my breath in The Sound and the Fury have I been as ravaged by the language of a novel as in Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl.”
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-21
A spoiled, self-loathing American girl navigates the wilderness years during a self-imposed exile in London.This second novel by Zambreno (O Fallen Angel, 2010, etc.) is an ambitious synthesis of millennial identity crisis, lyrical experimentation and emotional self-destruction that attempts to reinvent (or re-create?) the classical image of the flâneur by following the most awful protagonist in post-Girls literature through crowded, dirty London. Ruth, the heroine of this dark portrait, really is appalling to be around; in an interview with Zambreno at the end of the book, Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin observes, “[y]ou want both to slap her and to feed her like a baby bird,” which is pretty accurate. She works at an expensive department store she calls only "Horrids," plying wealthy shoppers with a rancid perfume called “Desire,” as in, “[h]ave you ever experienced Desire?” Much of the book makes it feel as if Ruth is the star of her own movie, while simultaneously pulling off the trick of staying squarely within her damaged skull. “What does she want to be?” Zambreno asks. “A green girl doesn’t like to consider this question. She already is. She is waiting around to be discovered just for being herself.” We slowly learn that Ruth has fled to this city she hates in the wake of a bad relationship, but we never really get to the roots of her emotional train wreck. We know she loathes others—her uptight supervisor, her gossipy co-workers, even the affable roommate who plies her with Ecstasy and three-ways. She’s a sexual catastrophe, casually dispensing favors to strangers in back rooms and breaking up with good guys because they won’t abuse her the way she needs. Zambreno has the writing chops for this unconventional journey, and the book takes some intriguing stylistic detours, but Ruth remains a bitter little pill to swallow.The flip side of the burgeoning drug-and-alcohol–fueled bad-boy lit movement: very busted girls.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In Green Girl, Kate Zambreno manages to do a very difficult thing: she makes an almost ridiculous character compelling. Her novel stars (and I use the term advisedly) a young American woman named Ruth, stumbling through London and alternately loathing and enjoying it. She mostly hates it, but within twenty pages you suspect that Ruth hates everything on impulse. She is what your sensibly shod, Great Depression–raised grandmother might have witheringly called "dramatic." Ruth cannot even get on the Tube without drawing the storm clouds in:

The car stops in darkness. She is in the corner in the back, pressed against the glass door. The train thick with passengers. Rows and rows. Bodies, bodies, more bodies. Her face grows hot. People pushing her, pressing up against her. She feels herself swaying, swaying. I am going to be sick, she thinks. But she steels herself.
She closes her eyes and tries to die inside.
As you may have guessed, Ruth doesn't manage to die there, not at all, only continues on in more or less the same way for a couple hundred pages. She works at a retail job until she quits over a failed love affair. She drinks at seedy bars, suffers intestinal distress, and compares herself to French actresses (Catherine Deneuve, Jean Seberg) until eventually the novel staggers to a close with a big "FIN" title card, as though the book were one of those maddeningly unresolved French films itself.

Instead of a plot, the reader of this book is left with alternating feelings of recognition and fury to propel her through the pages. In large part it works. Ruth has a quality that, if she were real, would make you periodically resolve to quit talking to her even though you cannot, yourself, stop talking about her to other people. One can only imagine storing away a passage in which Ruth contemplates her own beauty, and all the compliments she has been paid by men:
Yet to be beautiful, fresh, young is a horrible fate if one feels empty inside. That is why these ingé:nues try to soil themselves. No one wants to be a cosmetics ad when depressed. When Ruth is feeling her emptiest, the empty compliments keep on pouring in. She craves the attention but grows nauseous.
For some people this would be a profound observation; for others, it is an unintentionally hilarious display of perverted values. (It might be all right if none of us got to "be a cosmetics ad," even if the passing fantasy were relatively common.) Either way, Ruth's capacity to annoy has the handy function of making her more, rather than less interesting.

That said, it is often hard to know, reading Green Girl, how much irony Zambreno herself sees in her character and in the "green girl" type she is identifying. The almost total lack of apparent humor suggests Zambreno is dead serious. This is a self-consciously intellectual novel, designed to prove a thesis rather than guide its readers through a story. And it has a very explicit intellectual imprimatur. In an essay that accompanies this new edition of the book — it was originally published by a tiny independent press in 2011 — Zambreno claims she thought of herself as writing a novel about a "flâneur" and locates her book among a number of others about female drifters, by the likes of Kathy Acker and Jean Rhys. There is even a reference to Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, which indeed reads like a sort of schematic of Green Girl, right down to Benjamin's identification of department stores like the one Ruth works in as the "last precincts of the flânerie."

But flâneur chroniclers more familiar to readers of contemporary fiction are Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner, who have also been writing novels about young artistic types adrift and searching. Yet as soon as you place Green Girl alongside How Should a Person Be? or Leaving the Atocha Station, the self-seriousness of the first leaps out. Lerner and Heti lace their milieus with a sense of playful joy. Ruth does, of course, have the odd moment of fun, particularly at night. But even the cheer has a crass, seedy edge:
At this moment there is no one Ruth loved more than Agnes, and no one Agnes loved more than Ruth, they were the same, they were two for one, a package deal. They purr and writhe. The camera snaps. They sloppy girl- kiss for the finale. They are lesbians just for the night.
Moments like those make you almost pity Ruth for having such flat joys.

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.

Reviewer: Michelle Dean

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062322838
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/24/2014
  • Series: P.S.
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 207,469
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Zambreno is the author of two novels, Green Girl and O Fallen Angel. She is also author of two works of innovative nonfiction, Heroines and Book of Mutter. She teaches in the writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

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  • Posted May 30, 2012

    Highly Recommended, like Catcher in the Rye for the Jersey Shore generation

    A devasting prose-poem on the lack of identity that can infect one's early 20s. I loved it. Worth reading for the narrative voice alone. Also, I should mention that I had no intention of actually reading this book when I did. But glancing at the first few pages sucked me right in and then I couldn't stop. This is not a book to read for plot; it has little. But it captures and evokes an experience perfectly. As a reader in my 40s, this is a book to savor, remembering what it was like to be so unformed, and to make me damned glad I'm not 20 anymore. I could go on about other terrific qualitities of the book and the way it reflects our current society, etc., but really, you'd be better off reading it yourself (it's short) and forming your own opinion. Highly recommended. If I had to make a trite movie pitch for the book, I'd say think of it as Bridget Jones's Diary for pessimists or Catcher in the Rye for the Jersey Shore generation, a story wherein our heroine is inarticulate and essentially vapid, but entrancing, troubling and moving nonetheless.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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