“Green Girl,” “Jillian” and the Art of Floating

Literature comes up short exploring the crisis of the twenty-something girl. Coming of age girls’ tales we have. Camus, Dostoyevsky, Thoreau—our philosophers explore man’s reawakening to life, open eyes seeing the world new for the first time in decades. Though classics rarely show us the life of the 24-year-old who is too busy trying to make rent to figure out her life. And so, when books like Kate Zambreno’s “Green Girl” and Halle Butler’s “Jillian” come along, hitting the nail right in its glaring head with their stories of the quarter-life female crisis, the lost, floating 24-year-old me perks her clogged ears and listens.

It’s hard to explain how a person starts floating. I personally did it right out of college. I was offered a job, writing, and took it even though I knew it was a dead end when it came to the kind of writing I cared about. It was easy. I paid my bills. I practiced writing things I didn’t care about, went home at five and called myself a writer. I got downsized after a year and a half and floated into retail, worked two jobs, paid bills, said I’d take time away from the office life to focus on my writing. I blogged. I stagnated. I floated.

There’s something about the leap from desiring art and loving art and embodying art to the massively more difficult act of creating art, especially the art necessary and needed and authentic and raw that freezes people. It froze me, just like it froze Zambreno’s Ruth and it froze Butler’s Megan.

"Green Girl" by Kate Zambreno
“Green Girl” by Kate Zambreno

“Green Girl” first. Set in a cold London department store, Green Girl (best thought of figuratively, a “green,” new, fresh girl, budding, learning) Ruth passes her days emulating icons of Hitchcock and Bergman films, offering perfume samples to American tourists. Adrift, fled from Chicago, Ruth seems temporary in her city—not a tourist, not yet a citizen. Not a shop girl, but not much of anything else. She desires little and everything at once. She wants a man to devour her, to beat her, screw her roughly, and yet worship her. She wants pretty things and to shrink herself down to cigarette size. She desires art and literature, wants to create it, yet finds no canvas but her own self.

Just like Ruth, “Jillian’s” protagonist Megan hates her job, hates her coworkers (especially this blabber mouth named Jillian that won’t shut up), hates all the shitty ingenuine art created these days, yet, shows no distinct plans of changing anything soon. Butler’s character comes off far coarser than the Green Girl, already bittered, already set in her ways, eyes closed and unlearning. She spends her days flipping through slides at a gastrointestinal doctor’s office in a plush Chicago neighborhood mocking her coworker Jillian’s dumb talks about adopting a dog. She goes home, drinks three beers, mocks the inauthentic art and aspirations her boyfriend and her friends are starting to get paid for, goes to sleep and does it again.

"Jillian" by Halle Butler
“Jillian” by Halle Butler

Look up anything on these two novels elsewhere and you’ll see Ruth and Megan lauded as anti-heroes, characters the critic want to slap in the face and hold close simultaneously. Is it weird I had to be told they weren’t to be admired? I can’t help the attraction, the love I feel for each character, each an exaggerated part of my 20-something self I want to follow the rabbit hole towards. I want to dress up in a costume every day, like Ruth and her friends. I love to channel my idols, Blondie, Edie Sedgwick, Grimes, put on clothes the real Kati would never wear and simply act like the characters I admire rather than focus on creating my own person, and especially, my own forms of art. I want to get so bitter about the junk I do for rent money, like Megan, that sarcasm becomes my only refuge, mimicry my best means of passing the time. It’s so simple to sit around the store I work, mocking the boring girls buying boring clothes and just get comfortable doing so. Like Ruth and like Megan, I want to stop being a person who tries, just be some character for someone else to write the story for. Let my circumstances, jobs and the people around me dictate my every move. But I can’t do that. Everyone knows you can’t do that, deep down.

Both these novels capture the girls in a state of almost purgatory. No future for them, characters stuck in “as-good-as-it-gets” for the foreseeable rest of their character-lives.

Butler does it subtly, ending her novel with a painfully funny seen of Megan eavesdropping on strangers on her bus, one man telling the other about receiving two random acts of kindness in a row, the other replying with philosophy about being in the right place at the right time, all good deeds come back in karma—deep, happy thoughts. And then this last sentence:

The two guys continued to talk about the invisible accidents of politeness and cruelty or whatever and eventually, Megan tuned them out and turned to the window.

Zambreno, then, does it in a way that knocked me on my feet. I can’t help but quote the whole paragraph, a piece that comes up as Ruth dates a writer, finally admitting for the first time in the story that writing is what she herself actually wants to do in the world:

“I’d love to read some of your material he said, knowing that she doesn’t have any material besides herself, which is still potentially more interesting than anything he will ever have. She was a rough draft. She was impressionable, everyone left their impressions on her. To be a writer she would have to take herself back as a character. She would have to escape from her life as muse. Escape from her role as the blank slate, which everyone scribbled on.”

It’s this that told me, not for the first time, but beautifully and presently: Nobody is going to write for me. Writing is my own, and it’s not something I can float along and wait to happen. There’s little point living life interesting calling myself a writer doing stints to support my writing career if I never actually do it. And so, I have to separate myself from the characters in these novels I love and admire, become more like their authors, less like their protagonists and actually create. But, you know, I don’t mind reading these books, certain pages, over and over, like a dark version of “A Christmas Carol” warnings to come, and finally get my junk together and move.

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