Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation & Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl
Just released from Picador’s “BIG IDEAS // small books” series is Wayne Koestenbaum’s 184 pp meditation on Humiliation, which I read in two 2-hour sits on a stationary bike punctuated with a few seatings on the toilet. It felt good to read this book in those places, which is often where I read anyway but don’t as often get to admit with relevance, but at last, here is a book in which those sorts of places might well be the center.
Humiliation operates in many ways at once. In short, numbered sections referred to as “fugues,” themselves cut up into numbered chunks of information, Koestenbaum goes forth into dissecting how the experience of being humiliated operates on a person, and therefore creation. The span of references here are quite wide, revolving quick enough to keep the brain moving as quickly as Kostenbaum’s dissective eye wakes each one up. From craigslist ads such as “HAIRY ITALIAN WANTS TO HUMILIATE A GENEROUS BITCH,” to Koestenbaum’s lurking in men’s rooms for encounters (and politicians caught inside the same), to de Sade and Artaud and Basquiat and Michael Jackson, and so on, the feed remains continuously engrossing in that way that all acts of humiliation seem to, publicly and privately, in spectacle, though here handled through Koestenbaum’s sharp and self-aware way of parsing act into idea.
“The reason I’m writing is to silence the deep sea-swell of my humiliated prehistory,” Koestenbaum writes, “a prologue no more unsettling than yours.” One of the major ideas explored here seems the matter of identity and experience that arises from the very act we work as people most ways to avoid: being humiliated. In each transaction there is the victim, the abuser, and the witness. Koestenbaum pulls off this weird shift of internal self-creation mixed with the experience of the other in an incredibly balanced method of veering back and forth between cultural commodity, confessional remembrance, and pointed commentary. A lot of questions are asked, moments are raised, allowing a kind of skin to rise up rather than some definitive proclamation of the idea. The book itself seems to both reveal and reveal and turn and turn, the way we might try to pretend to not be looking at something in the presence of someone else, though unable to fully look away. The moments of the facing, too, are powerful for how plainly they’ve been laid out. The book ends with a list in the spirit of Dodie Bellamy of some of Koestenbaum’s humiliating experiences: “My mother pulled a knife on my father, whose shocked aunt sat watching on a black leather chair. (The knife had a dull blade.)” or “A kid in seventh-grade gym, on the soccer field, called me a ‘wop faggot.’ I was flattered to be mistaken for an Italian.” The chain of small hells is both cringey, silently grinning, desperate, and wise. These things are laid out for us to take them, and this too becomes part of the machine, a kind of revolving door of do what you will with this, and please be kind. That at the same time Koestenbaum bares such skin he makes his subject so impossibly addictively paced and by turns tickling that it is impossible to put down becomes both a welcoming and a silent stab of implication: we are right here and he can’t see us and we can see all of this of him, which is the nature of the transaction of all making, and all taking.
Also, in this, in undercurrent, is the ongoing question of the value of waking these moments up into our eyes at all. “The production of language—making words happen—is a lowering act,” he writes. “Language isn’t transcendent. Every sentence, however stuffed and upholstered with confident maturity, attests to that earlier, infant time when we couldn’t master words.” The gesture here doesn’t feel like it could: a soft retraction, a back out of the book itself to protect itself against itself; instead, it seems to give the whole enactment of creation a kind of gift; as often those moments in which we feel made humiliated and seen as such among others not only are fodder for discussion and the words that get passed around behind our backs, endless parades, but they are also the ones that somehow piece together the mechanism by which we live, however shattered. To stand up for them, to let them out not fully as revelation but as “here it is,” in a time when so much is offered so frequently and unasked seems so refreshing, not in spite of itself, but for itself. There is a great grace and warmth in Koestenbaum’s offering of all the parts others might have kept inside themselves all hid, and even as one might feel guilty as here we play the witness, his gift of ease and exactitude and sense of humor make the body there outside the body something of a gift of great relief, a reminder that in the encroachment of all these parties and cameras and other bodies, there is a place to go on.
* * *
In a sort of neighboring way to Koestenbaum’s consideration of humiliation, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl (Emergency Press) operates on the function of the self in presence of the waking of the self. The novel concerns itself primarily with a young American female living in London, named Ruth, who splits her time between working the perfume counter at a job where she is seen as foreigner, as youth, and in social living situations, often with a roommate who wants to continually lead her into circles where she is set against not knowing quiet how to hold herself up socially, in gaze of wanting men and inconsiderate peers.
The novel is written with an extreme eloquence: at once simple and clean in how the sentences bring the story forward and spread out, while also complex in their undertakings and the subtle cultural and textual machinations at work underneath the surface. Here is an example paragraph: “Olly hands the purse over. It has no name, the purse. It is black with no name. It looks enough like it has a name, from far away, but up close one realizes the purse’s secret, the humiliation of its anonymity.” This kind of measured description works quickly in branching out the odd, continually burying atmosphere of Ruth’s existence, a place she both wishes to revel in, and to deny. She is continuously on the precipice of desperation for acceptance, to do right and be recognized for it, and a disdain for the shitty false face of the thing itself. Often her humiliations are so ingrained in her ongoing that they are mirrors; they both give her ground to walk on, and hold her to it. “Would you like to sample Desire?” she asks over and over, trying to sell a perfume by a name that forces her over and again to be made into the object of her own work. And as much as she is aware of the shitty aspect of this arrangement, there is something in her that moves her on. She is continually wishing to find her place inside this place, and to be erased from it. She fucks a bartender because he wants her, though the description of the sex is beyond cold. One scene where she stays quiet unable to force herself to piss inside a toilet stall at work while listening to her unaware coworkers doing their makeup talk about her is particularly stark for how intensely relatable and alien from her we feel at once. Even walking down the street she broadcasts a kind of social-swarm alarm-call:
(don’t look at me)
Look at me.
(don’t look at me)
Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t look at me don’t look
I can’t stand it if you don’t look
Zambreno’s care and diligence for walking the line between artifice and consumption is brilliant here: this is a book I could see savored by both a teen finding great solace in, and someone like myself, who probably could not be more removed from the lifestyle of its matter, who is interested more in how the operation occurs, the patiently squirming sentences hiding and exposing at once what they fear. On top of the basic story, there are so many apparatuses Zambreno skillfully weaves into the proceeding. Each chapter is rather short and punctuated with an epigraph from minds like Hitchcock, Lispector, Benjamin, Bergman, The Smiths, that tacks it to our cultural history, revealing ways in which the mechanism of the narrative, and so Ruth’s life, continue to divulge and hide in their own wake inside a world where one can wake up “with the whole world inside her mouth.”
Like Koestenbaum, too, welded in here is a study of the very relation of the creator to her art. Green Girl opens, and is permeated by, a voice behind the voice of the narrator, who occasionally emerges from the artifice of her woven story to reveal the character as a tool of exploration, of the process of the making of the book and the larger thing knitted in the make of it itself. The creation, in some mix of wish and humiliation, both revels and wishes to crush: “Exclusive video: Ruth self-destructs. Oh my how she suffers. And yet, I am the one who is cruel. I experience joy at her suffering. I want to save her and then drown her like a surplus puppy.” This feeling, again and more and more welled up in what feels like the make of days where there is so much more than ever to see and eat and be seen and eaten by, feels in the way it is laid both so bare and so covered at once in Zambreno’s wickedly compassionate lenses seems to be not only a kind of wonderful novel of self-exploration and awakening, but a much needed tap on the face to remember where we are and how what comes out of us both is of us and mirrored off of those we touch.
In the end, both of these books are bold creations, acts of a definitive voice in the mush, confident and yet rigorous for where they’ve been and how they hold it out to you with so much grace in the face of would-be shit.