“Green Girl” by Kate Zambreno. (Harper Perennial)

Long before Lena Dunham and her “Girls,” writers have wrestled with youth’s peculiar blend of narcissism and self-hatred: the sense that success is just around the corner and that one’s best days are long gone. Early in “Hamlet,” Polonius tells his daughter, “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance.”

The rest has not been silence. With “Green Girl,” first-time novelist Kate Zambreno joins this long-running conversation.

Ruth, Zambreno’s 20-something green girl, like her Shakespearean inspiration, teeters on the precipice of madness after the death of a parent and the loss of a lover. Despite yearning for her own destruction, she cannot find it. She idolizes celebrities and worships in the vaunted halls of department stores, modeling her looks and behavior on old films and books. Reflecting the dozens of epigraphs that provide narrative structure to “Green Girl,” Ruth’s identity is shaped by pop culture — movies, malls and magazines.

There is an unnamed narrator, gazing in at Ruth, and there is Ruth, staring out at the world. But is the narrator an older Ruth? If so, readers may be assured that the green girl made it through, that she achieved some degree of wisdom and survived the tumult of her youth. There is no definitive answer. Such ambiguity can be intriguing, but the narrator’s lack of identityleaves more questions than answers.

“Green Girl” contains little plot. Ruth, an American, works at a London department store she calls “Horrids”; she takes long walks through the city; she goes home. She changes apartments, changes her hair. There’s a boy she kind of likes, and then another, maybe. She’s in an emotional fugue state, mourning the loss of boyfriend and mother. Lost between innocence and cynicism, Ruth is exasperating in her vanity but endearing in her pain.

“Green Girl” offers no arc, no rise or fall, no climax or denouement. Ruth finds no meaning in the press of endless days, so why should we? Her prevailing desire — to be destroyed and reborn as someone else in a more perfect state — is the only consistent theme in the book.

Despite its dark fumblings, “Green Girl” strives toward optimism. “She wants to write, really write someday,” the narrator observes. “But she is not fully formed. So she does not write. Not really. Unless attempting to live is a form of attempting to write.” Only in living, day after day, one foot in front of the other, may the green girl find hope and meaning.

Schreiber is a program manager at the International Reporting Project (IRP) and a freelance writer.


By Kate Zambreno

Harper Perennial. 273 pp. Paperback, $14.99