The Cruel Intimacies of Flâneusering: On Kate Zambreno's Green Girl


Martin Johnson Heade, Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes, c. 1875 (detail)

by Ryan Chang

Green Girl: A Novel (P.S.),
by Kate Zambreno,
Emergency Press, 268 pp.

When I’m trying to think about Lacan’s jouissance, I think of how my friends describe their trips on dimethyltriptamine, or DMT. DMT, naturally produced by our brains in the last minutes of life, supposedly produces unspeakable waves of euphoric pleasure. Yet my friends have also described the equally horrific terror of feeling like they were dying parallel to that pleasure. How to describe that singular feeling in a word? Jouissance may be understood along these lines — a radical inscription into a registers of feeling that defy easy linguistic organization. In Seminar XX, Lacan writes that:

Through analytic discourse, the subject manifests himself in his gap, namely, in that which causes his desire. … [There] is no genesis except on the basis of discourse.

Later, he will remind us that:

Everyone knows there are phallic women … [There] is no chance for a man to have jouissance of a woman’s body, otherwise stated, for him to make love, without castration … without something that says no to the phallic function.

More importantly for us, Seminar XX argues that women cannot access the jouissance of their own bodies, circumscribed within this phallic economy and doomed to exist as “not-whole” within it. In the notes to the Harper Perennial “PS Edition” of Kate Zambreno’s newly republished novel (though I hesitate to call it that), Green Girl, the author includes this note to a syllabus of what I call “flâneusering” – “Walking. This is how I’ve starting to think of writing,” Zambreno writes, “And thinking. Writing and thinking as walking.”

Echoing Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, the streets – marked as epigraphs that frame each scene in the text – that Zambreno walks through fiction are intellectual and literary avenues that coalesce into a reordering of the subject Woman, staging what the (re)birth of a woman outside of a phallic gaze could be. I am not about to argue that Zambreno phallicizes the subject of her novel. I do want to suggest, however, that in this revised edition Zambreno has emphasized the precarity of authorship and the creation of identity, and the troubles encountered when writing, or generating, a feminine body outside of patriarchal discourses. The novel searches for Lacan’s “womanliness” that is, in his definition, doomed to always be “not-whole” in the gaze of the phallus. With the unapologetic, brutally visceral insights of Jean Rhys, Elfriede Jelinek and Clarice Lispector, Zambreno brings us Ruth, a young American girl temping her way through work, life and youth in London.

Though we’re not told exactly how young Ruth is, the violent ennui and sometimes laughable crises she experiences echo strongly of the last decade of youth culture which the internet has curated and cemented, and the subsequent hypersensitivity to the presentation of our bodies in space. It is no longer only the right angle for the selfie that is tantamount — which is the best Instagram filter to make you more you? But the spirit of this text runs strongly with the interwar sentiments and psychology of some of the aforementioned authors, and reinforces their concerns: the everyday experiences of commodities and feelings we take for granted — perfume, fashion magazines, pleasure and desire — are masterfully unsettled by Zambreno, made violent and oppressive and caustic, unveiling how we are not as much in control of the affects and personalities we put on (wearing those new-old-stock Doc Martens, who we are trying to be in a selfie) as we’d like to think.

So many, many feelings and products stream through Ruth as if all she is made of are her loves for Catherine Deneuve and Jean Seberg, themselves cogs in a machine of representations of unattainable feminine ideals. At the heart of Green Girl is the nature of projection, how we project ourselves into the screen of reality and how that reality — or realities — projects back into us. Affect and queer theorist Lauren Berlant writes in 2011’s Cruel Optimism that “Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something.’” Fashion is a fantasy, so is foundational make-up — Jean Seberg and normative femininity too. Green Girl takes this to the limit — the limit of Lacanian jouissance, of transference, and of love after the fantasy.

The pull, the blood, the cry.
The agony of becoming.
I gaze down upon her. She is without form, and void, and darkness upon the face of the deep. Cast in the likeness of her creator. I give birth to an orphan girl. … I try to sketch her face, over and over and all I come up with is a furious pencil cloud. She appears. She forms. Yet she is an indistinct blur. She is not fully formed.

A fiction whose mission is to stage the journey of a woman fighting her way out of male-directed gazes and discourses cannot even feel like a “novel” and the established definitions that the term evokes. Maybe the novel as a form, as a genre of literary being, is a fantasy too. Perhaps the personage who creates must also come undone. Employing essayistic and filmic techniques, Zambreno implies an author as narrator-character first before Ruth’s entrance into frame. “I try to sketch her face, over and over and all I come up with is a furious pencil cloud. … She forms. Yet she is an indistinct blur. … My wonder child, wandering child. I am trying to push her out into the world.” An attempt to write the green girl eschews linear plot in favor of the anxious thrill of the present tense of writing (I think of Robert Walser’s The Walk); Zambreno places an implied author as the lens through which we perceive Ruth at the center of the narrative. The epigraphs that begin each scene also frame the shot we will witness — this is someone’s projection of an ego, a kind of literary cinema where the roles of audience and reader are collapsed by a hybrid prosaic-filmic lens: a sentence.

One may think of Anita Loos’ brilliantly subversive captions for silent films. In an interview with Everybody’s Magazine, Loos says her “most popular subtitle introduced the name of a new character … The name was something like this: ‘Count Xxerkzsxxv.’ Then there was a note: ‘To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.” Laura Frost, who writes on Loos’ subtitles in her book The Problem With Pleasure, argues that Loos’ subtitles “[establish] a direct relationship between the audience and the writer that entirely excludes the film. It insists that this jumble of letters cannot be treated as an oral artifact. Language here is neither visual nor audible but rather located in an abstract realm of thought.” The effect of Green Girl’s language is not evenly literary or filmic, instead precisely in that “abstract realm of thought.” Abstract because we look through two pairs of eyes — ours and the implied author’s — to see Ruth. We’re watching just as much as we’re reading; exactly what we are watch-reading is a private and ultimately cruel intimacy unfold between Ruth and the implied author. Much of film works on the premise that we should not see what we are witnessing, and as the narrative of Ruth unfolds the implied author often visits the scenes in which she directs to establish something more private than Ruth’s story. Ruth cannot be seen by the physical eye, she may only be glimpsed as an idea, a suggestion of a mind and body, but this narrative perspective also effects a searingly personal proximity — her “agony of becoming” is a catalog of the ways in which a feminine ego attaches to the cultural narratives that make up a woman and how they may destroy her. Ruth is to be read through her relationships, the basic unit of intimacy, to commodities, people, and feelings. This is vital for the implied author.

The “agony of becoming” will also prove to be a kind of exhaustion of the phallic economy. Among several, the two primary poles of feeling on which Ruth depends, desire and pleasure, stage the results of an implied author’s wandering towards a sustainable relationship with one’s femininity, and its ultimately tragic, redemptive and necessary cruelty. When not the perfume girl she deems Horrids, Ruth is a green girl — inexperienced, or perhaps an industry term for girls in front of a green screen, body models necessary for the fantasy of the film-in-production — looking for something, anything, that will become her, the real her. Why she’s in the UK is as unsaid as what she wants, since she wants everything and nothing simultaneously, trapped in desire’s circuit of seeking permission from men to get that emancipatory jouissance she needs to break out of it which routinely results in apathy and pain. This is nicely allegorized through the medium of perfume.

Would you like to sample Desire? … Would you like to sample Desire? … Would you like to sample Desire? She carefully spritzes onto a stick of paper for a bored-looking Italian woman who flaps it underneath the nose of her leather-jacketed husband. Thin red lips almost sunk into her face. He must have to go deep-sea diving for her lips.

Feminine desire in Green Girl has to be put on, worn, assigned and permitted, by some other force. Note Desire’s particularly limp and stale effect on the Italian woman and her husband. They’re bored, disinterested, yet Ruth qualifies this scene with an aesthetic judgment, a verdict on how Desire is embodied, and the perfume’s failure to adequately affect her. As if the ideal exists beyond both Ruth and the Italian in medium other than perfume, like film. Ruth references what a woman should look like, how she should be, throughout the text. Because she exists in her world, which are projections made up from other projections, desire for the ideal only reinforces lack, shown here as disdain. This is worsened by the fact that Ruth is not in control of how to desire. “And how are our customers enjoying Desire?” her manager says, one of the “haughty Horrids heads.” “She is supposed to shill this perfume by an American teenage pop star with the name that makes Ruth feel a bit demoralized every time she says it. … They like it, I believe, she responds hesitantly. Sir.”

Desire is figured here to promise satisfaction and pleasure – but desire becomes an addiction, and pleasure in turn becomes violence. Here psychological, later physical.

Her perpetual list of wants and can’t-haves. To want. To lack. To have a hole. … She hears a voice from deep within. The arsenal of voices telling her to buy the dress. Buy it don’t think. Buy it. Buy it. It is so you. It enhances your personality. It makes you more you than you were before. But it is an impossibility. … My hunger artist her art is herself she is fast fasting away she would like to disappear.

Desire as an affect: wearing it like a garment only reveals its essential plastic oils, and the void it cements in Ruth. One of a few sexual encounters with men is especially telling. At a pub with her flatmate Agnes, Ruth is abandoned by the former in favor of a boy. The male bartender takes advantage. Predictably, like a melodrama, he takes her to the bar’s store room on his break. “Finally he takes his finger out. He licks it. This is supposed to be sexy. Mmmhmm, she purrs as if on cue. … She kisses him back, tentatively at first, then with her mouth open wide, twisting around on his lap. // You smell nice. // It’s Desire, she breathes.” The particularly putrid, rotten quality of desire secured by the very perfume Ruth apathetically peddles shows not only the polar effects of the perfume for Ruth and the bartender — disgust and apathy for Ruth and lust for the Alistair — but the cruelly ironic relationship of its effect. Desire is one of those fantasies Berlant describes in her definition of “cruel optimism.” She first defines optimism as the force that moves you out of yourself and into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, sense.     Doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly sustaining.

Exactly that which is supposed to emancipate in fact oppresses and deadens, precludes a possibility of transcendence and jouissance. Indeed, Ruth wants and wants out of the desires and pleasures she is permitted, but cannot reprogram that core force that drives her towards it in the first place, for that desire is primarily patriarchal. Note too that Ruth is placed here, and throughout the text, in melodramatic conflicts. This becomes instrumental to Green Girl’s larger project of disabling master narratives of femininity. Indeed, Ruth can be that woman “as if on cue,” but there is another that wants out.

Desire is sanctioned only to be worn on the terms of its male discourse. What are the necessary conditions for a recalibrated feminine desire? What does it look like? Pushing the vectors of desire to exhaust it seems to be the method of exorcism here. The aftermath of a threesome with Olly, a boy on whom Ruth crushes, and Agnes leaves our Ruth with not only jealousy of Agnes but self-loathing. Ruth is too drunk to resist, and Agnes too drunk to stop herself.

Agnes was struggling to remove Ruth’s bra. No, no, please, Ruth whispered. Everything was spinning, spinning, spinning. She was on the ceiling, looking at the scene with a sort of horror, like slowing down mesmerized at the intimacy of a car crash, bodies torn, thrown against each other, their blood pooled together.

These moments of violence are a part of Ruth’s genesis out of the films she projects onto herself, the quasi Platonic forms of Seberg, Falconetti and Deneuve. “Everyone eventually disappoints me, thinks Ruth, escaping into the dirty streets. … She feels exposed, like her skin has been torn off. No armor on today. … And also this sort of burning shame, of the horrors of last night, of how she behaved, of everything she let inside, of everything she had ever let inside.” Two girls, one guy is a staple male fantasy, yet given the opportunity to practice a different kind of sexual relationship with a man, namely the gentle redheaded Rhys, who, while annoyingly playing the role of savior in the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold script that doesn’t exist in Ruth’s experience of the world, only her fantasy, Ruth has absolutely no idea what she’s doing. Her emotional comprehension of desire again leads her to violent pleasure and submission because she doesn’t know any other way.

Why won’t you just fuck me?
Ruth, Ruth. He stares into her eyes. Oh how they have hurt you Ruth.
She begs and pleads. She wrests his clothes away from him. … She climbs on top of him. Begins to have sex with him. He lets her. He stares into her eyes helplessly. … Later he goes down on her, raising his wet face to stare into her eyes lovingly, his face glowing. She feels a shiver of revolt.
She did not desire to be loved and cherished and caressed. She desired a beast. Someone to destroy her. … She wanted to be fucked — over and over again repeating her own disappearance.

It’s not that Ruth doesn’t have a heart of gold, or can’t have one, nor is she is a whore in any sense of that word. It’s that Ruth isn’t anything – for now. The implied author perceives optimistic kernels of possibilities within the fantasies of femininity that can be sustaining without being cruel, but require this cruel education. The woman behind the prisms of affect and appearance has to be shed — as if the character has an interior that cannot be accessed because it is privately hers and hence unwritten. Rhys, like a good uncle, suggests to Ruth that she let go of her ego as a path to peace — but the interior of Ruth cannot be abandoned. “I need I,” Ruth says to Rhys, a few scenes before the rape, “I am all I have.” There is something real there in “the art of herself.” This authentic interior woman is also mysterious to the implied author, which may be the reason for Ruth’s existence. Relationships to this “I” are overlaid by the male gaze, and both the implied author and Ruth sense an other “satisfying something” outside of it. The agony of becoming is an education clothed in pain-inflected pleasure, the relief of popping a pimple.

Ruth feels through the lenses of ambivalence, apathy and self-loathing, categorically incapable of truly feeling outside of ascribed desire because she has little intimacy with her self, “she is her own ghost.” She may look up to Deneuve and the models in her fashion magazines, but she does not own them. Like her relationship with desire and pleasure, they own her. Intimacy is lacking in Ruth’s perception of the world, but not in the implied author’s. She routinely bemoans the scenes in which she is forced to cast Ruth, as if this destruction of Ruth’s cruel attachments the necessary lessons. Cruel optimism shows itself because the fantasies that enable it are “fraying [and] include, particularly, upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy.” How Ruth intimates with her world is not sustainable and durable. For the implied author, the normalized forms and media that portray the green girls like Ruth — melodrama and sentimentality — are themselves frail and unsustainable and mask authentic optimism. This “tough love” itself is a way for the implied author to forge a durable intimacy with Ruth. Cruel because Ruth must learn that permitted femininity is fraying.

Should the genres of feminine representation that desperately hold onto cruelly optimistic relations be broken first? I want to suggest that this is as much a fiction about Ruth and her generation as it is about the implied author’s self-creation and -generation, about how we learn to be ourselves. We are continually reminded that Ruth is a character, a thing, a mold through which the implied author wanders; the break, or jouissance, Ruth experiences at the end of the fiction is cast in the implied author’s perception as a rupturing of the cruel optimisms that are at once toxic and profoundly sustaining. Intimacy results from the text she is writing because it neutralizes the toxicity of melodrama and sentimentality. These two feelings exist as genres because they offer us easy, no-brainer ways of comprehension, and they often work because they are seductive and solicit our affected desire. And within the system of male-sanctioned desire the implied author supplies irruptions of the real, Lacan’s “slippage of language” that glimpses feminine jouissance beyond the phallus. Before Ruth cuts her hair out of frustration from the pressures of femininity, being seen and recorded, “an immense violence stirring inside of her,” the implied author again appears in her own film.

I make my green girl kneel. I am the harsh director. She begs and pleads: Please don’t make me do it but there is a clause in her contract. I am reminded of the Barbie dolls that I played with as a young girl. I would perform the cruelest acts on my lovelies, I would behead them. I would cut off their hair to make them look like Ken. I would sentence their bodies to various torture machines. Perhaps writing for me is an extension of playing with those dolls. Ruth is my doll. I crave to give birth to her and to commit unspeakable acts of violence against her. I feel twinges of joy at her suffering.

Both are trying to get at Berlant’s “satisfying something.” Buried in Ruth’s (and hence the implied author’s) ambivalent relationships with myriad feelings and affects—love, hate, pleasure, pain, past, present, future, women, femininity, men, masculinity, love, Catherine Deneuve, bodies, fashion—is a meditation on the conflict between performance and authenticity, genre and the real. The cruel intimacy of becoming. But will the performance of the writing of Ruth authenticate the implied author’s experience, or will it authenticate her mind, transitioning from the abstract to the concrete, if this cruel intimacy can be a durable intimacy?

Though we’re gawk-reading an implied author’s “flâneusering” through her own mind, her own projections, the visits from the implied author remind us that this is only a film, that the real relationship here is between us and her, functioning like Loos’ subtitles, forced to delight and suffer in Ruth’s “[loveliness] … in her impending decay” and made uncomfortable by the possibilities of desire outside of imposed discourse. Like desire, the performance of melodrama must be pressed to the limit in service of Ruth’s reclamation. So many scenes of Ruth melodramatically writhing in bed after a bad affair, of her own self-loathing, are arrested in the very moment we want to shake her shoulders and tell her to “snap out of it,” to “suck it up.” But “sucking it up” suggests concession to the girls she hates at Horrids, reinscription into the sentimental and melodramatic.

Instead, the implied author forces Ruth to endure her sufferings as a means of sweating out the melodramas, sweating out the discourse. And why melodrama? A documentary produced by VICE titled “One-Man Metal,” which interviews three US-based Black Metal artists opens with a line from Jeff Whitehead, or Leviathan: “A lot of things in metal are deemed silly, or like, melodramatic, but there’s a certain honesty in that. You know — there’s a certain honesty in the fuckin’ picked-on loner fucking screaming his head off and playing powerful guitar.” Picked-on loners, nerds, geeks, dweebs — marginalized figures on the playgrounds of youth saved if only for the privilege of anatomy. If they “don’t grow out of it,” they might turn that lonerism into exactly what Whitehead describes as melodrama. But that sincerity is only accessible if it exists as a character, as Leviathan or Ruth, suggesting a kind of impossibility of its existence in the social, every day existence. Green Girl argues otherwise: such relationships to one’s interior life are lived out in commodities, patriarchal narratives and private moments made public through masked melodramatic relationships. Ruth is regularly described as being “armored,” or made up, but that armor is often shallow and frail, like thin porcelain. As melodrama and sentimentality are ruptured, what is revealed is a new writing of the body that is, albeit cruel, owned by women for women. Unlike the terrible boss at Horrids, the implied author is not trying to squeeze any profit out of Ruth, only the porcelain in which she is encased.

“The question is — does she awake? And what does she awaken to?” Or, to rephrase the implied author: is a woman’s relationship with femininity durably intimate, or is it merely cruelly optimistic? Does she own femininity or does femininity own her? The implied author — Ruth’s mother, we might say—also seems unable to choose the affects and feelings and lenses with which to see Ruth because she herself is ambivalent towards her own femininity. At the end, we are finally brought to their jouissance, the K.O. punch to melodrama.

If I choked Ruth she would make a squeaking sound, like a rubber doll. But I won’t choke Ruth why would I choke her I love her. If I did choke her it would be in a loving way, like the poster of the Heimlich maneuver you see hung up in school cafeterias and auto shops, the two faceless figures doubled over together in a violent embrace. I would choke her to get at her insides.

It is bracing to witness both the implied author’s and Ruth’s trajectory into Green Girl’s “satisfying something,” that epiphanic release that, in otherwise traditional narratives, tie off the hemorrhaging arterial pathways of our hero’s (or anti-hero’s) “flâneusering” into “peace,” reconciling her once-turgid psyche with the external world. In other words, growing up. But there is no closure given, there is no language to close Ruth’s jouissance. Ruth, finally at her wit’s end, escapes into “Oxford Street. … Hare Krishna Hare Krishna … They form a circle. She doesn’t know what she is doing. She is closing her eyes, she is throwing her arms up above her head, she is swaying back and forth, back and forth.” At first glance, this almost disappointing resolution seems like a lazy way to complete a circle (The Krishnas? Really?). But at second glance, the Krishnas are an apt vehicle for Ruth’s rebirth. Some sixty pages before the end, we’re introduced to a scene through an epigraph from Lacan’s lecture on woman’s jouissance. “You but go to Rome and see the statue by Bernini to immediately understand that she’s coming. There’s no doubt about it. What is she getting off on?” Lacan is talking about Bernini’s statue, the “Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila.” The statue depicts one of St. Teresa’s dreams in which an angel with a fire-tipped spear pierces her into religious — or orgiastic — ecstasy. This, and the preceding scene, create a kind of diptych with words straight from the saint’s mouth: “But sometimes I am so crazed with love I do not know what I am saying.” The male interpretation of St. Teresa’s dream against her loss of words reflects the film we have just witnessed — Ruth’s exterior is closely followed by the implied author’s interiority, the woman behind the Woman. There are no words to describe feminine jouissance (“I do not know what I am saying”) because the fantasies of discursively determined femininity that deceive her with the promise of a “satisfying something” leave her bereft of language and thus being. We are returned to a biblical Ruth who [wants] to sit in a church and let the white light bathe [her]. It doesn’t matter what church, what religion. … [She] wants to go to a church and direct [her] eyes up high and open [her] arms up to the ceiling. And scream. And scream. And scream.

A large, bold “FIN” completes the film-fiction. We are faced with aporia — what comes now? This, however, ultimately preserves the hope for something more – the reclamation of her body. “She is one of many. She is lost in the crowd. … The crowd envelops her. More bodies, bodies, bodies. A shudder goes through her. She gasps for breath.” The irruption of a lack of discourse is a rupture of woman’s status as Lacan’s “not-whole.”

Despite the emotionally violent end for Ruth, Green Girl is resolutely optimistic about the possibilities of intimacy. Remember that our position as readers is to watch an author wander through intellectual, emotional and physical memories and paths towards a book and here, her self. “Sometimes she narrates her actions inside her head in third-person,” the implied author says. “Does that make her a writer or a woman?” I want to end by suggesting that this is a fiction about the fiction of the “I,” that when we say and write “I” it is from the third-person. I’m reminded of a passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks. “The word ‘I’ does not mean the same as ‘L.W.’ even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression ‘the person who is now speaking.” … The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it.” At the end, we recognize that perhaps the implied author was trying to wrestle herself out of the cruel yet profoundly sustaining cycles only to find that the only option left drove her to a kind of literary self-immolation. Screams – no words, no discourse, pure expression. At the end, we’ve not only read Ruth’s fin, but we have also watched the implied author arrive at an understanding of femininity that she has written. Through writing, through essaying, through repeated attempts to find a place for Ruth and herself in a world dictated by objectified femininity, the implied author finds little choice but to scream, breaking language. She enters into a new, unfamiliar world foreign to the cruelly optimistic fantasies that opens up myriad possibilities for durable intimacy, however cruel. We are encouraged to re-perceive, on the one hand, a “mad woman” as actually a possibility for the new. This is an ultimately hopeful, optimistic book, especially for the girls like Ruth, who are regularly represented as static, no-hope, stock creatures. Breaking out of cruel optimism requires a cruel, intimate negotiation with its oppressive powers, but there is something durable beyond that limit. Green Girl purposefully ruptures the genres to which it owes much of its feelings and themes by existing and prodding inside of it, unveiling the crushing pressures of everyday existence not only for green girls, but for any and all who feel they have to toe the line, and the powerful possibilities beyond it. This is Zambreno in high form, unrelenting in her emotional sincerity and intellectual acuity, a necessary voice in a still green world.

About the Author:

Ryan Chang’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Everyday Genius, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Black Sun, Hypothetical, The Catapult Podcast and elsewhere. He regularly contributes to the blog biblioklept, and is an MFA candidate in fiction at CU-Boulder. He tweets at @avantbored