Reviews — From the October 2016 issue

Are You Kidding?

The inscrutable sincerity of Nell Zink

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By Lidija Haas

Discussed in this essay:

Private Novelist, by Nell Zink. Ecco. 336 pages. $15.99.

Nicotine, by Nell Zink. Ecco. 304 pages. $26.99.

Mislaid, by Nell Zink. Ecco. 256 pages. $26.99.

The Wallcreeper, by Nell Zink. Dorothy. 200 pages. $16.

“On average I hate all books,” Nell Zink wrote last year, in an early review of Purity, the latest novel by her friend and champion Jonathan Franzen. The article was a sort of stunt: Zink compared the book to A Little Princess and said she looked forward to reading the real reviews. Her jokes weren’t unthreatening, although Franzen, whose success has increasingly been accompanied by mockery of his earnest, pompous persona, must be used to such barbs. The two make an odd pair. Franzen is often credited with rescuing Zink from obscurity, yet his books display many of the qualities she most enjoys poking fun at in her work, in particular a combination of sweeping ambition and creeping blandness. And where he approaches the traditional novel form sincerely, her books are powered by a subversive, even hostile avant-garde energy. The Wallcreeper, Zink’s 2014 debut, began as an exercise to make a point to the better-known writer, whose encouragement of her tended to take what she’s called a “Franzonian” (i.e., a rather patronizing) form: Yes, since he’d been kind enough to inquire, she certainly could produce something publishable — indeed, she could do it in a matter of days. Sold for three figures and published by a small press when Zink was fifty, The Wallcreeper made her suddenly, belatedly celebrated, at least among the Brooklyn literati. With Mislaid, which appeared last year from a major press, the enthusiasm spread further.

That newfound celebrity has evidently led her publishers to rush out all the Zinkiana they can get their hands on. Now, alongside a third novel, Nicotine, we can read two short and manically self-reflexive earlier works (from 1998 and 2005, respectively), collected in a single volume dubbed Private Novelist. Both offer ample clues as to Zink’s favorite targets. Jacques Rivette said that the best critique of a film is another film; Zink’s fiction sometimes feels designed as a series of ripostes to the writers whose habits have most offended her sensibilities. In “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats,” the tale that makes up the first three quarters of Private Novelist, she handily demolishes A. S. Byatt. “The plot,” Zink’s narrator says of Possession, Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner,

involved beautiful British academics in a detective story. Did they or did they not (“they” being certain dead poets) have sex? . . . As I skimmed it my face was contorted by sneers, and after skipping to the end to make sure the heroine really was the direct descendant of the vigorously adulterous dead poets and heiress to their fortunes, I resolved to write a novel myself.

The plot of “Sailing Toward the Sunset” is certainly harder to predict than Possession’s: it spurts and meanders, breaks off and loops back around, invents new characters and kills them off, wearying of itself before spurring itself on. There is a Trident missile, a virtual-reality lamb, an abused teddy bear who comes to life and develops murderous tendencies after a scrap of parchment bearing the name of Moshe Dayan is stuffed into its neck seam, and a heroine who, though she resembles the sweet, “ordinary-looking” girl familiar to readers of a certain kind of paperback, is actually a seal.

It’s not always easy to discern in Zink’s antics the ratio of aggressive bravado to self-directed experiment. At times you wonder who her imagined reader is, and what she feels she owes him. Private Novelist is so called partly because the texts it contains were originally written for one person, Avner Shats, an Israeli writer who befriended the unpublished Zink and was, for more than a decade, her only reader. “Sailing Toward the Sunset” is Zink’s imaginary retelling of an untranslated novel of Shats’s, based on a few scraps of information and written in the form of daily emails to its author, which contain frequent merry digs at him as well as at the likes of Byatt. Of Zink’s male lead, an Israeli, she notes: “He was a living embodiment of Israel itself — its violent machismo, its shy longing for general approval.”

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Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Zink, however, is not merely Shats’s private novelist — the title also implies a more extreme privacy, that of the unknown writer, whose greatest efforts are dedicated to the task of keeping herself entertained. “Sailing Toward the Sunset” concludes with three stunt reviews of itself (including a wacky rave credited to one “A. Oz”). Private Novelist, like Zink’s other books, does sometimes seem intended to demonstrate what can ensue when the author is left to her own considerable devices. If pregnant seal-women and militant stuffed animals strike you as too cute, they also serve as reminders that a novel and its inhabitants are made of words: anything could happen, and it’s surprising how few things usually do.

It’s hard to avoid reading Private Novelist as a key to the later works that made Zink’s name. Here is an early, embryonic performance by someone who alternately needles and ignores her audience, who routinely scorns expectations — the beginnings of a high-wire act that manages to give the reader the feeling that it’s he, not the acrobat, who might at any moment lose his footing. These throwaway pieces already have a version of Zink’s characteristic tone, a cheerfully elastic, almost Walserian deadpan that offers little firm ground: when will you become the butt of one of her rapid-fire jokes? Page by page, you feel Zink tire of the standard novelistic obligations, the mechanics of plot or of “psychological motivation.” Her pointedly un-American disinhibition about sex and race and her frequent digressions and pranks seem less a plea for your attention than a ploy to forestall her own looming boredom.

Above all, there’s a feeling of casual abundance — Zink has so many ideas that she can afford to squander dozens of them. In Private Novelist, she confirms these impressions more or less explicitly: the plot of “Sailing Toward the Sunset” feels forced and dull after the “lurid glory” of one of her detours, “but being a novel, it must march on.” At times, she pauses to consider the various hackneyed ways each subplot might resolve itself, or allows one character to muse about another’s motives, as if we might insist that he have the usual kind, despite his unusual circumstances:

You have to put yourself in his position. He just lost his job, he’s in love with a seal, and he’s living with an ersatz Winnie-the-Pooh he raped and abandoned. He doesn’t feel he has any control over his environment, so he’s trying to control what he can.

Clearly, some of this material might have been better off remaining in its drawer (or Shats’s inbox). Yet it’s an uncommon pleasure to watch a writer develop in public, especially one who seems, as Zink now does, reluctant to show her hand. From book to book, it gets harder to tell whom the joke is on; in Private Novelist, she hadn’t yet decided which clues to leave out.

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’s most recent review for Harper’s Magazine, “Game Theories,” appeared in the June 2016 issue.

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