Fragments of Feminism: Four New Books
(Harper Perennial; Reprint edition, 2014)
(City Lights Publishers, 2014)
(Two Dollar Radio, 2015)
Dept. of Speculation
“Would you like to sample Desire?” Ruth asks.
Ruth is the young American shop girl who wanders around London and goes to her job as a perfume girl at Horrids, the protagonist of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl. She is fierce, reckless, and an antidote to media images of cute happy young women on TV, jumping in the air while blue liquid swirls in a glass.
The detail of the labor involved in working retail is all here. The waiting, the being looked at, the simply being a young female is evoked in raw, lyrical prose. “Later in her shift, Ruth’s stomach begins to churn, from the nauseating combination of sweet smells and body heat as well as the casual cruelty of it all.”
Zambreno describes Ruth’s period shits and anxiety diarrhea. “Tired from holding it all in, in that stall she thaws. The tears pour out, along with seemingly everything else.” Not abjectness for the sake of shock, just the way this young woman is.
Zambreno has given us a new (old) archetype—not the actual Ophelia, dead, but the Green Girl, who is fucked up but fine. She is a girl/woman. Not Lolita. Not written by a man. I felt like I was travelling with one of the girls I used to be.
Nochita, by Dia Felix, covers more time and space than Green Girl, and is poignant for the heroine’s simple decision to live. She grows up first with her famous new age guru mother, then after the mother’s death, moves in with her fragile cowboy alcoholic father and his uncaring wife. After their deaths she is on her own, trawling through the fringes of California’s scenes with her street smarts. The novel is told in fragments with brief, titled chapters reminiscent of Lydia Davis’s short stories.
Nochita shows a young woman’s experience in honest, gut-busting prose. Nochita gets her first period in a chapter called “Red Army” and it’s no Judy Blume.
Holy fucking fuck! This is not an apocryphal scenario! There is actual blood! Like if you were hurt! You fucking drip blood! A different sort of blood, but definitely blood. Even gorier that the regular kind, sometimes meaty and black bits and sometimes fresh and thin like a watery nosebleed. All those women you see walking round? They’re all bleeding into things, blossoming into their butterfly blood stamps, tamping products into their panties, tending, checking, washing, wrapping, plugging, discarding, caretaking.
Dia Felix’s haunting language puts the reader under a spell: Her prose travels from dream to reality without alerting the reader to its shifts. The result is a slippery delicious experience. Nochita is such a sympathetic character that I’d like to rent a cabin in the mountains and invite her and a shaman to do natural hallucinogens.
Nochita loves women. In “The Zoo” after a night of drugs and playing with caged animals she has her first sex with Anna. Felix describes the sex as “bones fusing together… I want all her parts, and we’ve only just begun.” The Carpenters reference is, like the novel, a seduction in itself.
“How are we to save ourselves from the lived experience of our twenties?” Walter Benjamin wrote to Carla Seligson in 1913. Ruth, Nochita, and the unnamed narrator of Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star might wonder the same thing. Binary Star is a glittering novel that tears into the headspace of a young anorexic in love with an alcoholic:
You can’t purge when we’re away.
Then you can’t drink, I say.
We’ll find equilibrium.
We make a pact for balance.
The novel begins, “I am a white dwarf” and repeatedly references the cosmos: “The largest diamond in the universe lives at the center of a variable white dwarf star.” Gerard emphasizes that we are all animals living on a big rock in a multiverse and then veers into the minutia of being an anorexic: the Ultra Light cigarettes that “taste like air,” the pen she uses is “a Pilot Precise V-5” because it makes “the thinnest line.” She’s obsessed with weight and food and skin and bones. “I’ve had two cups of coffee and a Red Bull, two grapes and two cups of green tea. Two Adderall crushed in water.” Gerard’s spare language and spacing is an intimate, cinematic poem. The characters are first circling each other, then the United States, then falling out of orbit.
Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation is fragmented, also references outer space, and has an unnamed narrator. But rather than a coming-of-age novel, or an anti-coming-of-age novel, it’s a coming-into-middle-age novel. Her narrator refers to herself, ironically, as “the wife”—a comment on the de-personification that often comes with parenting and partnership. She isn’t a Green Girl, though she may sometimes wish she still was one. The narrator here shifts from me and you, she and him to you, me, and we.
The insular world of the couple is first invaded by mice, then a child, then a child with lice, then a (younger) woman who said “Hey, I really like you” and finally bedbugs. They move to the country and get a dog, where presumably, they get fleas.
Both Dept. of Speculation and Binary Star reference the Russian cosmonauts. The wife ghostwrites a book about the beginning of the space program, and Offill uses the metaphor of surviving in space in close quarters as a parallel to the marriage itself. “You have to get to know the meaning not just of joy but also of grief, before being allowed in the spacecraft cabin. This is what the first man in space said.”
The wife is a writing teacher and comments on her student papers “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE” over and over. Towards the end, Offill brings the phrase back when the wife is unhinged and reeling, wondering about herself and her marriage and her life. Another fabulous repetition is when the husband shows the wife the I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER meme and later she wonders “I CAN HAS BOYFRIEND?” It brought to mind Lynne Tillman’s Living With Contradictions. “Ambivalence is just another word for love.” Later, love is not desire but ambivalence.
I wish I had had Binary Star, Nochita, and Green Girl when I was 21 in 1992, when I was lost, still in college, living in Williamsburg with a man 25 years my senior. I had Karen Finley and Kathy Acker, but honestly those women were a bit too scary for me at that time. Now I find joy and comfort and great beauty in their rage, but when I was an unformed woman, part girl, I was frightened. Though I fucked women, I still wanted to be pleasing to men.
When I got annoyed with the protagonists of Green Girl and Binary Star, I realized it was because of my age. I’m not 27 and living in Brooklyn. I’m 43 with two kids and we had to suck it up and move to Queens.
These works are dispatches from the lives of young women now, and structurally they owe much to experimental writers Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, and Chris Kraus. I see a recent popularity in Chris Kraus among women in their 20s, if my students, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed. In a bookstore on 10th Ave in Chelsea, a gallerina came in and announced, “We all just discovered Chris Kraus and I want to read everything!” She was thin and tan, with expensive sandals, the lacey short shorts of summer 2014. She had long brown hair and no makeup except for her orangey red lipstick. I was jealous, not only of her youth and beauty but also of her discovering Kraus.
I have that bitchy book-y thing where I feel like, “I read it before anyone else, now the gallerinas read it?” Like I’m one of the cranky old downtown folks I met in the ‘90s who were there, man. But for me, it’s Brooklyn and reading Kraus almost 15 years ago. I mean, if you see the word “cipher” in book written by a certain type of young woman, you know the writer was influenced by Kraus.
But that’s exactly the kind of reaction, I suspect, that Kate Zambreno would object to. Or at least her protagonist, the green girl Ruth would object to it. For Zambreno pays respectful attention, even in a scene where Ruth and her roommate drink and dance in a pub, showing off, tongue kissing for attention, “They put on a show. A show that green girls know so well. Posing for the invisible eye.” I rolled my eyes at the girls in this scene, all the while being aware that Zambreno is committing a radical act by taking them seriously. I wanted to be taken seriously at 22, but I didn’t know what that even meant.
These four novels use the fragment to bring together the whole. It’s less about dissolution and more about telescoping between journalism, reportage, performance, and storytelling. I see these characters as coming from a long line of feminist performers, not only writers, because these works are written from the body, from what ‘70s feminist writer Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex, called our “shared oppression.” The artist Linda Mary Montano and Tehching Hsieh’s made “Rope Piece” in which they were tied to each other for a year constantly circling each other; in Eleanor Antin’s “Carving” she photographed her weight loss over a period of time; in Laurel Nakadate’s self-portraits, she photographs herself crying every day for a year (she’s a green girl, for sure); in Sophie Calle’s Suite vénitienne (1979) she followed a man to Vienna. It’s that sense of the flâneuse and the body that I detect in all of these works. Wandering, searching, and making art of the stuff of daily life. Today, everyone is a performance artist. The unnamed narrator of Green Girl writes of celebrities: “They exist to draw attention. Aware of the whole world watching. They are green girls too.” And surely, so is Binary Star’s narrator, so obsessed with Star Magazine, Nicole Ritchie, and Hydroxycut.
This is fragmented writing now: both content driven and affective; these are writers interested in public lives and private selves, interfaces and intersections. What all of these writers offer is art made not only from mundane things but from the darting energy of the universe—words that comfort, infuriate, and titillate—writers that are not afraid to be dark stars. They have much in common with fragmenters like J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace. The fragmentary novel is in tune with our times. We check our screens constantly—the fragment is intense, joyous, free from the faux structure of a continuous narrative. So here’s a mash-up of last lines: “No one young knows the name of anything.” “My legs work so well as I sail down the stairs into the devastated perfect afternoon.” “I shine.” “And scream.”
While I see Zambreno, Felix, Gerard, and Offill as writing from a distinctly female perspective, they also all seem to arrive from a space of androgyny: this is art to make us all feel less alone. These heroines expose the fact that everything we have been told about beauty and health and heteronormativity is a lie. They interrogate our dominant culture. Where others see bedlam, they see logic. They explore that grey area of becoming a sexual being that lies between America’s puritanism and sexual obsessions. With hate, alienation, hysteria, and monsters. I can read these books together as a formalization of a philosophy of fuck-ups, of that feeling of not being good enough, of the frauds fear of being found out. These writers are out, and we are lucky to witness their monstrosities. We should all aspire to be uglier, bloodier, smellier, crustier, more grotesque.