I have read Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl for my book club, and will now write a review in two parts. One section, the first, will have been written in the afternoon, and offer my thoughts on the novel without distractions, and I will then write a paragraph or two later this evening, discussing whether or not my opinions have been changed by discussion.
Right now, having just finished it, I found Green Girl an odd novel. It is about Ruth, a young American woman (though how young is never stated – somewhere (where?) in her twenties) living in London, working as a “shopgirl” in Harrods and then in an unnamed Oxford Street clothes shop. The novel is about her disengagement with her work, about her dispiriting social life, her casual sexual encounters and repulsion from any that threaten to turn into a relationship. She lives in Paddington and then in the East End, at some point when the latter was still “cool”.* She goes to some parties, occasionally takes drugs, has a threesome, quits a job when her father sends her a parcel of cash**, moans about the cost of things, behaves like a tourist and not like a tourist (“like something in between”, she repeats to herself), she feels pain and sadness and regret and depression, but never really any excitement – even her excesses are done because they may as well be, not because she particularly enjoys them.
The novel does contain one happy scene, which occurs when Ruth and her best/only friend Agnes*** take ecstasy together. This scene is quite engaging, and a nice change from the drab continuity of Ruth’s usual existence, but it is followed by a terrible come down that makes the protagonist’s apathy and unhappiness increase further. Yes, I suppose mental anguish does happen with an ecstasy hangover, but Zambreno seems unwilling to let her character have even the slightest moment of joy without slashing it to massive fucking pieces afterwards.
There is a present narrator, too, a narrator who speaks in the first person occasionally, discusses the sadism of the novel and the pleasure taken from demeaning Ruth further. But Ruth, in my opinion, doesn’t really react enough for there to be much of a purpose to it. Green Girl is far more like de Sade’s Justine than it is like The Bell Jar – the protagonist doesn’t develop or change, and isn’t that de Beauvoir’s definition of pornography? Ruth is sad, Ruth has a job she hates, Ruth fucks someone she doesn’t really like, stops dating someone who she does… She eats badly and drinks worse and thinks about an unnamed man from her past who she is unable to get over. There is a lot of “mystery” to the text, I suppose, a lot of barriers constructed between the reader and the character, through the deliberately limiting presence of the narrator.
Ultimately, this is a novel about a flâneur, a young person wandering around and commenting on the world she sees, somehow apart from it. The text is very readable, the action vivid, the thoughts understandable and the emotions well evoked. On the surface, at least, it’s a typical first novel – full of crassness and occasional attempts to make it seem more literary than the text actually is. Here, that is achieved by the frequent quotations from cinema, philosophy, religious texts, novels, poetry and music that permeate the text. Often these are loosely related to the events of the surrounding pages, but sometimes they are more general comments on attitudes towards women, towards depression, alcohol, fashion, etc.. These quotations are always given a page to themselves, and many are truly beautiful sentences or paragraphs. Two are taken from Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight, and both are sparkling – I’ll look up that novel as soon as I can. But, for me, these little bits of literature slotted amongst the text only emphasised its lack of literary credentials, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. A novel about a depressive partying to hide their sadness doesn’t need to be poetry, and here it isn’t. Green Girl is a sadistic text, cruel in places, but its topic is a familiar one.
The novel is successful because of the openness with which it engages with its themes and the fact that the central flâneur figure is female, but that is where its success ends. It made me feel a bit saddened a few times, but it didn’t make me laugh, it didn’t make me cry and its sex scenes didn’t fill me with desire. I don’t really understand what the book was trying to do.
To be truthful, I wouldn’t recommend it. But these are my thoughts mid-afternoon. Let’s see how they become later…
Back home, opinions unchanged.
Some conversations about the identity of the narrator. Lots of wine.
Book club over.
* I can tell this, not because Ruth does anything particularly edgy there, but because the characters are able to smoke in pubs, and I’m pretty certain that indoor smoking has been banned since 2007. I think Shoreditch was still considered cool back then. I don’t know, though. Maybe it’s been passé for longer than smoking…
** Is this a thing people did in the mid-noughties? Mail cash around the world? Did electronic bank transfers not exist? Or Western fucking Union? This is one of the many parts of Green Girl that affected my suspension of disbelief. Other ones included a geographical error right next to Oxford Circus, a weird habit of using incorrect (by British usage) pronouns, eg, “sat at Soho Square” and “a pub on the East End”, instead of “in” for both. Also, Zambreno refers to using the London Underground as “taking the train”, which no one in London ever does. The first few times it confused me – ‘How can someone take a train from Knightsbridge to Liverpool Street?’, I thought – then realised the authorial error. The other one that really irritated me was dropping the word “Street” from the end of road names. The novel includes people walking to “Carnaby”, “Oxford”, “Liverpool”, for example, which is something NO ONE EVER SAYS. Essentially, the writer feels an outsider to the city the novel is set in, so is it any surprise the character does? And are any of these things legitimate to be annoyed by???
*** Again, when is this thing meant to be set? Are there really Australian women only a few years older than me called Agnes? Weirdly, never once is there a conversation about ‘Agnes’ being a ridiculous fucking name for a hard-partying young woman.