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.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.
She closes her eyes and tries to die inside.
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