By Tracy O’Neill
Harper Perennial, June 2014
Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl is something of an intertextual phenomenon. Initially published in 2011 by Emergency Press before its reissue by Harper Perennial this year, it is a novel discursively composed of epigraphs both filmic and literary punctuating chapters, alternating narrative perspective, and an enigmatic quasi-meta introduction. James Greer of Bookforum called it a “live-streamed 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.” This description only speaks to just how ambitious Green Girl is.
Perhaps one reason this book has resonated so forcefully is that it echoes this particular moment of history when identity seems increasingly to be both received and mediated through various screens. The novel’s protagonist, Ruth,searches department store display cases for who she will become, and what little sense of self she possesses is largely referential. Ruth takes her cues from nouvelle vague icons, glossy magazine ads, and tabloids. She is a text herself, and one collaged as Green Girl beneath the maquillage of the belle fille.
The novel opens with an epigraph from The Book of Ruth—a vignette detailing an artistic birth. The textual tapestry is further radicalized as Zambreno uses the close third person narration with authorial intrusions, sometimes taking the form of first person narration. The book begins with a section in which the first person gestures toward the voice of the author, gazing down at her nascent creation. “I am trying to push her out into the world,” Zambreno writes before, virtually, pushing Ruth out into the world.
The novel eschews simple categorical interpretations of author and narrator, however. “Sometimes,” Zambreno writes of Ruth, “she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character,” yet, “sometimes she narrates her actions inside her head in third-person. Does that make her a writer or a woman?” All the while, authorial intrusions complicate the reading further. “Perhaps I am directing this scene. Ruth is my silent film star, always silent on the outside even when she is screaming within… I make my green girl kneel,” reads one such intrusion. Who, then, is the author of Ruth’s identity? Her identity is intertextually begotten from an array of cultural influences, not the least of which is the gaze.
Ruth bears the male gaze with ambivalence, enjoying and detesting it, turning it on the French film gamines whose faces she attempts to perform. At the same time, even the author-narrator appears to gaze on Ruth. During one scene in which Ruth allows herself to be gently coerced into a blowjob, Zambreno writes, “All I can do is look at her breasts. She has perfect French breasts. They are pert and taut with brownish-pink nipples. I want to stroke them. I am in awe of these lovely breasts— not like mine at all, maternal and massive and saggy.” It is a stroke of genius on Zambreno’s part, for in the swift impulse to judge both Ruth and the author-narrator, we realize that as readers we, too, are complicit in the gaze. We are the creeps who gaze on our friends, our families, the characters of our lives. We are voyeurs.
Throughout the narrative, Zambreno nods to Mulvey and Lacan as she repeatedly writes of the gaze. These theories feel particularly poignant in an age in which the gaze often occurs through social media. We surrender ourselves to the gaze as we post selfies and status updates. We’re never far from a screen in which we might pluck a scrap of identity, represent a tidy image of the self, be watched. In the moment the author intrudes to comment upon Ruth’s breasts, the author-narrator seems creepy precisely because she becomes the scophile of Mulvey, refiguring the heroine to become a reassuring fetish object— and yet, the author’s appraising look upon her character is not so far from the voyeurism present in casual finger-flicking through Facebook timelines or Instagram feeds.
Mulvey writes that voyeurism “has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness… Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and an end.” Perhaps, then, nothing is quite so voyeuristic as reading with expectations of a traditional narrative. There’s a readerly temptation in the moment that Ruth allows her head to be pushed towards the man’s penis to anticipate it as a climactic moment of earned downfall for the flawed heroine. Yet Zambreno wonderfully pushes against these expectations. In Green Girl’s Gordian direction and redirection of the gaze, the multiplicity of ideas of authorship and identity, the scene is not one of defeat or punishment. The result, instead, is that the reader must confront her reflection in the mirror of the text: as we gaze on computer screens, television screens, and even pages of books, sometimes we become sadists.