'Green Girl' by Kate Zambreno Is Existential, Evocative, and, Yes, Totally Brilliant

Kate Zambreno's Green Girl (Harper Perennial) is the young woman's existential novel for the new millennium. The book is smart, experimental, and just a little bit dangerous, giving ordinary people and situations a highly charged intensity. It's a must-read for anyone who's ever wanted a 21st century update to the Bell Jar.

Green Girl is entirely centered on Ruth, a young American woman living in London, working in a perfume store in a shopping complex she refers to as Horrids (presumably referring to the famous London department store Harrods). Ruth is a bundle of contradictions — she wants to be noticed, she hates to be noticed; she wants to be adventurous, she wants to stay in bed all day; she thinks of herself as dangerous even though a condescending manager can make her cry. She is both unique and relatable, and her life is going just about nowhere. She's an American girl in London who has yet to discover herself. 

Zambreno's ability to dive into the mind of this thoroughly ordinary yet infinitely complex character is what makes the novel. From the outside, Ruth is completely uninteresting. She doesn't do much beyond what you'd expect of a young woman in her 20s: she has few, if any friends; she shows no sign of exciting talents or exceptional intelligence. Yet Zambreno does not show us the Ruth that one would see from the outside. For readers, Ruth is constructed from the inside out, and on the inside, Ruth is anything but dull. Perhaps still ordinary, but never, ever dull. 

As Zambreno's unorthodox narrator zooms in on Ruth, readers are treated to both small observations like "willing her humiliation into hate," and big picture issues, like Ruth's crushing, narcissistic self-awareness. Ruth sees herself as more interesting and more dangerous than anyone observing her from the outside would ever agree with, yet readers also experience Ruth from the inside. In Zambreno's portrait, Ruth's life is just as intense, just as seemingly high-stakes. We, too, see the dark corners of Ruth, her secret thoughts, her resentments, her desires.

Rather than glossing over small moments, Zambreno revels in them. Instead of simply saying, for instance, that Ruth woke up in the afternoon on her day off and made herself a sandwich, Zambreno describes Ruth as feeling "dull" and "life-hungover." Her headache makes her "childlike and melancholy." Her hunger makes her feel "faint, not of this world." These moments are given such attention that soon the simple fact of Ruth's existence becomes mesmerizing, fascinating. Even though, objectively, Ruth is rather uninteresting, Zambreno's feat here is in making the ordinary extraordinary by zooming in on it. 

The novel deals with issues of perception versus reality, the nature of identity, and with all sorts of other thorny existential questions. As hesitant as I am to compare anything to The Bell Jar, the iconic novel's influence on Green Girl is clear. Kate Zambreno has created a novel for 21st century young women seeking to come into their own, in the same way that Sylvia Plath did in the 20th. Reading it will resonate.

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