“An Existential Novel About Retail”: Karolina Waclawiak and Kate Zambreno Discuss ‘Green Girl’

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When it was originally published in 2011 by the indie Emergency Press, Kate Zambreno‘s Green Girl generated the sort of buzz among critics that made it clear a fresh and important new voice in literature had arrived. Ambitious but difficult to pin down, smart, stylish, and filled with supercharged prose that pulsed with the searing intensity few writers could maintain throughout an entire book, Green Girl (as well as 2012’s Heroines) announced Zambreno as a writer who would be impossible to ignore.

Fast-forward to 2014: the publisher Harper Perennial, realizing that Green Girl could benefit from the opportunity to reach a wider audience, has re-released the book into the world, with a Marilyn Minter photograph adorning its front cover and two extra scenes cut from the original publication. There’s much more from Zambreno on the way, but for the time being, we have this new edition of Green Girl, and this fascinating conversation between Zambreno and the author and Believer editor Karolina Waclawiak.

 

What I am writing is something more than mere invention;

it is my duty to relate everything about this girl among

thousands of others like her. It is my duty, however

unrewarding, to confront her with her own existence.

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

Karolina Waclawiak: The above is a perfect quote early on in the book about confronting a girl in her own existence, something you do quite beautifully in Green Girl. Green Girl feels like a book that urgently needed to be written and is perennially necessary to be read. What urged you to write the novel of Ruth?

Kate Zambreno: I feel the same way about your beautiful novel, How To Get Into the Twin Palms, Karolina — how the novel and its main character seemed to be drafted with such visceral urgency — so it’s a delight to have you read Green Girl. I have always thought of our books as kindred.

Recently I was reading an interview with the great Austrian hater Thomas Bernhard, and he wrote that he writes to provoke, and I think all of my works, including Green Girl, came out of a terrible and clawing sense of provocation and confrontation. The urgency behind Green Girl came from a desire to confront my self, my own past and passivity, the girl I once was, in a way, but also to confront what I thought of as the existential crisis of a very specific sort of youthful femininity, her constant self-consciousness. I also wanted to write a shopgirl, Woolf’s girl behind the counter, and I thought it was an interesting doubling for Ruth to be a foreigner, an American girl in London, my version of Jean Seberg’s Patricia Francini.

I also felt for a while, even before I began trying to seriously write, a desire to write about what it was like to be young and fucked up from a perspective that at the time I didn’t see reflected in the contemporary fiction I had read — which was, when I was Ruth’s age, vaguely early twenties, waiting tables, and only hearing about literature if it was very well-known, like Infinite Jest. I guess I wanted to rewrite DFW’s “The Depressed Person.” I think that is something I’m always trying to do, write depression and loneliness and a state of stuckness, of crisis. Could I write an existential novel about retail, about working in one of the biggest commercial centers in the world, a novel about the city and loneliness and desire, that also attempted to critique identities within consumer culture?

Ruth is in a way a type, the green girl, who the author/narrator meditates upon within the work, and in many ways a grotesque — passive, myopic, self-consumed — but I think of her as a tender grotesque. I use her in Green Girl as a puppet to show how she is not free (like any of us are), but I also love her and hopefully give her a specific consciousness, however divided and lacking at times in insight. I wanted to write of one tiny subjectivity, a girl who probably would otherwise have been dismissed and ignored, who has a sort of dumbness to her, but also potential; a girl who is only the star of her own story, and lives as well in others’ projections.

Ruth is out in the open, among the masses, and working in the grand department store Harrods — or, as Ruth calls it Horrids — as a perfume spritzer. She’s interacting all day long, on view. Yet she feels largely invisible. She is a curiosity, an object. Even in a later scene when a man is sketching her, “She is an unknown.” There’s an interested tension between feeling invisible and being seen through the eyes of someone else – quite literally validating their existence through someone else’s eyes. And you ask a question in the novel that I myself have been grappling with in my own work – namely, women and sexual invisibility versus visibility (especially in youth). What happens to a woman when the eyes are no longer on her? How important is it to be seen?

That tension I think was the thrust of what I was trying to explore in the book, and is the reason for Ruth’s dread — that specific subjectivity, of being reduced to thingliness, that objecthood that for Ruth is desired but also violent, extinguishing. Ruth wants to be seen and watched through her appearance, but she is nauseated and revolted by this gaze as well. What can I say? I’ve read a lot of feminist film theory. Ruth is visible because she is young and attractive, and possesses some version of the idealized physicality that the dominant culture promotes. White, slim, feminine, fair, fragile, she spends energy and time curating her self, putting herself together, not totally well, but to some extent she has a coherent image, despite feeling so often like she could disappear. I think in many ways, being a service worker, a retail girl, Ruth is also invisible, as you say. She is seen not as human but as an automaton during her day, and also, because of her being relative broke and unformed and still feeling ungroomed, she is visible in ways she doesn’t desire, for her flaws, when all she wants is to be a certain surface, like the cruel eyes of the rich bitches at the art party toward the end.

The last two questions you ask — “What happens to a woman when the eyes are no longer on her? How important is it to be seen?” — are everything I am circling around in the work I’m working on now, a novel called Switzerland that deals with age and vanity and beauty and ugliness and, again, a woman in public, this time a writer, desirous as everyone is of witness and recognition.

Ruth and Agnes preen constantly and worry how they look and who’s looking at them. It’s as if they’re on camera all the time. Though their fascination is with film icons of the ’60s – Jean Seberg, Monica Vitti, Catherine Deneuve – their lives are very modern. All that’s missing is Instagram, really. It’s interesting to see them taking on roles when they go to parties, they really don costumes. Another thing that is visible and fascinating is the fetishization of being a woman. The creams, the soaps, the perfumes, the foundations and powders. The prose is hypnotic in these moments. Can you speak to the ritual of this kind of femininity and how it plays into identity?

It’s interesting how proto-Instagram and Tumblr Ruth and Agnes are, and that’s most likely because those social media platforms probably just further enact how some people anyway, in the contemporary age, construct and strengthen their sense of self and sometimes visual identity around these glamorous icons, like for Ruth the actresses of the French New Wave, and the intense desire bound up in all of this. I also have a lot of curiosity and connection, like many people do, to actresses whose internal lives seem so rich and complicated, who are in so many ways mysteries — and especially on screen they are supposed to perform this, with their faces, this melancholy provocation. In many ways Ruth was this for me — the person I felt enraged to understand, the actress in a film, and then her mysterious and maddening interiority.

I think the only ritual of femininity Ruth performs in the book is painstakingly applying her makeup, like a mask for the outside world, and I think she does take pleasure in it, in seeing herself in the mirror. Ruth and Agnes are also always grooming themselves, or attempting to, but quite badly, sloppily. I’m fascinated by femininity, and how perfect femininity seems so unattainable, but that a lot of what is desired is this perfection, to be polished, to be perfectly groomed. I find flaws in the performance of femininity much more beautiful, the feral — the chips in the glittery nail polish, the pained cuticles, the unbrushed hair, the holes in stockings. It’s always struck me as impossible, to be groomed, and so expensive and time-consuming. That doesn’t mean I don’t try, but I do it quite badly, my femininity often feels like a total failure. I feel that even more, here living in New York, among people who spend so much time and energy and money constructing and curating themselves. Ruth doesn’t have much money, although she longs for the clothes and the beauty, and all they might represent and promise to her: wealth, happiness, order. I think in Green Girl I’m acknowledging this intense desire for things and thingliness, while also critiquing it. Green Girl is like a shopping and not buying and fucking and not getting off novel.

The specific scenes you mention where the fragrance or cosmetics department become a chorus, exhorting an invisible uncertain customer to buy, are purposefully hypnotic, and also I think reveal, even revel in, the fraudulence. I am satirizing, while also luxuriously showing this ritual, of shopping, of buying, of milling around a beautiful department store, as quite mesmerizing at times, while also sometimes chaotic and hellish. The makeup artist who convinces you to buy everything, that you need everything, that it’s all important or it all falls down, in order to construct your face; who forms a temporary connection with the lonely customer, who they charm with compliments. I do understand the pleasure of going into a Sephora to attempt to buy myself a lipstick, or concealer, to beg them to fix my fucking face, seeing it as some sort of sanctuary, and then all of the resulting pathos, of buying and temporary happiness, and often regret.