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The inscrutable sincerity of Nell Zink

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.”


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.

The Wallcreeper avoids Private Novelist’s self-referential whimsy, but it’s obvious that the same sensibility is at work. The unemployed narrator, Tiffany, and her husband, Stephen, are Americans living in Switzerland. The action begins with a jolt when Stephen, in his excitement at seeing the titular rare bird, drives into a rock and causes Tiffany to miscarry. His first thought is for the bird, also injured in the accident. An enthusiastic DJ, he compares his wife’s wailing to “feedback mounting in an amplifier,” and puts his hands over her ears in the hope that if she can’t hear herself, she’ll stop. To birders, Tiffany notes, “women are ubiquitous, invasive — the same subspecies from the Palearctic to Oceania.” (You could read the comment as one of several jibes at Franzen, whose ornithological enthusiasms are well documented; their correspondence began when Zink wrote to him to point out what she considered an omission in one of his New Yorker pieces on the subject.) The book mixes environmentalist civil disobedience and sexual disappointment. In bed, Stephen’s hands remind Tiffany of “the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake.” Partway through, the wallcreeper abruptly dies, rendering Zink’s epigraph from Ted Hughes’s “Hawk Roosting,” “I kill where I please because it is all mine,” literal, as well as a wry authorial self-assessment; toward the end Stephen is likewise unceremoniously dispatched.

Mislaid, in addition to being grander in scope than its predecessor, is superficially gentler. In mid-1960s Virginia, Peggy, a lesbian undergraduate, marries a gay poet and professor, and bears a boy and a girl. Several years later and about thirty pages in, tiring of her life of drudgery and afraid the poet might have her committed for histrionics, she runs off with their daughter and steals the birth certificate of Karen Brown, a deceased black girl, in order to bequeath a new identity on her blond offspring. In a kind of racial drag, which allows her to stay hidden — and allows Zink to épater absolutely everybody — Peggy, now Meg, deals drugs, writes unsalable, Zinkian-sounding plays, and impresses the local racists, especially the P.T.A. founder and her feminist encounter group, who are delighted to discover that she is “as well-spoken as if she had grown up watching PBS.” All this is related by a suave, old-fashioned omniscient narrator, for whom alarming incidents function mainly as an opportunity to offer social observation. When Meg is recognized by a truck driver who demands drugs in exchange for his silence, her reluctance to kill him is seen as proof that “at last she had become truly black inside. Her mother would have shot a strange black man in her kitchen and called the cleaning lady before she called the coroner.” Yet Meg’s magical white-person impunity is preserved: the man’s cameo ends on the following page, when he conveniently dies in an accident. Meg can’t know this, and yet, after another page or so, “her fear faded to the existential angst that incessantly haunts all mankind in modernity.”

Despite the madcap near misses, nothing bad happens except to the most minor characters, and after some chaotic crisscrossing, Zink contrives a glorious, cartoonish family reunion. Her protagonists are curiously self-conscious, with a nagging sense of the falseness of their circumstances. The effect is somehow as moving as it is ludicrous: they inhabit their synthetic feelings with a gusto that only increases with their awareness — and ours — of the flimsiness of the scenery. The very artificiality of the ending gestures, as Nabokov’s sometimes did, toward a real life trapped inside the fiction. But where Nabokov delighted in his own perfections, Zink revels in clunkiness. The second novella in Private Novelist, “European Story for Avner Shats,” begins by making the case for its chosen mode:

Bad English incongruously pairs transparent simplicity with high-flown academic jargon. Willful misapprehension of everyday words and ignorance of cliché make bad English a forceful vehicle for literary expression.

Anyone quailing at this preamble, the narrator adds, should toughen up: Western culture peaked a couple centuries ago, so to read anything new is to doom yourself to kitsch. Here again is a foreshadowing of the later Zink, who has a Flaubertian fascination with cultural and linguistic debris.

Zink’s taste for pastiche reaches its apotheosis in Nicotine, whose style is both more slippery and more jarring than those of the earlier books. It combines accumulations of textspeak and business jargon with cliché sentimentality (“her soft heart floods briefly with love”) and mundane stage directions (“Amalia walks from the dinner table to the central island in the kitchen of the house in Morristown. She slowly lowers a juice glass into the sink, rinses it with water, and sets it down without washing it”). There is peculiar repeated imagery. When Norm, a shaman and the father of the protagonist, Penny, is dying (a process that, unusually for Zink, takes twenty pages), she “feels love, like a serrated knife, carving out her heart and giving it to her father”; later, thoughts of him are “like serrated knives in her heart, put there and twisted by the force that powers the universe: love.”

Nicotine is more difficult than Mislaid in part because there is more to it. Another saga of two generations, Nicotine stages a boisterous clash between environmentally conscious entrepreneurs and Sixties-throwback activists, between idealists and pragmatists (though it’s not always easy to tell which is which). There are pointedly awkward shifts in tone, yet the narrative voice remains nonchalant, as if nothing surprising is being attempted. The effect recalls the Soviet writer Andrei Platonov, whom Zink often mentions, and who seemed, in the words of Joseph Brodsky, to have “subordinated himself to the vocabulary of his utopia — with all its cumbersome neologisms, abbreviations, acronyms, bureaucratese, sloganeering, militarized imperatives, and the like.”

Nicotine similarly allows slang and other features of its characters’ inarticulate speech and inconsistent politics to invade the third-person narrative, so that it becomes hard to tell whose viewpoint the reader is privy to. Zink’s characters have what are presented as feelings, but these are strangely literalized, more like emoji than the finely shaded phenomena hinted at in a realist novel. When slim, muscled Rob, the man who will become Penny’s love interest, appears, she notes his “inquisitive yet self-assured dignity-type thing” and “thinks a series of hastily jotted firecrackers and red heart shapes, mentally texting friends about her discovery.” We see people and events either very close up or at an odd remove. After Norm’s death, Penny’s perceptions are heightened, in an exaggerated imitation of the things a narrator might be expected to notice: out shopping for groceries, “the very ugliest white people seem beautiful to her, their red noses and inflamed pimples alive with oxygen-saturated hemoglobin.”

Zink complains of Byatt that “all characterization is achieved through descriptions of clothing.” Nicotine enthusiastically parodies this tendency. When a character wanders into a scene, whatever the prevailing mood, his or her clothes are usually itemized in the manner of a catalogue: Penny “wears red ballerinas, shiny black leggings, and a white cotton sweater that is falling off her left shoulder”; her somewhat sinister half brother Matt is “dressed in a very perfect dark suit of ethereally soft wool gabardine with barely perceptible seams and a blue broadcloth shirt so fine it shimmers.” Paul Bowles said of his wife, Jane, that her determined originality of mind often slowed her writing, that she felt she must invent new tools every time rather than use the hammer and nails provided. Zink is similarly allergic to novelistic shortcuts, yet her solution (quicker and less ambitious than Bowles’s) is not to ditch them altogether but to adorn them with a neon sign: hammer and nails. This arch self-consciousness is one of the principal ways in which Nicotine intentionally grates on the reader.

The plot, too, involves a comical collision of styles and ideologies. Norm runs a clinic for the terminally ill in Manaus, Brazil — the Last Resort — which is surrounded by “a cult of personality for those cultivating personalities,” a crowd of “realist aesthetes” who believe that they “make the world a better place by living in it.” After his death, Penny, her two older half brothers, and her mother disagree about what to do with various pieces of real estate. Unemployed after business school, Penny agrees to keep an eye on the squatters who have taken over Norm’s long-abandoned childhood home in a run-down neighborhood in Jersey City. The plan is to sell the house out from under them, but Penny finds the squatters unexpectedly beguiling, and switches sides: “She doesn’t know whether she’s in the right, but she knows it’s right to defend people who don’t know how to dress.” Part of a group of activists’ houses, this one has been named Nicotine in honor of the denizens’ shared addiction, which they consider a civil-rights issue. One resident, Sorry (really Sarah, but renamed because she grew up in a West Bank settlement and thus must constantly apologize), moved there from the feminist house, Stayfree, after she and her friends “decided to take the fight to arenas where we wouldn’t be fighting women all the time.”

Spats and dalliances bloom and sputter, characters march and scheme, until the generational and political tensions culminate in a bewildering succession of crises, concessions, and consummations. Penny establishes herself nearby, and her new community is suspiciously unfazed when it finds out who she really is. That’s partly because Nicotine holds a secret weapon: a room containing a wall of fifty-two sealed buckets of excrement, balanced precariously on a series of birch planks. Any attempt to touch it, let alone remove it, causes the whole delicate construction to shimmy. Penny and Rob stand and admire with the awe of “the last to die in a disaster movie.” As you read on, you are aware that someone could at any moment unleash a river of shit — half apocalypse, half puerile prank. This is Zink’s souped-up equivalent of the Chekhovian gun, and it feels like a dare to the reader or critic: Go on, interpret this. The house is as gleefully booby-trapped as the novel itself.

That Zink trick — leaving you no safe place to stand — has an ethical as well as an aesthetic dimension. Everybody is muddled, self-righteous, and complacent, prone by turns to wild overstatement and understatement, slogging it out for the moral high ground in whatever eccentric place he or she can find it. The privileged flaunt their persecution complexes; the environmentalists and social-justice advocates are blithely compromised, though that doesn’t necessarily invalidate their critiques. Zink delights in setting up arguments in which both parties are right (or wrong). Usually, people manage to be wrong in several directions at once. After the departure of the cisgender feminists, Stayfree is taken over by trans women, and Penny feels alienated. “Hey, I miss women feminists too,” Sorry tells her, “but I’m not willing to move back to Jordan to see them again.” Penny claims to envy feminists in the Middle East, who must have it easy — in such a backward context, she imagines, any small gesture of personal independence would be enough to earn you a righteous glow.

Yet Zink is not merely a trickster, and there’s an implied sincerity that emerges from all this flippancy. You can’t turn such a range of arguments so far inside out without first spending considerable time inhabiting and feeling implicated by them. Satire requires the animating force of real anger and commitment. What seems to be at stake in Nicotine is the sheer absurdity involved, for inhabitants of wealthy countries, in any attempt to live an ethical life, ensnared as they are in a global tangle of complicity. Resistance is futile, but so is withdrawal. Worst of all, perhaps, is to decide that we’re already doing what we can, and to feel all right about it. It’s notably un-Zinkian, of course, to say such things explicitly. Zink resorts instead to a series of non-joke jokes. Suicide bombing is always a right-wing tactic, someone says, because the left “is too underpopulated to throw anyone under the bus”; no, someone else replies, the left needs terrorism because of its lack of mass appeal. (In a movement with so few members, each must be prepared to do something spectacular.) Penny’s mother tells her to get a job as a commodities analyst, because anarchist revolution is expensive; indeed, another character points out, revolution is a decision we must each make for ourselves — it’s “too risky” to start trying to persuade other people. And Penny wonders, with a certain wounded cynicism, about an activist art project: “Why shouldn’t loving puppets be a revolutionary act, in a world where so many people love drone warfare?”

Zink’s instinct for what is and isn’t important has also prompted her, as far back as “Sailing Toward the Sunset,” to proclaim her lack of any anxiety of influence. (Admittedly, this is also a kind of showboating.) Her narrator disdains writers who try to hide the traditions they steal from while making embarrassing efforts at one-upmanship. By all means put this book down, she urges her reader, and go and read Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy. There are many kinds of seriousness, not least knowing how to value what you’re saying over how you’re doing. As Zink claims to have pointed out to Franzen, in response to his exhortation to take her own writing more seriously, seriousness about one’s writing and about one’s career have nothing to do with each other. What’s more, humor can make room for a greater underlying seriousness than might be achieved by other means, not because it sugars the pill but because it makes it harder for either reader or writer to get too comfortable. A novelist who inhabits an ethical or political stance with unbroken earnestness risks complacency, not to mention oversimplification.

To take yourself too seriously, in other words, is to let yourself off the hook. It’s clear (given our looming political shit installation) that Zink feels we should all stay dangling there a while longer. This belief in the value of discomfort also seems to offer a key to her friendship with Franzen, whom she once described as “so good at suffering.” Her affection for him seems every bit as real as her mockery, perhaps because the two are intrinsically linked. After all, had she not shared his environmentalist concerns, or had she felt that he was doing an adequate job of advocating for them, she might not have been moved to get in touch with him in the first place. In making fun of Franzen, Zink takes him more seriously than do some of his other critics.

Of course, just as there’s more than one way to be serious, there’s more than one kind of cop-out, and Zink’s noncommittal game of catch-me-if-you-can occasionally feels rigged against the reader: if everything is a joke then nothing can be a failure; if you’re not enjoying this, more fool you. Zink told The New Yorker that she wrote Mislaid as “agent bait,” and the novel remains her most entertaining, though to call it her best, as I’m tempted to do, feels like shirking a challenge. It’s structured like a symphony, smooth where The Wallcreeper, which she’s referred to as her dubstep novel, is jerky and angular. The veneer of conventional plot and characterization, the sly, ironized lull of Mislaid’s narrative voice, make it straightforward to assimilate. But it’s clear from Nicotine that Zink doesn’t feel constrained by the need to please or comfort the larger readership her second novel brought her. More attention simply offers an expanded stage on which to experiment. No longer performing just for herself or Shats, she seems curious to discover what she can do with — and to — a bigger crowd. If anything, Zink grows less ingratiating as she gets more successful, and that’s rare enough to have a charm all its own. Only someone profoundly serious about literature jokes about hating all books. As Zink knows, you can’t write one worth reading without being ready for a fight.

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

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