Swerve! Crash!

The wild fiction of Nell Zink.

Nell Zink.
Nell Zink.

Fred Filkorn

Nell Zink is a wild thing, a feral version of something—a novelist—now customarily nurtured only in captivity. Her fiction went unpublished and largely unread until her 51st year, tumbling into the public eye after a letter she sent to Jonathan Franzen about bird-watching prompted him to urge her to seek a broader audience for her writing. She has never attended an MFA program, never workshopped a story. To judge from a profile that ran in the New Yorker last year, as well as reviews of her novels Mislaid and, now, Nicotine, Zink’s fiction has a jolting, disorienting effect on many readers. It is “zany,” full of “backspin and topspin,” conveying a sensation that Kathryn Schulz, in the New Yorker, described as “swerve! crash!”

In truth, Zink’s characters and situations are not that weird; you can find more antic grotesquerie in any Southern comic novel where the word “rollicking” appears in the jacket copy. Yet her work does feel transgressive, exhilaratingly so. It is utterly uninhibited by a large set of admonitions and prohibitions, the rules writers convey to their colleagues about what constitutes “good” technique, the guidelines that form the genteel aesthetic of the genre we call literary fiction. She tells when she could show. She summarizes swaths of dialogue. She cares nothing for the circumscribed style of narration known as “free indirect speech,” enshrined as the one true method by the critic James Wood in his book How Fiction Works. Thoughts are clearly being thought in Nicotine without Zink making any effort to indicate which character (if any) is thinking them. Early on, at the New Jersey funeral of Norm Baker—a New Age guru to the terminally ill and the father of Zink’s main character, Penny—some of the guests are described as “old-school hippies—rude, furious, elderly sensualists channeling Falstaff with all their might while their wives read Isabel Allende.” It’s pretty clear that Penny doesn’t see them that way, and Zink never specifies who does. You’re not supposed to do that.

Penny is 23 and Norm’s daughter by Amalia, a much younger orphan he rescued from a vast garbage dump in Colombia. Nicotine opens with a brief sketch of their first meeting, then jumps to a night scene set 20 years later in New Jersey, in which a group of men wearing nothing but mukluks approaches a hut in which the 12-year-old Penny smokes a cigarette on a “heap of animal skins” wearing nothing at all. You have an idea about where this might be going, and you’re wrong. Later that night, Penny deliberately barges in on her half-brother, Matt, having sex with his girlfriend, and he, enraged, picks her up, carries her to her own room, and throws her back into bed. Later still, Penny accuses Matt of trying to rape her, but her parents don’t believe her—which is partly reassuring because we know that he recoiled as soon as their “tussle” felt weird and partly disconcerting because right-thinking doctrine dictates that they should be taking Penny’s charge more seriously. But Norm’s wise, shrewd response illustrates perfectly just why his death hits the adult Penny so hard.

What that whole opening setup also illustrates is that Zink fears nothing—or at least nothing in the form of moral, political, or artistic reproach. Her novels contain not a speck of cant or piety from any position on any spectrum. You’re not going to see her donning a sombrero to make a defensive, self-righteous speech at a writers’ conference, either. She seems, while it lasts at least, to be the only novelist who truly does not give a fuck what you think of her.

The first 30 pages or so of Nicotine were less thrilling to me than the beginning of Mislaid. Of all her bad-girl tricks—and Zink has got a bunch—my personal favorite is that opinionated free-floating third person narration, her willingness to simply tell you a story without adopting all the elaborate pretenses of dramatic realism, with its carefully constructed, allusive snapshots. The beginning of Nicotine, however, is mostly devoted to a depiction of Norm’s dying days, with Penny in attendance. These scenes are raw and true, but the sober, meticulously rendered death of a parent is such a mainstay of boring literary fiction that it (temporarily) shook my faith. Then, after Norm’s corpse gets taken away, Penny sits down to smoke and wishes her body could be “wraithlike. Not sodden, not heavy, not dead, but filled with crackling, electric life, like a stale Marlboro on fire.” In receipt of such a fiercely unlyrical metaphor, this reader’s faith was restored.

Another refreshing aspect of Zink’s fiction is how much the characters talk about sex and money—as much as, if not slightly more than, real people do. Penny, an unemployed business school graduate, gets evicted from her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment when the landlord hears of Norm’s death, but learns that Norm still owned his childhood house in Jersey City. Her family decides that the ideal post-collegiate job for Penny would be to reclaim the house from the squatters currently occupying it. On her first visit, she finds a pod of vaguely affiliated activists united by the fact that their tobacco addictions make them persona non grata in other squats. They call the house Nicotine. They like to sit around and grouse about how persecuted they are within the anarchist community, and one of them, Rob, a guy who fixes up scavenged bicycles, is very, very cute. Penny falls madly in love with him, only to learn that he’s a self-described asexual.

Romantic farce is Zink’s preferred mode. Most of Nicotine is devoted to couples drawing together and coming apart, to misplaced love that takes the whole, shambling arc of the story to sort itself out. The ideological stew of millennial activism serves as a backdrop. Zink’s approach to this milieu is remarkably subtle—too sympathetic, perhaps, to qualify as satire, but uninclined to let anyone off the hook. Not only does Zink realize how absurd these anarchists can be, but she lets them realize it, too. When an earnest Reed College ecology major gets badly injured in a protest that involves climbing up the side of One World Trade Center with suction cups, one of the Nicotine residents observes, “She’ll spend the rest of her life as a cauldron of seething rage and no mainstream citizen will ever take her seriously again as long as she lives.” At the same time, the novel leaves the impression that however silly or grubby this group’s efforts may sometimes be, the residents of Nicotine are, at least, fully alive and engaged with the world.

For an antagonist, besides ever-capricious Cupid, Nicotine has Matt. Although innocent of assaulting Penny, he otherwise turns out to be bad news, spouting entrepreneurial, alpha-male truisms and developing an erotic fixation on one of Nicotine’s residents. When he’s thwarted, he drives off in a rage, “lucid and sober and burning with hate, and that makes him invisible to the police. An all-white man in an all-black car, like a grub in a rotten pecan.” And yet niggling away at the edges of this highly satisfying Matt-hatred is the fact, impossible to ignore, that he made his fortune designing garbage trucks that sound like they do more for the environment than any of the activists ever have.

Nicotine hasn’t really got a moral, despite the high-minded types who populate its pages. It spills out like the endlessly unfolding events of life itself, in discernible patterns of the wholesome and the toxic but refusing to stay still long enough to resolve into some kind of life lesson. This might be the most transgressive thing of all about Zink’s work, that it has nothing it wants to teach us. Along with her fundamentally comic sensibility, it makes her novels hard to “take seriously” in the familiar mode of ambitious literary fiction. But do we really need that? Far better to let them run free through our imaginations in hope of become a little less predictable and domesticated ourselves.

Nicotine by Nell Zink. Ecco.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.