September 2011

Lightsey Darst

fiction

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

You know these girls -- bad-attitude baristas with hair sheared hard, shopgirls who pop their gum, pose and make mouths, girls in line at late-night clubs teetering like new foals on their cheap high heels. You know the girl (maybe she was you, once) with her face pressed to the bus window, waiting to be seen for the vacuum of desire she hopes to be. You know those starved Juliets and would-be Ophelias, drowning in confusion, fashion, inchoate passion. You know Ruth, the biblical handmaiden, willing and vacant, or Keats's Ruth, lost in another country. And though she's new, you already know Kate Zambreno's Ruth, the central figure of her second novel, Green Girl

Ruth, a young American supposedly recovering from a traumatic love, but really nursing it inside her like an alien pregnancy, wanders around London in a haze, sometimes seeing no further than her all-important hair (long, you're an angel, short, you're Jean Seberg!), sometimes reeling from the vertigo of an entire city's desire and indifference. She'd like to have a drama, but instead her life unfolds in episodes that leave her none the wiser and lead her nowhere. She works at Harrods department store, she falls for a spiritual boy, she's the prey of a male novelist, she shops for what she can't afford, she lets people look at her, she lets men do things to her. Zambreno organizes these sketches by epigraphs from New Wave scripts, Alice in Wonderland, Emily Dickinson, and others ("Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints" -- Alfred Hitchcock), almost without sequence. I can imagine Zambreno dealing them out like Nabokov's three-by-fives, or letting guests at a cocktail party call them out, even. There's cruelty in her craft. 

But Zambreno's cruelty is only the world's, the world that has provided for girls like Ruth endless dead-end heroines, beauties who, if they do anything at all, mostly undo. Ophelia, the nameless victims in so many TV shows, the stoic women of New Wave cinema (who smoke, look good, have sex, die in a car wreck maybe), martyr-saints and mystics who arrive at glory by torturing themselves for that most withholding lover, god -- Ruth's life is saturated with reference, and Zambreno drowns her further, tucking into her prose allusions to the Danaids, snatches of Hamlet, even the famous spread-eagle closing lines of Ulysses ("Yes, I will, yes I will, yes," Ruth bobs unconsciously).           

Nothing lands here, nothing arrives, but how can it? One epigraph suggests a way through for girls who live their lives in the mirrors of other people's eyes: "I believe in the flapper as an artist in her particular field, the art of being -- being young, being lovely, being an object." Of course, this approach didn't turn out too well for the speaker, Zelda Fitzgerald. Zambreno's narrator dreams of creating a moment of self-actualization for Ruth, a true mirror that will free her from her life of painted surfaces: "I want to look deep into her eyes and say: I see you. You are not invisible to me. I see you." She knows better, though: "But the girl will smile blankly." 

Ruth's helplessness might make for inertia, a slog through a semi-inert consciousness, but actually reading this book is like eating Oreos, if Oreos could be filled with spiders and simultaneously retain their addictive power. I kept opening it, thinking I'd just read a chapter or two, and find myself fifty pages later coming up soaked in the poison of Ruth's life. The narrator is part of the fixation -- not a character in Ruth's real world but a fierce, possessive creator or director, an obsessive voyeur, a former green girl gone to seed who extends her claws toward Ruth now and again, threatening to devour her: "I want to choke these youngsters just to hear them make a sound not banal or repeated or well-behaved. If I choked Ruth she would make a squeaking sound, like a rubber doll. But I won't choke Ruth why would I choke her I love her. If I did choke her it would be in a loving way..." 

More momentum comes from Zambreno's style, which veers from reportage to poetry ("She steels herself from the crash and roar of the train pain shuttling through her brain") to confessional to gothic, with a special predilection for the gorgeously nasty: 

The wet teabag in the sink lies there like a dead mouse.

I want to save her and then drown her like a surplus puppy.

...that brief impulse of glee, like stomping on a robin skittering past on the sidewalk... 

With lines like these, you have to stick around just to see what sick kick she's going to give your reeling imagination next. 

Mostly, though, I found myself reading on because Zambreno so exhaustively catalogs the world of the green girl here, all its dangerous pleasures and glamorous hurts. Zambreno knows -- and if you were ever a green girl, you will recognize yourself on page after page. Ruth imagines a sexy death: "Suddenly she lets out a sharp gasp, imagining a hot knife pushing through her ribcage, as a man in a blue jacket presses against her walking by." Ruth thinks about cutting her hair: "That itch, that desire to cut off one's hair, one's prize of ribbons, one's fire escape of femininity." Ruth thinks about burqas: "She thinks that she would like to wear a veil. Or maybe just a glamorous black headscarf, like Jackie Kennedy. She imagines herself in the part of the mourning widow..." Ruth, being looked at, "performs her magic trick of going dead inside." 

For all its addictive power, Green Girl is not an easy read. Done for the night, I'd find myself in a fetal curl, knots in all my joints. Zambreno doesn't provide an answer, a cure, a remedy. What she does -- better than anyone I know -- is hold the mirror up not only to the green girl, but to all the rest of us too: her fatal guides, her toxic sisters, her slavering audience. 

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
Emergency Press
ISBN: 978-0983022633
268 pages