I’m about halfway through Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl, which I have been meaning to read for a while, but was finally recently able to get on library reserve. When I posted online that I was reading it, the comments I got from friends was mostly to the effect of, “I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would” – which, of course, made me even more curious to read it. At the halfway mark, I’m fascinated and pulled in by the book and its heroine Ruth, even more than I thought I would be. Maybe it’s my current mindset – I’m also currently on-again obsessed with Kim Kardashian, whose blank exterior belying a deep, feminine inside mirrors that of Ruth – but Ruth, and her lack of, and search for, authorship of herself, is deeply engrossing and revealing.
Sometimes she narrates her actions inside her head in third-person. Does that make her a writer or a woman?
Ruth, an American expat living in London, spends her days working in the fragrance department of a fancy department store, attempting to get strangers to purchase Desire, a pop star’s newest scent. Peddling “Desire” to strangers in a strange land is almost too on the nose, but Ruth’s job provides her a way to pass the hours on the most surface level possible. It would be easier to create self if Ruth knew what she wanted, but she’s irrevocably torn between two sides:
Look at me
(don’t look at me)
Look at me
(don’t look at me)
Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t look at me don’t
I can’t stand it if you don’t look
This internal argument, played over and over in Ruth’s head throughout the book, is one of the most elemental questions of self-authorship. Is Ruth – am I – a woman if no one is looking? Ruth can’t do her job if people don’t look at her – but can she become the woman she wants to be under the glare of constant surveillance? How do we develop an authentic Self under that pressure? Is it even possible anymore? Ruth’s internal narration in the third person removes herself from the scene of her life – she is watching beautiful, blonde, American Ruth wandering around London, attempting to be noticed and not noticed.
Ruth and her only friend, Australian expat Agnes, watch classic and contemporary films, creating themselves out of the women they most admire: Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, Anna Karina in anything. They create third-person personas for people to look at, while guarding their “true” selves deep inside. I recently watched Francois Ozon’s 2013 film Young & Beautiful, the story of 17-year-old Isabelle, who loses her virginity while on a family vacation to a near-stranger, then realizes the power of adolescent female sexuality. She reinvents – authors – herself back at home as a high-class escort, specializing in servicing older men, setting up a website to sell herself and negating the need for a traditional pimp. Young & Beautiful is a film that Ruth and Agnes would love, and Isabelle (the stunningly beautiful Marine Vacth) the kind of young heroine they would latch on to give themselves the illusion of traditional femininity and maturity.
In 2012, Edith Zimmerman interviewed Kate Zambreno at The Hairpin, after writing a negative review of the book. Zambreno comments that “I do wonder whether there’s more vitriol/hate/condescension leveled at women writers, especially women writers who feature young women as their main characters — a conflation with the author and the character, for instance.” Is the authorship of a novel parallel to the authorship of self with which Ruth is struggling? Is it too uncomfortable for audiences (literary and everyday) to see a woman trying to build something, uncertain of what the final product will be?
So far, Green Girl is giving me more questions than answers, which I always appreciate. Perhaps the second half of the book will fly off the rails, but I’m excited to follow Ruth, this female flaneur outside her element, to the end.
(And in a nice bit of coincidence, MoMA is currently running a program of “Women Writing the Language of Cinema,” including gems like Trouble in Paradise and Growing Up Female.)