If you dare suggest that the world doesn't need another unimaginative coming-of-age novel written by a white guy, or another boring novel about a middle-aged male English professor's dalliance with a young, pliable student, you will then spend a lot of time on social media arguing with white men who accuse you of committing reverse sexism and racism. What those brave defenders of the underserved white American patriarchy fail to understand is that they see such comments as a problem of subtraction, when in fact it's a matter of addition: The more perspectives you add to literature, the stronger it gets.
In her powerful manifesto about women in literature, Heroines, Kate Zambreno argued that we've lost whole generations of novelists and an entire literary tradition by marginalizing women. Heroines was a persuasive argument, and a scathing lament for all those unheard voices, but manifestos only go so far. Sooner or later, you have to start to build on the theories. With the reissue of her first novel, Green Girl, Zambreno pays tribute to the women who came before and also challenges a new generation of young writers to follow her lead.
Green Girl is the story of a young American who barely makes a living as a shopgirl in London, at a large department store she calls Horrid's, trying to sell a perfume called Desire to passing women. ("Desire? Care to try? Desire? Desire?") Zambreno's authorial voice is a fire hose of outrage and disgust aimed everywhere—at Ruth, at the men who ogle Ruth on the street, at the book itself—and it slyly echoes the criticism and loathing that young women experience from all angles. As she continually tries and fails to find happiness and contentment, nothing Ruth can do is good enough for Ruth, for Zambreno, or for the reader. Zambreno's best trick is that she somehow manages to turn the volume on her scorn up so high that it becomes white noise, and then the grace notes of compassion and beauty become apparent.
Every few pages of Green Girl, the narrative stops and a clean white page with an epigraph near the center appears, from sources as varied as Jean Rhys, Colette, Catherine Deneuve's character in Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Clarice Lispector, and Hamlet, which provides the book's title (Polonius tells Ophelia, "You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance"). It gives the book a feeling of repeated stopping and starting, of Ruth's desire to start over again fresh but continually finding herself stuck in the middle of her own narrative.
Ruth is young, and not an admirable character, but she is by all means a recognizable one. As with most young people who head to the city to discover themselves, her youth is her defining characteristic. She wanders through a protest against the Iraq war—the book is set about a decade ago—and though she feels shame about being American, she really can't be bothered to care that much about the war:
She is not political. She is not political yet. She is halting, she is silent, she is unsure. She has not formed any opinions that are her own. Sometimes she hears someone else's opinion, someone more forceful than herself (which is almost anyone) and she says that's good for me too. So malleable she changes identities easily... She is self-involved. She is volunteering for her own Party of One. The Me Party. Campaigning under the Woe Is Me ticket. My seductive little solipsist.
About the last sentence in that passage: Every so often, Zambreno intrudes into the text to comment on the proceedings. It's not nearly so ostentatious as Kurt Vonnegut making himself into a character in his own later novels. Zambreno appears as asides, a couple lines dropped into the text. She's more a Greek chorus than a deus ex machina, pulling back the curtain to show us the tendons and meat underneath: "Oh my Ruth how she suffers. And yet, I am the one who is cruel. I experience joy at her suffering. I want to save her and then drown her like a surplus puppy." To her credit, Ruth keeps surviving her own creator's devious machinations.
As Ruth wanders through London and Green Girl, making friends and enemies, trying to have sex while simultaneously watching the way she is being watched having sex, she yearns to become more substantial than the shopgirl everyone tries to avoid at Horrid's. Thanks to Zambreno, the reason for all Ruth's torments, she does become something substantial: She is a literary creation unlike anything you've ever read before.