Sunday, September 21, 2014

Green Girl: Accidental Brutalism

Bad Things happened after I finished reading Middlesex.

Middlesex was such a long, pointless, arduous, frustrating, and unsatisfying read that I was actually disoriented after I read it. I was like, "where do I go from here?"

Green Girl had been sitting on my night table for months, partially read, but prettymuch abandoned. I wasn't sure whether I liked the book or not, and I was pretty sure I hated the author. But I couldn't bring myself to read anything else. My usual literary palate cleansers -- Bridget Jones's Diary; Tales of the City; Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book -- seemed too flighty and lighthearted to lift the malaise I felt after reading Middlesex.

That's why I decided to finish off Green Girl.

Before I get into Green Girl, I want to tell you -- if you exist; if anyone is reading this anymore -- about the building where I worked during my graduate degree. The building was brand-new. It had been designed by a famous architect. It had been profiled in the newspaper. It won an award. The only problem with the stupid building was that it was totally inadequate for actual people. The rooms were small and awkward, with the occasional column appearing smack in the middle of a room. No one who worked in the building liked it, so when an architecture student wanted to interview us about the building, we all jumped at the opportunity.

It turned out that the architecture student really didn't care how we felt about the building. She just wanted to write a fan piece about her favourite architect, and her favourite building. During the course of my conversation with her, I said that the building wasn't just unusable, it also looked sloppy. "The columns aren't even finished," I complained. "They still have the scribbles the construction crews left on them!"

The architecture student wasn't deterred. She went to the column in the room we were in (it was awkwardly located in a corner where a desk could have gone) and lovingly caressed it. "You don't understand," she said. "They were supposed to be finished, but when they unmolded them, the architect saw how beautiful the concrete was, and decided to keep them raw."

I get the idea that raw concrete can be beautiful. I'm probably one of the few people on the planet who doesn't hate Brutalism. If you're not familiar with the term, Brutalism is the architectural style that celebrates raw concrete. It was all the rage sometime from the late sixties to the early eighties. There is probably at least one out-of-place Brutalist structure in your city, sticking out like a sore thumb.

Anyways, the thing with Brutalism is that the concrete is textured and left unfinished intentionally. Columns aren't left unfinished after the fact, quasi-accidentally. And Brutalist esthetics usually don't mix well with modern glass-and-steel buildings.

Now that we got that out of the way...

I really felt like Green Girl was a bit of accidental Brutalism.

The book is ostensibly about Ruth, a cute American chick, living from paycheck-to-paycheck in London. She moved to London after a bad breakup, I think. She lives a pretty pointless existence as a shopgirl, going out to bars with her roommate, going on random hookups, and basically not doing much. You're not sure what's up with her family aside from her mother being dead. You feel that she's probably slightly depressed.

Anyways, none of that matters because it seems that how the book is written is more important than what it's about. It's a kind of post-modern, experimental novel with the author, Kate Zambreno, hanging around, like some bad version of that movie, Stranger Than Fiction. Zambreno's voice is right there in the book. It's not just narrating the story; it's narrating the author's intent. It's telling you how much the author hates Ruth; it's telling you that the author is purposefully giving Ruth a hard time; it's basically telling you that Zambreno really, really, doesn't like cute girls and thinks that they're all vacant idiots who refuse to be anything but something to be owned or admired. You can feel the contempt oozing from the author's voice.

To be honest, it feels like Zambreno was writing through writer's block. She wrote for herself, putting down notes and comments for herself, telling herself how she felt about Ruth and the situation and what to do next. Then, as she re-read her draft, she decided to leave the notes and comments in the text because it was so beautiful. Just like the architect of the building where I did my research.

Now Jeffrey Eugenides's novels could be grouped together in a volume entitle, All About Jeff, but he at least made some kind of crazy attempt to pretend that that's not what's happening. Zambreno, though, has actually put herself in the novel, front and centre, to the point where I started to wonder if she wasn't the subject of the book. She wants the reader to see how the sausage is made. "See how clever and post-modern I am," you almost hear her scream over the din of the boring prose.

Green Girl is like the TV show Girls if Lena Dunham had decided to just narrate the show instead of star in it, and if she told you how shallow and pointless her friends were instead of making a statement about how we all feel rudderless and unmoored in our twenties.

I wouldn't say reading it was a waste of my time, but I probably won't be recommending it to anyone.

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