Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

Green Girl does not feel like a novel. What there is of plot did not feel like plot. The narrative felt more like a journal, albeit a journal written by the future “green girl” rather than the “green girl” herself.

The “green girl” is Ruth. Ruth is an American in London who works as a temporary perfume saleperson in a department store she disparagingly calls Horrids. The narrator both admires Ruth and envies her youth, comparing Ruth’s “perfect French breats” to her “maternal and massive and saggy” breasts. It is difficult to tell exactly who the narrator is, but she takes some delight in Ruth’s sufferings. When Ruth spills the contents of her purse:

She is such a trainwreck. But that’s why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public.

The novel, particularly in the beginning, consists in many ways with the more materialistic/hedonistic preoccupations of this particular type of young woman: clothes, shoes, hair, and casual romantic encounters with men. These are all things with which she is trying to fill a void in her life. Perhaps a little black dress will do it:

She hardly has enough money to eat. But who needs to eat when you can wear a dress like that? Ruth thinks. Anyway, food gets digested, food goes away. Useless practice. But a dress like that will be forever. A sort of spiritual nourishment, just as fundamanetal as eat and roof and breathe.

Zambreno excellently conveys the light veneer Ruth presents to the public. Beneath, she is empty and searching and longing. Of course, she goes about solving her loneliness and emptiness in ways entirely inappropriate and ineffective. Her friend and roommate Agnes is no help, usually encouraging the worst of her impulses.

There may be more than a little debt to films like The Devil Wears Prada:

Wisdom is not something the green girl possesses in abundance. Her sacred scriptures are new wave films and fashion magazines.

Ruth lacks depth. The narrator notes this explicitly at least once. As her temporary jobs indicate, she has not found a way to fit in the world. She longs for her lost love, she has a crush on a co-worker, and she is effectively estranged from her distant father.

Early in the novel, I had high hopes. The fashion-oriented aspects were not particularly appealing, but Zambreno managed to keep them interesting and relevant, such as with a designer knock-off purse: “up close one realizes the purse’s secret, the humiliation of its anonymity.” Ruth, too, is humiliated by her anonymity and, in fact, seems to crave more humiliation. The narrator enjoys Ruth’s sufferings as much as Ruth herself finds pleasure wallowing in self-pity and, perhaps manufactured, lovesickness.

There are some romantic movements of plot, but little else other than some wandering and job changes. For me, with fashion and hookups doing most of the work of plot, the novel lost its way. I became disengaged and felt removed from Ruth by the end. The narrator played a part by observing Ruth almost as a specimen rather than a person. The shopping and preoccupation with clothes did not help either. I lost the thread. I would say the end was disappointing, but the story had unraveled to the point I was no longer invested in the outcome. The novel very nearly evaporated.

As a TOB contender, I cannot imagine Green Girl taking down The Marriage Plot. With all its flaws, Eugenides’ work never has the reader doubting the skill of its seasoned author. Zambreno either was attempting something I was too dull to follow or was overpowered in the struggle with her book. Whatever the case, I do not think I will be alone in assessing The Marriage Plot as both more ambitious and more successful. I wish Green Girl much success, but I doubt it will find any in the Tournament of Books.

7 Responses to Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

  1. Amy says:

    I don’t think this one will make it long in the ToB, either. I agree–although I found Marriage Plot to be really flawed, I’d easily choose it to advance over this one. Although as I said on my blog, maybe it’s a generational thing again? I felt very old when I read it.

    • Kerry says:

      You might be right about the generational thing. So much of what seemed important to Ruth was, well, not. For those who more closely identify with Ruth, the novel would have more resonance, I am sure.

      I too felt old when I read it.

      • Alice Under says:

        I don’t know if it is a generational thing. I am of age with Ruth and found nothing at all to identify with in the character. It is wildly outside my personal experiences of modern femininity–a sentence I am uncomfortable writing because I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing my life in that generalized gender-based context–nor have I ever known anyone who would see themselves in this book. I know the character’s shallowness was the point–obviously, Zambreno explicitly stated it endlessly enough–but even the people I’ve known who are far more interested in clothes, makeup, shopping–the trappings of femininity–are nothing like hollow Ruth; nobody is, because she’s nothing like a real person. She’s a concept, built to prove a point. I understand that Zambreno was using an extreme case to attempt some sort of social commentary, and if she’d succeeded the noncharacter of Ruth wouldn’t be a problem, but she didn’t do anything with it. The Devil Wears Prada (film, not book, haven’t read the book) has more advanced critique on the dehumanizing aspects of the fashion industry than Green Girl did.

      • Kerry says:

        Thank you very much for your reaction. I just did not get this. You reassure me that it is not only my age and gender that separated me from a more satisfying experience with the novel.

        I am glad I am not the only one who doesn’t know a Ruth.

  2. Hm, it’s a nice review as ever, but it leaves me a bit unmoved about the book. I suspect that’s an issue about the book.

    Have you seen any more positive reviews? Any counter-viewpoints?

    It’s interesting though that the narrator is outside Ruth, and antipathetic to her. Is the narrator reliable do you think? Is Ruth’s shallowness in her or the narrator’s perception of her? Or does the denial of access to her inner life leave that unknowable?

    For example, here:

    “She hardly has enough money to eat. But who needs to eat when you can wear a dress like that? Ruth thinks. Anyway, food gets digested, food goes away. Useless practice. But a dress like that will be forever. A sort of spiritual nourishment, just as fundamanetal as eat and roof and breathe.”

    Is that what the author is saying Ruth thinks, from a viewpoint of authorial omniscience, or what the narrator is telling us Ruth thinks (which may therefore not be what she thinks at all)?

    • Kerry says:

      I cannot say with certainty it was the book, but I was rather unmoved. I have seen positive reviews, though, I think, the most common reaction is that it isn’t “great”.

      Here is one very good and very positive review:

      “Kate Zambreno has written a powerful, hypnotic, and lyrical book, with Green Girl. There have been comparisons to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and I think that is a good place to start, but somewhere in here there is also the violence and danger of the misanthropic American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and the work of Mary Gaitskill, as well. It is not just a cautionary tale, but also the baring of a soul—in all of her complex, damaged and vulnerable glory.” (Richard Thomas at The Nervous Breakdown)

      Thomas does a good job of explaining the various strands of the narrative. As I say, it reads more like a journal in some ways to me than a novel. One reason is that it seems fairly directionless. If it were possible to read backwards, I don’t know that I would be able to say with confidence which end of the book was supposed to be the beginning.

      But, there are different strands. There is the older, female narrator who, I believe, is Ruth years later. There are also quotes from writers (Woolf, Roland Barthes, Ishwerwood, and others) and actors (Isabella Rossellini, etc.). I thought Zambreno relied a bit too much on other writers to provide the heft behind the book. Thomas liked it. He thought they provided signposts to where Ruth was emotionally.

      If Zambreno was trying to do a Dos Passos thing, it didn’t work for me. Dos Passos used the news clips to give larger context to his characters’ lives. Zambreno uses the literary and film quotes to do her heavy lifting. There is an inherent danger when a writer quotes other writers and Zambreno succumbs to it. The best quotes are, easily, the quotes from films and movies.

      There is a third strand, sort of, and those are italicized thoughts directly from the young Ruth about her American lover, the one over whom she is lovesick.

      To answer your question, the narrator does have access to Ruth’s thoughts. I do not think the narrator is unreliable. Her omniscience (knowing details of Ruth when she is alone, knowing her thoughts) and her gender and her age suggest she is Ruth years later. If not, some creepy old woman thinks she knows everything about Ruth and the book is quite strange.

  3. Thanks Kerry, and sorry for not responding sooner. I agree about the inherent danger you mention. Besides, based on admittedly only having read one novel by him, Dos Passos is something of a special case. Hard to follow.

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