2 February, 2015Issue 27.2FictionLiterature

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Diagnosing The Sad Girl

Haiya Sarwar

Kate Zambreno
Green Girl
HarperCollins, 2014
£7.99 (hardback)
279 pages
ISBN: 9780062322838

In a recently published essay titled “Ms. America: How Lana Del Rey facilitates a postauthentic patriotism,” Ayesha Siddiqi of The New Inquiry proclaimed:

…for those [Americans] who came of age during the war on terror, for whom adolescence was announced by 9/11 and for whom failed wars, a massive recession, and a total surveillance apparatus were the paranoid gifts of our adulthood, Lana Del Rey gives us a patriotism we can act out.

Siddiqi’s adamancy in justifying, if not glamourizing, this very nihilistic interpretation of Del Rey—in forthrightly suggesting that a postmodern “culture drained of all moral qualities or ethical commitments is worth holding onto”—has gone on to inspire further odes to the absurd, such as Todd Van Luling’s article in the Huffington Post: “8 Things Lana Del Rey Can Teach You About Living An Amazing Life.” But despite the almost-iconic prominence of Del Rey and her plastic glamourizing “authenticity” in contemporary American culture, it is important to note that she has been linked around the music blogosphere to the neologistic “Hollywood sadcore.” Sadcore itself has been categorized as a subgenre of music by and for the depressed. Hence, is clinging to postauthenticity—as in essentially embracing a giddy postnihilism—actually what millennials need? Mass-released by HarperCollins in July, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl seems to argue otherwise.

A sort of documentation of the first world teenybopper, Green Girl follows Ruth, a 20-something, Hollywood-idolizing American, loitering around London, flipping through Vogue magazine, and gazing at pastries hungrily. Although London is clearly not an American city, the degree to which the London presented is infiltrated by Americana (even most trivially via products like Starbucks coffee or an American pop star’s perfume) allows Ruth’s London effectively to serve as an affluent city representative of stereotypical postmodern American culture and ideologies. Even Ruth’s loitering is reflective of the very American tabloid-turned-celebutante culture of being “famous for being famous.” Ruth wanders around the city in movie star sunglasses as if waiting to be scouted—waiting to be discovered:

What does she want to be? A green girl doesn’t like to consider this question. She already is. She is waiting around to be discovered just for being herself.

But whereas in lighthearted early American comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and It Should Happen to You (1954)—in which a silly girl literally tries to make “a name for herself” by plastering her name on billboards across New York City—where celebutante culture was presented with a fresh and almost-endearing amusement, the above excerpt interjects like a buzzkill. The cold and bored manner in which the “mother-narrator” scowls down on Ruth’s values establishes an unamused criticism of the existentialist authenticity exalted by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943). For the modern existentialist notion of authenticity is not one rooted in genuine traditional values and “selfless action” (to refer to Stephen Kiernan’s Authentic Patriotism), but one that actually gives rise to a culture of narcissism and “being-in-itself.” Making one bad decision after another in her quest for the best night ever, Ruth demonstrates how modernism’s deification of the self and self-interest has produced a tragic 21st century of selfies, the Kardashians, and conceited Twitter updates, such as:

All adventurous women do.

In the starry-eyed spirit of postauthenticity, the infamous tweet above was actually posted by Hannah Horvath in HBO’s Girls. But it summarizes Ruth’s state of existence, as its glamorousness is, in fact, credit to its vagueness. All adventurous women do what? The lack of specificity allows, for unlimited possibilities. Like self-proclaimed patriot Bruce Springsteen’s words at the 2012 South by Southwest Conference (“We live in a post-authentic world… There is no right way, no pure way of doing. There is just doing.”), Hannah’s tweet is nothing more than a shallow composition of contrived active (“do”) words. Her tweet actually reflects a passive acceptance of her predicament. For, backtracking through the episode’s narrative, it is revealed as nothing more than a pitiful embrace of a friend’s bleak maxim that “all adventurous women” have HPV. Like Hannah’s tweet, Ruth’s overdone makeup and facial expressions—as well as the novel’s glitter-bombed cover—are superficial attempts at sugarcoating reality. At one point the novel’s exasperated narrator actually points out:

What is it with young women and exclamation points and smiley faces! So afraid of appearing somber, always wanting to appear light and happy and sparkling, even when they are dying inside.

Both literally and metaphorically, Ruth’s habitual pill-popping reflects the xany-gnashing epidemic currently numbing out the nation’s millennials. As a result, in contrast to the intrinsically Puritan-rooted “American pioneer spirit” that was paramount in building the country into greatness, Green Girl is defined by a stoned passivity and long stretches of narrative inaction (or action performed so repetitively that it remains constant in mathematical terms, and therefore metaphorically stagnant).

Sometimes, gazing up at the ceiling tiles, hazy in her fog of consciousness, she thinks: Why? What am I doing this for? But she forgets and pretends to enjoy it.

In the vein of the one-night stand described above, in the opening of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010), a cinematic criticism of the emptiness of Hollywood culture, the camera stares at a Ferrari circling against a barren Los Angeles backdrop—and for almost two whole minutes. When the protagonist Johnny Marco, a shallow movie star, finally stops his car and gets out, he merely stands zombie-like and stares off into the abyss. In an interview, producer Roman Coppola explained: “He has this incredible car, he has wealth and fame and opportunity, but he’s stifled in some way. The fact that you would have a car that goes 200 mph that you can only drive at 35 mph seems to relate to that character trait.” Coppola’s analysis of Marco is equally applicable to Ruth, for Ruth’s shallow aspirations and lack of traditional purpose—the way she clings onto false-advertisements of happiness even though they only ever lead her around in anticlimactic circles—are what stifle and constrain her.

Science suggests that lost people go around in circles when their internal sense of “straight ahead” becomes corrupted by random errors in sense. The correlation of revolving (instead of evolving) due to corruption is integral to Green Girl—the greater Ruth’s feelings of anxiety and anguish, the greater her reactionary feelings of vertigo. In a scene in which a drunk Ruth is peer-pressured into a grungy threesome, her “spinning” reaches its highest:

Everything was spinning, spinning, spinning. She was on the ceiling, looking at the scene with a sort of horror…

Of course, the sinister nature of the event—reflective of one of these typical “situations” Ruth seems constantly to find herself in—is reason enough for anxiety. But the fact that the more conscious Ruth becomes the more dizzying the descriptions of her world become, suggests that achieving consciousness is not as enlightening as modern philosophers have built it up to be. In fact, the diction composing this scene (as well as most of the book) hyperbolizes a sense of darkening, and the narrative comments on even the most trivial dimensions of Ruth’s unfulfillment (for example, “Her stockings had been ripped. She could just cry about those stockings.”). The emphasis on physical details makes Ruth’s state of consciousness all the more tangible and corporeal—thereby intrinsically countering the validity of epiphenomenally detached philosophies. Furthermore, the way the descriptions of Ruth’s grief repeatedly fight their way into the “fun and games”—as if physically struggling for breath—suggests that she is actually trying to suppress her grief in an attempt to numb out her anguish and “humanity” (which is a recurring theme of several postmodern television series, such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries). As a result, Ruth’s consciousness more closely resembles a dizzying state of hypoxia (that sometimes comes with high altitude) rather than transcendence.

While enduring the mentioned threesome, Ruth is also described as “looking at the scene with a sort of horror.” But what is even creepier is, in fact, the visual extent of her own passivity. The “dead” and detached nature of her presence is reminiscent of a possessed character from a horror film. In fact, the scene is very much reminiscent of Daniel Askill’s music video for Sia’s “Chandelier” (2014), which uses exorcism-evoking choreography to portray the toxic grip of bad values informing party girl culture. Similar to the song’s lyrics as well (“I push it down, push it down”), and just as with the contrived authenticity of Hannah’s tweet in Girls, Ruth’s passive attempts at glamorizing her various predicaments as “all fun and games” resulting from some life-affirming “nihilistic streak inside of her” are nothing more than empty words. In fact, her words reflect a detachment from logic or suppression of it—reflective of Judith Williamson’s culture of denial—as opposed to some epistemologically advanced understanding over it.

A postmodern tragedy, Zambreno’s Green Girl demonstrates how postauthentic exaltation of consciousness over conscience is what’s truly absurd. And although mistaken in his praise of Del Rey’s “live in the now” belief systems, Van Luling is right in saying that Del Rey is “the realest millennial in the U.S. at the moment, because she’s configured to be a crystal mirror to us all.” Because that is why Ruth is the realest teenybopper in American literature at the moment—and why she, in the spirit of the starlet both she and Del Rey admire, is doomed to a Marilyn Monroe-esque demise.

[T]here is nothing left of her. How many of the unworthy has she let into her body? She has lost count. This is her “experiment.” She is “experimenting.” Sex is just something else she lets inside of her, like images from TV. She lets anyone, anything inside, to ignore the gnaw of loneliness, which comes anyway.

Haiya Sarwar is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.