ANY DISCUSSION of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl must begin with its protagonist, Ruth. Pretty and suffering, Ruth is a young American abroad in London trembling in the cold air of a world that is one big eyeball directed at her. Ruth is unformed, “a question mark, a mystery”— even to herself. She’s a “Green Girl,” a term borrowed from Hamlet, where Polonius uses it to describe Ophelia. Green Girls are young, fresh, not fully formed. They forge ahead, clumsy and naïve, in the precarious process of becoming themselves.
In a sense Green Girl itself was released into the world in this state (in 2011): new, vulnerable, strange, the world looking on in skeptical appraisal. Now it seems the novel has not only finally arrived but also become more fully itself: republished this month by Harper Perennial, the new version is significantly revised and comes packaged with two previously unpublished scenes (in the appendix), an interview with the author, and an essay by Zambreno on the flaneuse. The republication is well timed, capitalizing on the cultural cachet Zambreno accrued with the release of Heroines, a critical memoir that has cemented the author’s stature in both contemporary literary culture and feminist discourse.
Since its original release by a small press in 2011, the book has been widely reviewed, with literary critics lavishing praise on the novel, though it was ignored by the behemoths: The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. It was named one of the best books of the year by both Dennis Cooper in The Millions and Roxane Gay in The Rumpus. Writing in Bookforum, James Greer said the work was “[in] dialogue with Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, the Bible, Roland Barthes, and most of Western European modernism by way of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.”
It has also received some strongly negative reactions, most linked to The Morning News’s 2012 Tournament of Books competition, which pitted Green Girl against Jeffrey Eugenides’sThe Marriage Plot and which delivered it to a more mainstream audience. This broader readership was starkly polarized, and Green Girl lost the round. What was striking was not that Green Girl, the underdog, lost or that some people didn’t enjoy the book, but the degree of vitriol with which the haters hated. In her comments,tournament judge Edith Zimmerman wrote about Ruth, “you just want to shake her.” This sentiment was echoed by a commenter: “Books like this, where the female protagonist just makes bad decisions and retreats inside herself for 300 pages just makes me annoyed and tired. I just want to shake girls like that and be like GET A GRIP.”Another reader, on Goodreads, wrote, “I was annoyed a lot.”
Zambreno and Roxane Gay have both written critically about the cultural imperative for female characters to be likable. The above reactions of irritation articulate a specific form of dislike, and dismissal — one that’s particularly gendered (and coupled with violence). Interestingly, they also mirror some critical reactions to that other popular narrative of/around the (white) girl, Girls, whose protagonist has similarly been called “irritating,”“annoying,”“self-absorbed,”“narcissistic.” In light of its republication and the likelihood of Green Girl reaching a still broader audience, I want to revisit these reactions to the book — which are really reactions to Ruth — with the goal not of fending off these judgments but of taking them seriously. If Ruth is irritating, why is she irritating, and — so?
I have to confess: when I first settled into an advanced review copy of Green Girl in the summer of 2011, I anticipated devouring it as one consumes the decadent glamor of a Sofia Coppola film or the dizzying plot/outfit machine that is Pretty Little Liars. Green Girl does not deliver this kind of pleasure. Instead we follow Ruth as she has diarrhea in the employee bathroom. We move with her through train ride after train ride, where she experiences nausea and panic in response to the cram of “bodies, bodies, bodies.” Ruth watches, is watched. She consumes, is consumed; but this girl narrative is not easily consumable.
This is not a criticism of the writing, which is elegant, crystalline, eminently readable. It is not a criticism at all, except of my own expectations, because obviously girls and girl narratives have no obligation to be fun or entertaining. Green Girl defies such expectations head-on, adopting a depressive mode that plunges far beneath the skin of Ruth’s PYT surface to reflect her shaking melancholy. As blank and appeasing as she is on the surface, Ruth teems with an inarticulate dissatisfaction. She is chronically numb, struck sick by the world; and while she is swollen with a desire for something else, she does little to nothing to pursue that desire.
It would be easy to read Ruth, like Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion (which the book cites more than once), as a sick young woman. But it seems clear that Ruth’s malaise is constructed not as a sign of illness but as a symptom of becoming. In Heroines, Zambreno incisively tackles the pathologization of women’s unhappiness: “ANXIETY: When she experiences it, it’s pathological. When he does, it’s existential.”
In many ways, Heroines provides a new critical framework for Green Girl, tackling as it does the ways in which women authors and narratives of the girl are dismissed, misread, relegated to the margins. But Green Girl spools out a solid theoretical framework on its own. Using two devices, epigraphs and an intrusive narrator, the novel anticipates and confronts the dismissal of Ruth as just another “sad young pretty girl”(to borrow a phrase used by Zambreno in an essay on Marie Calloway’s critical reception). Because, of course, Ruth is another sad young pretty (white) girl, and of course the sad young pretty (white) girl is easily and viciously mocked. It’s so hard being pretty, isn’t it. You suffer. Boohoo.
Working against these dismissals, epigraphs from a wide range of sources contextualize Ruth and her crisis. Inserted between scenes like title cards for a film, these epigraphs generate a canon of Green Girl texts, as well as a philosophical framework for understanding Ruth, drawing from Jean Rhys, Gail Scott, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. This, from Zelda Fitzgerald: “I believe in the flapper as an artist in her particular field, the art of being — being young, being lovely, being an object …” And from Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star: “I get the impression that her life was one long meditation about nothingness.”
Lispector’s 1977 novel is a particularly important reference because Zambreno adopts a version of its intrusive narrator. There are two narrative voices in Green Girl, one a third person limited to Ruth, the other an intrusive, voyeuristic “I,” established in the first section as a maternal — or artistic — force. This author-narrator has pushed her progeny out into the world and is subsequently trailing her, “my actress,” coolly watching her flail about. Throughout the book, she interrupts scenes, sometimes barking venom at Ruth and acknowledging her own desire to watch Ruth suffer, at other times pleading for and with her — always with just the smallest edge of the cruel-mother showing: “Don’t cry my Ruth. Don’t cry. You look so homely when you cry.”
Like any good-bad mother, the intrusive narrator vocalizes both compassionate love and the harshest critical commentary. In so doing she anticipates the reader’s own ambivalence toward Ruth. We see her in all of her bumbling uncertainty, her infuriating, “irritating”passivity, her seemingly contradictory mix of entitlement and abjection; and we are invited —expected —to judge her for these flaws.
At the same time, we also, with the narrator, sympathize deeply and recognize in her the potential for great power and agency. But she’s not there yet. Indeed, maybe the source of irritation is that we expect Ruth to have more power and agency — and/or she is not abject enough. These are, after all, the dominant modes of contemporary feminist narrative, and Ruth fits neither pole exactly. She is all too familiarly entitled, all too familiarly abject, and thus apparently illegible as a political or philosophical subject. Maybe Zambreno’s declaration about the female existential crisis could be modified to read: “ANXIETY: when he experiences it, it’s existential. When she experiences it, it’s pathological — or simply annoying.” Even Ruth’s coworkers find her irritating. Their reasoning: she “smiles too much.”
In her 2007 book on minor affects, Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai devotes a chapter to irritation. Compared to anger, which has been recognized as possessing political potential, irritation is seen as a weak, largely apolitical negative affect. As Aristotle observed: “Those people we call irritable are those who are irritated by the wrong things, more severely and for longer than is right.”
In her book, Ngai rethinks the political valence of irritation through an analysis of Nella Larsen’s novella Quicksand, whose protagonist has been read as both irritated and irritating. Helga Crane is a young woman of mixed heritage (her mother Danish, her father West Indian) navigating the dizzying contradictions of the Harlem Renaissance. A flaneuse, she wanders from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Norway and back, alienated everywhere and irritated by everything.
Constant yet unpredictable in intensity, Helga’s irritation, Ngai argues, invites the reader to continually assess her reactions, responding to them morally and politically. In one scene, where Helga is traveling in the black car of a segregated train, she (internally) expresses more irritation at the smell of her fellow passengers’ stale food than she does at a white man who spits violently in their drinking-water receptacle. Clearly, the reader might judge, the white man’s action should warrant a stronger reaction, and in fact Ngai argues it’s the “radical inadequacy”of Helga’s irritation that the novel brings into focus. Does there exist an adequate emotional response to such an act? the novel asks. And why must it be Helga who is obligated to enact it?
While I don’t want to lose the specificity of Ngai’s analysis of Quicksand, I think it can help us understand —and politicize —Ruth’s irritation in Green Girl, and those “irritated”reactions to it. Where Helga’s irritability takes the shape of sharp mood swings, impulsive decisions, a general mood of vexation, Ruth’s takes the shape of tremendous hypersensitivity. Her mood is a raw rash, described often in the language of exposure and vulnerability: e.g., “she feels exposed, like her skin has been torn off.” Like Helga, Ruth is prone to intense dissatisfaction and sweeping hatred — of her roommate, of her job, of her coworkers — as well as impulsivity, seen most obviously in her sudden decision to chop off her hair. Unlike Helga, she is also chronically numb, sad, hurt.
Why is Ruth irritating? Because she is, constantly, irritated — alternately too much and not enough — and her irritation is not legible as political. Like Hannah in Girls, Ruth is chronically anxious, yet her reaction to every slight is the same. She finds every train ride unbearably suffocating, yet, when she is faced with the belittling condescension of her boss, when she experiences sexual encounters laced with misogyny, her response is, arguably, not angry enough — and the reader is invited to judge her for it. In these moments, the intrusive narrator, whom we might expect to step in and react on Ruth’s behalf, actually works against a sympathetic response. During a particularly uncomfortable encounter with a bartender, the narrator intrudes not to empathize with or rescue Ruth, but to objectify her. “All I can do is look at her breasts,” she remarks. “She has perfect French breasts. […] I want to stroke them.” Unlike Ruth, then, Green Girl is fully, feverishly self-aware. At every turn Zambreno reminds us that Ruth is an object — to be watched, to be judged — even as we are called out for doing so. In one of the most powerful passages of the book, Ruth pleads, “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 / look / (Look) / (Don’t look) / I can’t stand it if you don’t look / Look / Look / Please / Stop.” Green Girl invites and rejects voyeurism — a push-pull dynamic that destabilizes the reader’s identification with Ruth, even as we are “let inside” her, granted interiority in a way that most blank girl characters disallow.
Ruth, too, is her own voyeur, always watching herself, observing her blurry self-image as it appears in shop and train windows, in mirrors. Confronting her image with a curious distance, she, too, undergoes a process of disidentification. Who is this girl in the mirror? She is and is not Jean Seberg, she is and is not Catherine Deneuve. She definitely isn’t, to turn to an American popular canon, a manic pixie dream girl (though a lover turns her into one). Sometimes she twins with her roommate Agnes, sometimes she plays the roles given to her by lovers, but more often she is singular and blurry, an actress without a role.
At the same time, she is rendered in multiple. The book proliferates green girls to an exhausting extent: not only the characters and actresses cited in epigraphs and in conversations with Agnes but also those girls whom Ruth observes in Horrids and on the train — as well as numerous images of herself. Her identification with these images is ambivalent and fleeting. In fact, the only images Ruth strongly identifies with are the smeared faces in the Francis Bacon paintings she observes while on a date with a man who has cast her as muse-object. As she gazes at these paintings, she thinks:
Three gruesome distorted bodies set against a rage-filled orange. The open mouth. What is there to do but scream? And no sound comes out. […]
She was overjoyed looking at them, at those faces that swirled and swirled.
Given her own inarticulate rage, Bacon’s muted screams become the clearest representation of Ruth — and her irritation — we’ve seen. Our final image of Ruth sees her still unformed, maladjusted, in-progress. But she is dancing, in the street, with the Hare Krishnas who have appeared periodically in the book. This scene sees Ruth wanting, desiring. She feels “such joy.” And she declares, finally, articulately, what she wants: “I want to go to a church she thinks […] and direct my eyes up high and open my arms open my arms up to the ceiling. And scream. And scream. And scream.”
Still “not there yet,”but getting there. To the scream, I mean. Part of the brilliance of Green Girl is that it dares to leave Ruth, and the reader, hanging in this liminal space. The novel recreates the agonizing experience of becoming oneself, recognizing with growing anxiety one’s own smallness and powerlessness within a disappointing and unjust world. It’s dissatisfying, it’s maddening, it’s impossibly irritating: everything gets under the skin, and there is no adequate, or individualized, response —except maybe a scream.