Thursday, August 14, 2014

Green Girl Describes Post-Modernism

Anyone who says they can define post-modern is either lying directly to your face, playing a really intricate prank, or doesn't actually understand post-modernism. I mean, Frederic Jameson says he can't define post-modernism. I mean, the inherent limitations of all abilities to define is one of post-modernism's ideas. At best, we can accumulate traits, characteristics, works, books, paintings, and theories that have attempted to describe or been identified as post-modernism into an incomplete and incoherent concept that gives us at least some kind of handle on things.

And for the last fifty years or so, despite the utter uselessness of the term itself, despite the incomprehensibility of its explanations, (Baudrilliard on the Centre Pompidou, the work of Andy Warhol, and, maybe 4'33” by John Cage by  are probably the best) despite its inherent aloofness from human experience, we have lived in (and are potentially moving out of) a post-modern society. Seems like the kind of thing you would want to at least get “some kind of handle on.” Short of reading tons of difficult theory, visiting a range of key buildings and museums, and tackling some of the most difficult works of fiction short of (and perhaps even including) Finnegans Wake available in English, and thus, devoting your life to an endeavor that, by definition you will fail, reading Green Girl by Kate Zambreno could give you that handle.

In her story of Ruth, an American scraping through existence in London, failing at nearly everything she attempts, Zambreno has managed to depict nearly every major aspect of post-modern literature. Which are:

Episodic Without a Traditional Plot Arc
Told in little chunks that are collected into chapter-like arrangements, Green Girl is the story of Ruth just kinda doing stuff. Working. Hanging out with her friend. Having and wrecking relationships. Coping with, you know, life. Doing, you know, drugs. And then, you know, an ending. It's told chronologically for the most part, so there's that, but even then, there are plenty of sections that could have gone anywhere in the story, that have so little indicative phenomena that they could have happened any time or even out of time.

Agentless, Alienated, Powerless, Drifting Protagonist Dappled with Paranoia
Ruth just kind of does stuff. She doesn't know what she wants, except for that time she knew she wanted that dress, and that time she knew she didn't want to have a threesome, and then, yeah. She can't maintain a relationship. She doesn't seem to have any connection to the only character in the book that could be called her friend, she's got almost no sense of the outside world, she doesn't seem to have any dreams except one time she vaguely seemed to think maybe being a celebrity might be nice, and in the end, you know, there's a last page.

There is a first person narrator that pops up occasionally to talk about Ruth in a direct almost maternal way. I don't think I could prove that first person voice is Kate Zambreno, but I think it is.

Centered Around Consumerism
Ruth works for Horrids a department store in London, selling a celebrity perfume called “Desire.” Eventually she quits, drifts around a bit, and ends up trying another job at a store in a mall. Ruth talks and thinks a lot about wanting and buying stuff, but without any real awareness of what it means to want a little black dress. She consumes drugs. She consumes media. She even consumes other art. Even when she has no money, Ruth seems to be more of a consumer than a person.

Samples other Art
Ruth herself lives an essentially artless existence, but Zambreno has included a lot of art from other sources into the book. Nearly every chapter comes with an epigraph from literature, film, and theory. I've heard it said (yes, perhaps in my own head) that the DJ is one of the emblematic artists of post-modernism and that “sampling” the intentional arrangement of previous works into something “new” is an emblematic post-modern art form. The use of constant and disperse epigraphs allows Zambreno to tap into this DJ art form, without, like David Shields, creating a work completely composed of overt “samples.”

No Conclusion, Just an Ending
And then, you know, she thinks about how nice the certainty of going to a church would be and also how nice it would be to sit in a church “And scream. And scream. And scream.” And that's it. Unlike nearly every previous era and culture, post-modernism is comfortable leaving pretty much everything hanging.

Post-modernism is in a strange cultural place right now. We are starting to make our way to the other side of it, even if very few people have any idea what is on the other side. And it is old enough for new generations of artists and writers to look back on it in disdain. When writers and critics look at post-modern irony now, they only see it's weaknesses and drawbacks. We always need to move forward, but I don't agree that post-modernism has somehow “failed.” It's part of the same persistent human project of building a better world and sometimes you've got to go to strange and dark places to do so. And irony can be a very powerful tool in a world that tells you thousands of times over the course of your life that Bud Lite “Tastes Great.”

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