Kate Zambreno, Green Girl, Emergency Press, 2011
Reviewed by Ruth Williams
My name is Ruth. This review, though, this is about another Ruth. Or both of us. I have a self, but the Ruth in Kate Zambreno's novel Green Girl seems to have no self. She wavers on the page, shape-shifting, while in an act of inverse physics, reading Green Girl enlarges me; there is the one that is me, and then there is the other, a doubling of Ruth.
It is surprising to meet this Ruth because Ruth is a difficult name to carry as a young woman, somewhat uncommon for someone my age, at least among those I know. Consequently, it has often felt to me like an ill-fitting imposition. But, what name isn't an imposition? After all, the first names we call ourselves after birth are almost always given to us by another. As if to emphasize the author's role as a naming other, on the first page of Green Girl Zambreno, or what we might think of as Zambreno's mother-narrator alter ego, creates Ruth: "I give birth to an orphan girl. Now I must name her. Ruth. A hopeful name. No, maybe not Ruth. Perhaps Julie or Kathy. Aah, that's it. No, no. Ruth. She is a Ruth."
Had I been named "Julie" or "Kathy," I might have already experienced reading as an act of sizing up a potential doppelganger. But, this is the first time I can remember, outside of the Bible's Book of Ruth, that a main character has shared the name I have long felt was layered over me, not quite mine.
Yet, while reading Green Girl with its Ruth, something strange happens; this imposition turns into an alluring possibility. The intimacy of the already intimate imaginative act of reading increases; further puncturing the porous boundary between story and reader. For me, reading Green Girl is like embodying an echo—I hear and hear my own name, a repetition that requires me to keep reminding myself that I am not this Ruth, it is not me being addressed. But, my name is also Ruth, so how am I not being addressed? How is Green Girl not also the story of my Ruth, my self?
Reading, then, becomes a kind of serious play: exploring the contours of my Ruth within the confines of this Ruth.
It is time for me to confess that I have deliberately overstated myself at the start of this essay. I have said Ruth "seems to have no self," but this is not exactly true. I should say she has a self which is imperiled. It is not nonexistent, but certainly it is not yet fully born. Zambreno is right to make use of Polonius' judgment of Ophelia in Hamlet as a "green girl"; Ruth is green, ripe with inexperience, uncertain of herself intellectually, sexually, emotionally, and physically.
Ruth is a young American girl, a beautiful blonde, who works at a department store in London. Most days, she's tasked with spraying an ironically named perfume, Desire, asking again and again, "Have you experienced desire?" to the faceless throngs. This job fits Ruth's character. For Ruth has experienced desire, really she's full of it, bursting over with want, but there's some kind of disconnect.
Ruth is a blurry character because her desire is scattered. It flits over various objects, an ex she calls HIM, a bloke at work, a new dress, a cruel one-night stand. Her one sure and lasting desire, like many young women before her, is the desire not to be herself: "She wants, vaguely, to be something more than she is. But she does not know what that is, or how one goes about doing such a thing." It seems, Ruth's desire is for herself, to know herself.
Consequently, the story Zambreno tells in Green Girl is not focused on action; rather, it is a plot of interiority, a story about what she calls Ruth's "agony of becoming." In particular, Zambreno seeks to capture this agony as it is experienced by a "green girl," a female cipher who is expected to be both beautiful and vapid, but whose sick and slurry interior—that mess of contradictions—constantly threatens to explode beyond the mask.
Ruth's messy psychology is exactly why so many readers are turned off by Green Girl. It can be frustrating to read a novel which has no real forward plot motion other than the agitated interior of its main character; if we're not taken in by said character, then our attachment to the book is fraught and likely unsustainable. As Zambreno says in a [self-interview] at The Nervous Breakdown, Ruth is a character who is "stuck, circling"; thus, we are also stuck, circling inside Ruth's brain.
For many readers, Ruth's mind is not only claustrophobic, it is ridiculous. There is an extreme overwroughtness to Ruth that rankles the reader. Based on reviews of the book, many readers fully fail to connect with Ruth and her existential problems; instead, their opinions seem to offer up a chorus of "Suck it up!" and "Who cares?" to this Book of Ruth.
It may be that, being named Ruth, I am an ideal reader of Green Girl. I can't help but want to read Ruth's story, to find out what happens to this Ruth. But, even I am annoyed by Ruth at times. I am irritated with Ruth's self-destructive impulses, her inability to stick up for herself. Like the mother-narrator who says "I would choke her to get at her insides," I want to shake Ruth by the shoulders, but I know she'd just go limp in my hands.
Ruth's learned her role as a "green girl" well; it's second nature for her to "perform her trick of going dead inside." For a young woman, the most prominent role offered to her by culture is the woman as object, the woman made-up for consumption, the woman posing as some other kind of woman. As Ruth comes to realize: "Being a girl is like always being a tourist, always conscious of yourself, always seeing yourself as if from the outside." This constant meta-awareness, seeing the self as an object, has turned even Ruth into a "voyeur of herself."
And I, Ruth, am a voyeur of Ruth. There is my interiority, my Ruthness, blurring into the mess of Ruth, who is revealing that she consists of two Ruths. Culture asks a woman to be a house for two selves, interior and exterior, and in my reading of Ruth, I can feel this two selfness almost viscerally since I share Ruth's name.
Perhaps, we have come to what is so haunting to me about Ruth: she reveals the duality of existence, living her anxieties out in the painful gap between her interiority and exteriority. Reading, I am called to explore this gap within myself, confronting Ruth as an extension of myself.
While we may pin Ruth's anxiety about appearance on her personality, by naming her a "green girl," Zambreno clearly pushes us to consider Ruth's troubles as a reflection of a larger cultural reality. In a passage in which Ruth fantasizes about being a celebrity, Zambreno recalls the consumptive, predatory practices that have seemingly contributed to the breakdowns of real life "green girls" such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan: "The world diagnoses her as being young and lovely and a tad mysterious. She is elusive, playful, a cipher. She knows how to be stared at. She sits in cafes, in trains, and lets the gaze of the world bathe her."
How is one to construct a sense of self in such conditions? When one is tasked with taking on the various images culture projects—the ingénue, the slut, the blonde—how does one avoid feeling detached, de-centered, lost? For it is clear that Ruth feels she has very little control over her own life, she is merely a passenger, posing as a passenger: "She doesn't hold the strings. She is the unwilling puppet. She is not the author of the Book of Ruth."
Ruth stands aside her own life, "curious to see what will happen, a gaper's block of self." This detachment creates in her a desire for obliteration, "She is willing, a willing victim." Thus, Ruth seeks out men who will destroy her, drugs that will allow her to forget herself; both actions create a numbness to the "hole," the "void" she feels in herself. She hopes these others will unlock "the key to herself, a self mysterious even to her."
It makes sense in a way that we would hate Ruth. For many of us, such passivity and apathy inspire a sense of violence; we want to destroy those who offer themselves up to be destroyed. Perhaps this is because these weak others, these green girls, these Ruths, reflect something true to our own fraught experience of ourselves. Zambreno's well-aware that a reader will hate Ruth. Not only does she allow the mother-narrator to give voice to this murderous desire, in [a piece for Thought Catalogue] in which she discusses negative reactions to the book,she notes: "We may not like [Ruth], but she is what we have been given by the culture, and what we all must recognize with and against, and for some, through."
Ironically, the word ruth means to have empathy for another, to extend the self into an other. To crib from Zambreno's quote, in this light, ruth is "to recognize through." In a way, this is what Green Girl calls us to do as readers: to feel ourselves through Ruth. So, my intimate doubled reading, my Ruth to Ruth, is not so unique after all. Green Girl curls us all back on ourselves, offering Ruth up as a mirror, even if we choose not to look into her.