When someone designates their book as a collection of appendices, it’s a blanket excuse for pulling together a baggy, incoherent group of texts and calling it a day. Disappointing because I’m usually a KZ fan, but this grated on me with its tone of see-how-smart-I-am-but-oh-I’m-sleep-deprived-from-my-baby, thinking she could get away without substance by magically name-dropping Roland Barthes enough times. (It’s not just Barthes, it’s Proust, Kafka, Benjamin, Anne Carson, Woolf, Plath, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Claudia Rankine, Chantal Ackerman, etc.) Perhaps she should get points for honesty, saying outright that she created this book of talks/essays out of a desire not to read from her previous Book of Mutter while interviewing for teaching gigs. Instead she creates this book of all the things she left out of Mutter, her 10-year project dealing with her mother’s death.
I will read every book that Kate Zambreno publishes, but this will not be one of my favorites (that honor goes to Heroines and Green Girl). I’m just not a sucker for the drama of the mother-daughter relationship, with the daughter left scurrying about trying to make sense of it all in the aftermath of death.
But once again she’s introduced me to a whole cast of characters, weaving in Louise Bourgeois into the story, reminding me of Henry Darger, and creating a compelling tale through sparse, tight, poetry.
This roll call cuts straight to the chase. I’m never going to turn my back on anyone who name checks Valerie Solanas, Virginia Woolf, Chantal Ackerman, Shulamith Firestone, Sylvia Plath, and Zelda Fitzgerald:
All the women Louise Bourgeois collected like these fragile glasses, women I also collect, fictional and fictionalized, that I abandon myself to in acts of intense research and investigation—Anne Sexton, Antigone, Marilyn Monroe, Medea, Ophelia, Cassandra, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda.
Addendum: Barbara Loden, Nella Larsen, Diane Arbus, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanas, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chantal Ackerman, Louise Brooks.
Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.
In her acknowledgements, she mentions that while she was finishing up the book (it lingered over 10 years), she found out she was pregnant. I hope that this addition to her life does not take her or her intensity away.
Originally published in 2010 as Zambreno’s first book, it’s re-released with an awkward and unnecessary introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch who first published it. The end acknowledgments bookend us with praise for Yuknavitch in a way that just leaves me wishing we could have the text sans Lidia.
It’s a weird, triptych-ish book that follows the story of Mommy, Maggie, and Malachi. Mommy is in full denial that the world is falling apart, closing her eyes to her daughter Maggie’s self-destruction. Malachi sets himself on fire and jumps off an overpass onto the highway.
Zambreno’s language sparkles: “Cell phone towers of Babble.” ; “Mommy likes books with stiletto heels on the pink cover. Anything pink. Pink, pink, pink. Think pink! Don’t think at all!”; “Caution is GrandMommy’s middle name. Although it’s really Marie, like all good Catholic girls.”; “The whole family likes to watch TV—they gather around it, it is their altar… Missy she is three and needs to learn to sit like a lady! Which is on your ass watching the television! It’s best to practice the assumed position of apathy and defeat!”
I caught myself thinking about this book as I was trapped in an office this afternoon for the first time in a long time. Dumb conversations floating about me, Ruth’s defense of going dead, empty, and hollow came to me as a good escape. And then I mentally calculated the hours before I’d be able to sit down with Green Girl to finish it off. Always a good sign. My first exposure to Zambreno was Heroines, which I enjoyed, but Green Girl knocked my socks off.
Ruth is the explicit creation of the author, pushed out into the world and encountering pain at the behest of the author. Zambreno honors her idols throughout the work, early on quoting the magnificent Jean Rhys, “Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armour at home,” layering each section with establishing quotes from the various greats of film, literature, poetry, drama (Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Clarice Lispector, Walter Benjamin, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Andre Breton, Jose Ortega y Gasset, etc.). Ruth is an American in London, working as a shopgirl, emptying herself and trying her best to become nothing, painting on a happy face (her armor) and dealing with the loss of her mother. “Sometimes she is struck by how much she goes through life almost unconsciously. She is being swept along. She is a pale ghost. Such a haunting, vacant quality.” Initially living in a women-only dormitory, she and Agnes move into a somewhat wretched and cold flat in the East End together, Ruth sleeping on a mattress on the floor beside Agnes’ bed. Ruth becomes briefly enamored with various men, but there is one back in Chicago who has a strong hold on her memory. She would smoke and watch the world from her flat, “Sometimes people would glance up and see her watching them. She appeared to be quite deep in thought, but actually she wasn’t thinking of much at all. Sometimes her mind was completely vacant. Sometimes no one was at home. The only thing she could mourn was herself.”
Everyone always tells her how pretty she is. You’re so pretty, they say. It is a fact. She could be described in the language of growing things. She is a tender sapling. She is green, she is fresh (yet the freshest ingenues can carry with them the most depraved resumes). Yet to be beautiful, fresh, young is a horrible fate if one feels empty inside… When Ruth is feeling her emptiest, the empty compliments keep on pouring in… She is anointed daily with these compliments. You have a beautiful smiles. Eyes lowered, the modesty of a saint. Thank you… She is a willing accomplice to this farce. She paints on the smile. She paints on the happiness… But sometimes life in the spotlight can be difficult. Sometimes she wants to be invisible. Sometimes walking down the street she sends out signals of distress. Look at me (don’t look at me) Look at me (don’t look at me)
The constant battle of being seen as an object weighs on her as she does battle with a boy blocking her way:
Alright, alright, I was just trying to be friendly. I was just trying to be friendly. That’s what they all say. The feign of innocence. The pretense of Samaritan impulses. In her mind she spits in his face. She spits in all the faces of the strange men on city streets who torture her with their stares. But on her face is that same, slight smile.
After a degrading scene where she plays the reluctant part in a threesome with Agnes and a boy she fancied, Ruth has a breakdown for a few days and then cuts off her blonde locks, eventually getting them fixed by a professional. Agnes’ reaction, “Now you’re interesting. You were a bit dull before.” Later, she becomes briefly involved with a slim and intense man from the store– Rhys (too obvious of a hat tip to Jean?). She pours out her story, finally having found a vessel for her thoughts and sorrow. When Rhys won’t sleep with her, she becomes obsessed about it, finally having him and then discarding him. She decides to sleep with someone else to seal the breakup, pretending to listen to this filmmaker, bored. As they have sex, “she digs her nails into his back, which he interprets as her being hot for him, more, more, when really she is steeling herself as he continues to pound away, while she looks at the green glow of the alarm clock, wondering how much time has elapsed.”
She quits her job, sits in the park watching pigeons. Ruth takes Agnes to get an abortion, meets a guy and gets bored with him. Finds a new salesclerk job. After a harrowing first day, she escapes into the crowds, loses herself among the Hare Krishnas. She wants to go to a church “And scream. And scream. And scream.”
So far I’ve read 3 G— Girl books this year– Gone Girl, Green Girl, and Good Girl. The first 2 were tops, but Good Girl wasn’t worth the effort.
2 random connections to the book I read immediately prior: abortions & Hare Krishnas.
Brilliant bursts of rage on behalf of all the poets/geniuses/authors’ wives who were relegated to second place, told that they (the wives) could not create, could not be artists, could only be fused with their talent by being characters in the males’ work. “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.” Virginia Woolf’s workday whittled down to a few hours at the demands of Leonard, to keep her sane. Zelda’s life lifted from her letters and journals and made Scott’s work sparkle. Through all this, Zambreno’s own story is woven, the wife of a special collections librarian who uproots her life to follow him from job to job. “The chattering woman is the muse of modernism. Her talk that is represented as unconscious and intuitive and associative. He always accompanies her with a notepad. He copies down her ‘disordered’ speech, and later he will use it to convict her.” Snippets of shoutouts to all the ladies, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Simone de Beauvoir, Vivienne Eliot, Anais Nin and June Miller, Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, Anna Kavan. Sylvia Plath’s journal from the final 3 months of her life, burned by husband, censored.
T.S. Eliot’s wife, Viv, abandoned, banned, divorce impossible, communicated with only through lawyers, placing an advertisement in The Times, “Will T.S. Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept 17, 1932.” Showing up at a performance of Murder in the Cathedral with a sign (allegedly) that said: “I am the wife he abandoned.” Eventually Viv is locked away in an asylum. Zambreno is unable to receive permission from the T.S. Eliot estate to read
Viv’s unpublished texts. Suppressed even after death.
She describes running into a guy she used to know/was friends with briefly who brags about his one thousand page novel coming out (compared to Zambreno’s “slim nervous novella”), his work will be the longest first-person novel EVER:
We discuss the respective length of Tristam Shandy, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, War and Peace, etc. He is pulling out his cock and comparing it with those writers whom he will be compared. (I will be compared to nobody, I think, I am sent into an existential crisis when I get home, and for weeks afterwards.)
Canon actually comes from a Greek work for “measuring rod.”
An author loves his or her character if he or she has ever, really, cried for her, not what she represents, but for her, for her sad, lost life, this LOST GENERATION of brilliant girls, all the sad young girls. I who am bellowing for my heroines. (p 156)
It’s infuriating to think how coming-of-age novels about the feminine experience are read and dismissed as chick lit or schoolgirl books or YA, etc., when Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, surely also a very unformed Bildungsroman, is still considered great literature. Carson McCullers, Shirley Jackson, Plath, all lumped into young adult. As if the female coming-of-age experience is somehow more frivolous or less rending than the male one. And how these works are seldom read as existential novels about girls who want to realize themselves, who want to be artists, and the desire not to have their future decided for them. (p 193)
It drives me absolutely bonkers that the mythology of Zelda, as endlessly repeated by Scott’s biographers, by even her biographer, by her daughter, dictates some narrative that she was not disciplined enough, and that is why she did not succeed as an artist. She was absolutely disciplined. My god, she twisted and contorted herself into a dancer within years. She made paintings for decades that she only showed in a gallery a few times. She worked steadily on her stories, and then later graduated to novels. (p 214)
The notion of the Great American Novel seems to be almost exclusively male. It seemed for a while The New York Times was under the impression that David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished The Pale King was the only recently published novel–it was constantly covered and reviewed, an endless documentation. A canonization–with that book he was raised to the literary heavens. In reviews DFW was compared to Melville and other Great Men just like that boy I knew was compared to DFW. Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in big literary sections, but not about HOW they are reviewed, or HOW they are not reviewed, and who women writers are or are not compared to in the body of their occasional reviews. We are considered outside the conversation of Great Books, a male-dominated tradition. (p 229)
There’s also a great section (p 260) sending up golden boy Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, “my god though the novel is being feted as the tale of our times, written about rapturously… I mean, it’s a beautiful book, but I don’t get all the adulation. The narrative of the nervous girl would never receive that treatment.”