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


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.

Ruth and the novel are quite literally in conversation with the (amazing) epigraphs within it. It’s a beautiful relationship to build and the chapters feel like a film reel unfurling. One film I kept thinking about as Ruth was unraveling is one of my favorites, Polanski’s Repulsion. I was excited to see Polanski’s Carol show up in one of the epigraphs. Polanski was able to capture Carol’s psychic destruction in a visual way that is so haunting. Green Girl is nearly its mirror for me. Another film it speaks to, more loosely, is the French film Eyes Without a Face. Have you seen it? The horror of a masked young woman – her father trying to splice together the perfect face so she can be beautiful again. How important is film to you?

Very important, and film is also hugely important to Ruth and Agnes, it is their constant reference point, with the world and with each other (in the parties you mention, they are dressing like characters from film, The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Night Porter). The figure and narrative of Ruth is partially modeled on Catherine Deneuve’s early filmography, her Jacques Demy films and then especially Repulsion. Ruth in turn is very conscious of being like Deneuve, because everyone tells her this, and the narrator too is maddened and intrigued by her impenetrability, her passivity. I wanted to write about two young women who exist in a heavily referential world, in terms of how it forms their identity, and also how girls like them are always compared to actresses in films. Because I have short hair, I was, and still, bizarrely, sometimes am still compared to actresses with short hair. I think this is just the currency of compliments, but also I think eases some people’s discomfort to contextualize my extremely short hair within these beautiful and feminine figures — Audrey Hepburn, Jean Seberg, etc. The very short scene where the man snaps his fingers at Ruth after she cuts her hair and simply says Bonjour Tristesse and Ruth says “Yes” and lowers her head is taken from a scene from my life, in which an older male math teacher in the shared adjunct office at the community college where I taught for years did the same thing. I nodded and said “Yes” rather stiffly but politely and in my mind I was like “Why did I just agree to him? Why am I so nice?” and also “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” and then on another level realizing I had told the hairstylist I wanted to look like Jean Seberg. That layered awareness. Now I tell hairstylists I want to look like David Wojnarowicz, or an alien. It’s still mostly the same haircut.

There’s such violence and urgency to the voice of the unnamed narrator, which is in contradiction to the drifting nature of Ruth. Did you feel the voice was a necessary counterpoint?

Yes, and I’m always surprised when discussions of the narrator are omitted in readings of the novel, as the narrator is a major character, this unreliable, cruelly maternal author-narrator, who is the one writing the book. Green Girl is definitely, as everything I’ve written, metafictional, and engaged intensely with the act of literature. Green Girl was also born partially out of a passionate engagement with Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, where a male author-narrator brings Macabea into being, and I’ve always wondered why Lispector chose a male character for the author-narrator, but at one point Lispector writes in the novel something like, If Rodrigo S.M. was a woman writer Macabea’s story would be impossible to write, as she’d cry the entire time. I also think of Green Girl as an elegy to youth, to a fictionalized version of a former self, in the same vein perhaps as Duras’ narrator at the beginning of The Lover. People always assume I’m Ruth — and I am, of course, and am not, and I’m also Agnes and am not, but I also am and am not the narrator.

Ruth is watching sex, around sex, engaging in sex, trying to figure out her sexual limitations, and none of it is satisfying. Sex and dissatisfaction run rampant through the book – with every man she encounters — and it leads to a very interesting tension. This sexual view of the world is a kind of lens through which Ruth and Agnes see the world. It made me think of Kathy Acker’s work and Chris Kraus’ as well. Can you speak to this lens a bit?

And Ruth and Agnes hook up with each other as well. I don’t know if, for Ruth, it’s about the actual climax or more the yearning. I think the question of eroticism and desire is a crucial meditation in the book — the joke is that the celebrity perfume she’s spritzing is named Desire, and she also longs voluptuously and constantly for a cruel boy back home in Chicago, with whom she had rather brutal sex, that she seems to have found quite pleasurable, although it’s possible what she longs for is the absence or removal, or perhaps she longs again to repeat his rejection of her, that that is what she gets off on. I do think Ruth has sex because at times she is more pulled by others’ desire than by her own, it’s just something she does, although she also initiates. I’m very compelled to circle around eroticism in my writing, and especially what I’m working on now, but I think the thing with sex and desire is it’s so unknowable and inherently fragmented. Ruth is a traumatized subject, a cultural subject too, and all of this mixes into her desire. But we want what we want, even amidst all of our energy for repression. And that other definition of “want” — to have a hole, to be unfulfilled. I think that is some of what I’m fumbling towards in Green Girl. An unknowability.

Ruth is still clay, unmade, unsure of trying on different skin, whereas Agnes is happy to shape-shift. Agnes feels more in control of her identity, at least on the outside, whereas Ruth is vibrating need. Their sexual encounter with Olly makes me think of the worst moments of myself. It’s visceral and raw and so completely true in the evolution of trying to be a sexual young girl. The confusion plays well on the page, we’re on the rollercoaster of self with Ruth. She is surrounded by danger and we are worried for her. Were you worried for Ruth as a writer? It’s kind of a horrible question to ask, really. But, I’m going to go ahead and ask it.

I think the narrator is somewhat aghast in that one scene where Ruth lets a stranger fuck her in a strange place, but also mocking her as being the stereotypical girl in the horror film. And I think the narrator follows Ruth this entire book, studying her, so I guess worrying about her, feeling this maternal violence towards her passivity, which I think in that one moment is a moralizing panic, maybe, about these banal yet somewhat high-risk encounters. I think the narrator recognizes herself in those scenes, and I obviously do too, to some extent. I think the narrator is horrified in some of these moments, as Ruth herself is, of how little control she has over any of it, but I think that’s also what Ruth is drawn to, and she also is attempting to define the boundaries of her self through her sexual encounters with others, and in many ways through abjection, that grayish complexity of power and desire I’m drawn to writing about.

I think that worrying might be part but not hopefully all of the act of readership too, and I want the narrator’s revulsion to be also suspect and slippery. I also want to alienate that, to antagonize a reader’s reaction — the ways we can moralize a female character like Ruth, or worry about her safety or her psyche or soul, a character who is really, searching, needing, unknowing, in horror and despair and confusion over who and what she lets inside of her but also is attracted to finding some necessary violence of the everyday, in these encounters. I mean, how many bios of Rimbaud moralize his young risky self, sleeping on the streets? Not any — it’s all heroism. I’m interested in the ambivalence of Ruth’s libertinism. I’m not interested in morality or empowerment in literature — I find characters who don’t live well, who are in some ways monsters, far more intriguing. I think Agnes is more in control of her personality or surfaces, sure, but I think she also is afraid of being alone, because she doesn’t know what’s there, and I think she probably resists the constant internal monologue — and also she is forced to play the role of the toxic best friend. I’m sure her interior life is vastly more complex, as all of ours are, or maybe not. I think an Agnes gets herself more in dangerous situations more than a Ruth — because everything’s an attempt to show her bravery, her audacity. She’s more of a Juliette. And toward the end of the novel it’s unclear where she’s going, what she’s gotten herself in to. I am making notes for another novel I hope to write someday, Strange Sun, a Sadean picaresque or Story of the Eye, again a sort of intense/toxic intimacy/Persona-like thing between two college-age girls, where both girls are on the surface maybe more Agnes characters, brazen adventuresses, who are obsessed with famous body art performance artists. The work will helpfully delve more into both characters’ consciousness. An Agnes character still intrigues me, maybe worries me. That worrying, that confusion, that struggling through, is writing for me.

Toward the end of the novel, I start to feel Ruth’s transcendence through suffering. In the chaotic and climactic last section, Ruth has risen in a way. She has joined the female saints you write about in the book. She is Saint Ruth to me, having reached the sublime, though still searching. She has finally been heard, in the chaos of the city. I was pumping my fist after closing the last page. Did you work out an end point to write to beforehand or did you let the book lead you there naturally?

I have always had the last line of a book in my head that I sort of lunge toward — not really a scene but a sentence: “I want to go to a church, and let the white light bathe me, it doesn’t matter what church what religion,” etc., ending with “and scream and scream and scream,” a desire for losing oneself in a crowd, amidst the terrible and unreal city. I was also thinking of Ruth as related to Robin Vote, from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, going to places that were like churches to her, and I think part of my project in Green Girl is internalizing the character that is usually the cipher. I saw early on this still image at the end, inerasable yet ambiguous — Ruth leaving her stressful first day of work folding clothes on the high street, and then seeing a procession of the Hare Krishnas that fascinated her throughout, and jumping into the streets to dance with them, a shock of existence, of being outside herself. For throughout the novel — and this ties into the question of her eroticism — I don’t think Ruth was looking to find herself entirely, but also to lose herself. We don’t know if she changes: maybe she quits her job, maybe she doesn’t, and even if she quits her job she’ll have to find another. Maybe she breaks down, but not completely. She still always has to go to work. The concept I’m interested in writing to, in this current book and in the future, is the concept of the desire for deconstruction. So, yeah, I think Ruth is kind of a mystic. She desires to disappear in the city, in the crowd, and find a temporary transcendence, like Edgar Allan Poe’s ecstatic “Man in the Crowd,” that Walter Benjamin writes to in his section on the flâneur in The Arcades Project.

I read somewhere that Agnès Varda, speaking about the reactions to her film Cléo from 5 to 7 — which was hugely influential for Green Girl — said that when the film came out some feminist critics were annoyed or upset that the sheltered pop star played by Corinne Marchand, walking around Paris in her first real solitude, waiting for the results of a cancer test, didn’t change enough at the end. But it’s only a day in her life, and Green Girl is only a few months in Ruth’s — I go from late fall to spring in one year. I wasn’t interested in her empowerment. I purposefully want to provoke and react against readings of books that are about only identification and recognition — although I feel that too, for Ruth, a great sense of empathy but also distance. The territory I was interested in mining in this book as well as in my other writing, the kind of characters I wish to write to, are the annoying, the alienated and alone, the monstrous, the complex and deeply flawed, ugly and beautiful, acting out larger roles, unknowable even to themselves. Ruth is but one tiny subjectivity, a small experiment, but I hope the questions it raises about existence and confinement are much vaster, an attempt to peer down tentatively into the human abyss.