In Kate Zambreno’s hallucinatory and disjointed Green Girl (Emergency Press), we are lured into the world of Ruth, a young American girl lost and damaged in London. Following this ingénue into her dark musings, the echoes of voices fill the page—Ruth, HIM, her mother, the author, and the silver screen flickering in the distance. It is a hypnotic read—the duality of Ruth—her good side and her darkness, the need to behave and the need to be punished.
Scattered throughout this novel are several different voices. The first is a series of epigraphs—quotes from movies, the voices of directors and femme fatales, leading men and women, artists and philosophers, and the Bible as well. They form a narrative, not just a lead-in for each passage, but a thread that stretches across the book, defining our green girl, her emotions and desires, street signs to guide us through the cobblestones of London and the wrinkles of Ruth’s mottled brain:
“I have a part of you with me. You put your disease in me. It helps me. It makes me strong.”
—Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet
“First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask ‘Who am I?’ she would fall flat on her face. For the question ‘Who am I?’ creates a need. And how does one satisfy that need? To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.”
—Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
We are given these clues, these hints at what is really going on, where Ruth is in her emotional journey, what history she is standing on as she works at “Horrids” and goes to her parties, sleeps with men (and sometimes Agnes, her flat mate), and seeks some sort of depth and meaning in her life.
There is another chorus, a conversation that takes us back to the United States, to a past relationship, with an unnamed man who she only calls HIM or HE. As the story unfolds we come to realize that Ruth is unstable, damaged, hurt and lost. One passage that is repeated throughout, goes:
“There are strangers here who wear your face.”
It isn’t until much later in the novel that we get a more in-depth explanation of how HE hurt her, and what transpired between them:
“The first time we ever had sex you hurt me so badly that I was convinced my appendix had burst. You grabbed at me and shook me like a rag doll, throwing my legs over your shoulders, poking at my womb, my anus, my mouth. I had only known adoration before. Not this hate mixed with semen and want. I wrenched away from you like some hurt animal while you simmered in disgust, your penis dangling like a raw, red, piece of meat.”
Adding to the layers that push our green girl down are more voices. The third one is difficult to label. It seems to be the voice of her dead mother, haunting her, watching over her, guiding her, but also judging. And in other places, it feels as though it is the voice of our author, breaking the fourth wall and speaking to us as her creator, breathing life into this character. It’s up to the reader to decipher and come to their own conclusion, but take a look at these two passages. The first, is from the opening of the novel, and is about the birth of Ruth, which can be taken literally, as flesh born into this world, or as a metaphor for the author bringing this character to life:
“Ruth is still lovely as I see her. She is lovely perhaps in her impending decay, like a red rose whose petals are beginning to brown, her last gasp of girlhood. I want her to be young forever. My wonder child, wandering wild.
I am trying to push her out into the world.”
And then much later in the novel, this passage:
“I make my green girl kneel. I am the harsh director. She begs and pleads: Please don’t make me do it but there is a clause in her contract. I am reminded of the Barbie dolls that I played with as a young girl. I would perform the cruelest acts on my lovelies. I would behead them. I would cut off their hair to make them look like Ken. I would sentence their bodies to various torture machines. Perhaps writing for me is an extension of playing with those dolls. Ruth is my doll. I crave to give birth to her and to commit unspeakable acts of violence against her. I feel twinges of joy at her suffering.”
Part of the journey that is Green Girl involves navigating between these three different voices, these sections that break out of Ruth’s own narrative. It is a compelling way to structure a book, challenging at times, but once it seeps into you and festers, it expands to engulf you, absorbing you into the wet, dreary London streets, almost claustrophobic at times.
But above and beyond all of this is Ruth. She is a complicated protagonist, one that we want to root for, because she is hurt, because she needs help, even if she doesn’t want to admit it to herself. She is constantly split between wanting attention, and abhorring it:
“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
I can’t stand it if you don’t look
We understand. There is a constant shadow hanging over Ruth, a sense of demise, and as she further abuses herself, there is a voyeuristic pleasure in watching her come undone. And yet, how far will it go? This darkness permeates the novel, always an echo, always adding an element of danger to the page:
“Train about to depart. Mind the gap. The doors shut like a silencer. Shooosssh. Crowded car. Bodies, bodies, bodies. Ruth remains standing, gripping the metal pole to steady herself. Maybe it’ll miss the tracks next time, she thinks. She imagines her face smashed, unrecognizable. Gone in pieces like a porcelain doll.”
“She gulps down a cup of tea. The wet teabag in the sink lies there like a dead mouse.”
Ruth gets pleasure from her own self-destruction. She is both narcissistic and desperate for love. When she masturbates, the first face that comes into focus is her own. She fantasizes about a beast destroying her, and when she finally gets a sweet young man, Rhys, to have sex with her, she immediately loses interest. And yet, when the bartender in a corner pub takes her downstairs and has his way with her in a storeroom, she disconnects, and pushes out of her body, performing “her magic trick of going dead inside.”
What does Ruth want? How can she be satisfied? How can we help her? It is not clear. She needs closure, a way to get away from HIM, or she will continue to seek out men that abuse her, and find no fulfillment in the kind boys that are drawn to her. She is destined for a tragic death, and it is something that she wants, or thinks she does. It is only in the final sentences of this novel that we see that maybe she can be saved, maybe there is hope, if she can just let it all go, move on with her life, forgive herself for everything she has done, and be born anew:
“I want to go to a church she thinks. I want to sit in a church and let the white light bathe me. It doesn’t matter what church, what religion. It would be best if I did not understand the mumbling pleas directed up high. I want to go to a church and direct my eyes up high and open my arms open my arms up to the ceiling. And scream. And scream. And scream.”
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. Ruth will stay with you long after the book is closed, her shadow drifting down the streets of London, eyes wide, seeking something—forgiveness or acceptance, perhaps.