The Short Version: Ruth. She’s young and American and living in London. She’s empty inside, mostly – but she can’t quite figure out why. She is affected and disaffected all at once. She is one of the listless generation, who can’t quite figure out why she’s trapped inside herself – let alone figure a way to escape.
The Review: This year, I had at least heard of each of the Tournament of Books shortlist books except for this one. So naturally, my curiosity was immediately piqued. It had an interesting back-cover blurb, one that ends with “[the book] is about that important and frightening and exhilarating period of being adrift and screwing up, a time when drunken hook-ups and infatuations, nervous breakdowns, and ecstatic epiphanies are the order of the day.” And I love a tale of London, especially one that sucks the magic out of it while also maintaining that secret knowledge that only comes to those who’ve lived there: it’s a horrible city and yet the magic is there and so we can’t leave it alone.
But as I’ve learned many-a-time, the back cover blurb is a deceptive and tricky gauge for a novel. That quote makes it feel like a sister novel to flatscreen (and in many ways it still is) when, instead, it’s far more experimental and far less well-defined than that blurb would have you believe. There’s a somewhat creepy and never altogether clear narrator, a disregard for the rules of grammar and formatting that never quite slips into outright disdain, and a freewheeling and oblique relationship to plot. It’s depressing as hell and may, arguably, not be the right novel to read when you’re a young and still-somewhat-listless twentysomething. It feels, in that sense, like a sister novel to Less Than Zero. I think Ruth and Clay would actually have gotten along like gangbusters.
Here’s the thing about London – because it uniquely defines my complicated relationship to this complicated novel: London is such a fantastic city. It is fantastic, fantastical, and unlike any other city on Earth. And yet, whenever spring starts to bloom, I find myself remembering those last thawing days in London… and how utterly depressed I was. How I spent six months in a city I would kill to go back to for even a week simply miserable. Sure, I had fun and enjoyed myself – I went on trips, I saw friends, I saw a ton of theater, and I discovered my purpose in life. But I didn’t enjoy myself at the time. See, like Ruth left HIM… well, it’s all very different. But like Ruth, I was an American trying to blend in – and while I was marginally more successful, I’m also not one for parties and crowds and so I rarely went out and did things with anyone. I couldn’t’ve handled Ruth’s scene – the drugs, the promiscuity, the listlessness.
Perhaps that’s what gives me such a complicated and divisive reaction to the novel as a whole. I feel listless – who doesn’t, in their twenties? – but I also fight back against that by throwing myself into things. I want to stay home and stay in bed and do nothing… but I get to do that maybe once every few months because I realize I’ve earned it. Whereas Ruth simply gives in to that overwhelming… crush that is the rest of the world and it cripples her. There’s a reason (to get all English major on you) that Zambreno keeps referencing the Tube: it is the perfect metaphor for the way Ruth feels. She’s crammed on the Tube, surrounded by people – even physically ‘intimate’ with them – and yet totally isolated. “(look at me) (don’t look at me)” as the refrain goes – she wants to be noticed but also modern society says that’s a big old no-no. Then there’s the monotony, the regularity, the total lack of surprise that is one’s journey on public transit: the stops stay the same, even as little things about them change. Plus you’re underground, in the relative dark… I mean, come on.
Interestingly, for having spent so much time with her, Ruth feels totally anonymous to me. And perhaps that’s the point. I want to know more about her – I want to know what happens next, what really happened before… but I also realize that if I passed her ‘on the street’ in another novel, I wouldn’t notice her. I wouldn’t recognize her. She – and all the other green girls – are so similar that they all blend together. And while they all have their own struggles, they’re all mostly the same. Agnes and Ruth, while totally different physically and mentally and emotionally… they’re both very much the same. You get that sense – they both want what the other has, they’re both insecure with themselves.
I’ve been rambling on here because I’m trying to put a pin on how, exactly, I felt about this novel. It’s one of those books that’s quite difficult to rate. It’s certainly not a 5 – it had some pretty sizable flaws, I have to say. Like the fact that the creepy narratorial voice seems to rather disappear as the book goes on. At first, it’s Ruth’s mother. Then perhaps it’s Zambreno herself – or some unnamed authorial presence. Then we come to see that it could be Teddy. And by the end of the novel, we’ve almost forgotten the conceit even exists. It’s a disappointment, although I don’t know how it could’ve been wrapped up in a satisfying way. Similarly, the numbness of the novel is… while not a detriment, it isn’t a pleasure either. It’s difficult to read even 250 well-spaced pages of such depression: because that’s what it is. Not the melancholic depression of the Romantics but the real world-eating, life-crushing, unbearable stuff. I’ve felt it – we all have. This book has that sort of weight to it.
So then what to say?
Rating: 3 out of 5. I place it squarely in the middle. Simply because while I am glad to’ve read the book and I was interested in it while reading… I was also disappointed by it. It also upset me. It also made me think far too much about the sort of depression that comes spring-loaded into books like this and Less Than Zero. The sort of depression that can knock you the fuck down. Zambreno has an interesting voice and she does a marvelous job creating an emotion on the page here – but I’m just not so sure it’s what I wanted to read right now. Maybe talking about it with BookClub will make it sit better – we’ll see.