Nell Zink has a great backstory. She’s the woman who came out of nowhere – or, on closer inspection, out of a busy background of Virginia boarding schools, bricklaying, postpunk fanzine production and hand-to-mouth endeavours in Israel and Germany – to publish, in her early fifties, a pair of novels that made her the talk of Brooklyn. The first of them, The Wallcreeper (2014), was written in three weeks in order to make a point to Jonathan Franzen, who’d become a pen pal after being impressed by a letter she’d sent him out of the blue about the birds of the western Balkans. (Her point was that she could write a novel if she chose to, though she had the ancillary aim, she has said, of ‘educating him about anal sex from a female perspective’.) A lot of her writing has similarly grown out of correspondence, and an arrestingly chatty mode of address carries over into her fiction, along with a desire to tease and startle.
Zink’s graphomaniacal fluency is accompanied, however, by a strong sense of the impossibility, or at least the extreme difficulty, of writing a novel worth reading. This seems to be in part everyday fear of self-exposure, for which, in interviews, she tends to blame a hypercritical mother, and in part ambivalence about seeking a mass audience. On top of that, she has a nasty case of belatedness with regard to her favourite writers – they include Dostoevsky, Platonov, Kafka and Robert Walser – and a firm grasp of all the aesthetic and intellectual-historical explanations of Why One Can’t Write Like Tolstoy Any More. ‘This story will be composed in bad English,’ one of the two novellas in Private Novelist begins, ‘the up-and-coming lingua franca of the European Union and, with any luck, the world.’ After some swipes at, among other things, Heart of Darkness and the proleptic writing style favoured by American high school teachers, the narrator gets down to business:
‘Oh no,’ you are surely sighing, ‘this is going to be a story in a kitsch language about kitsch and I refuse to read it.’ Well, guess what – you have no choice! How many centuries has it been since Western culture peaked? Two, maybe three? Do you really expect anyone, not just me, but anyone to write a story in 2005 that will tell you something you didn’t know about the human condition? Maybe I will, but only by a sin of omission on your part; I could rehash everything from Pushkin to Platonov, and who would notice? Nobody. I don’t mean that you don’t have a choice but to read this story, just that any story you pick up is going to be kitsch by the time it hits your consciousness, if not before, so you might as well get used to it.
Parody and snarkiness – despairing, amused or both – are the registers appropriate to our fallen condition: a judgment she’s by no means the first to arrive at. But Zink has no time for what she calls ‘the adolescent wonder-child gestalt’ of the Pynchon-Wallace school, or for the common run of ‘Salinger-damaged postmodern crap’. She has a not wholly ironical investment in an old-fashioned, Eurocentric notion of high culture, though reading more than one language also lets her indulge in acidulous asides on, say, Heidegger. (‘His etymological curios, so bewitching in translation, flaunt in their transparently moronic original an air of validity on the order of … “Seattle, we see, is a fine place to sit,” or “The word ‘boring’ suggests a drill-like, twisting action; you will recall from our discussion of ‘screwing’”’ …) She isn’t tethered to American ways of living and writing, having settled in Germany in 2000, and considers most contemporary fiction ‘to suck out loud’. And she goes about the business of self-conscious narrative using a persona that’s very different from those of the stubbly, retro-glasses-wearing types and sleek institutional operators who preponderate in the field: that of a woman who’s been around the block a few times and has some non-theoretical findings to share about sex, men, work and many other matters.
All this resulted, in The Wallcreeper, in a sense of great novelty, helped along by a near complete disregard for workshop-style nostrums concerning plot and character. In outline the novel is a Künstlerroman in which the narrator-heroine, Tiff, moves from the US to Switzerland with a husband she barely knows and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery. Tiff isn’t a writer to begin with, though she tells her husband she is ‘so he wouldn’t make me work’, but after a series of adventures involving birdwatching, DJing, ecological activism and numerous infidelities on both sides, she has become capable of writing The Wallcreeper. ‘If I tell myself stories,’ she says while describing her recovery from the miscarriage that opens the book, ‘I get very sentimental very fast. So I didn’t.’ A feeling of emotional and cultural crisis gathers around the unconnected episodes, abrupt temporal jumps and throwaway plot points with which she recounts her life story. Like a Jazz Age expatriate, she seems to exist, a bit jadedly, in the shadow of some kind of civilisational catastrophe, but instead of maintaining a portentous silence about it, as Hemingway’s walking wounded do, she unfurls witty riffs on credit default swaps and ‘the petty bourgeoisie in modernity’, all done in the voice of someone who knows what a ‘slam piece’ is. Sample sentence: ‘He had tight pants and a degree in superannuated theory from Ljubljana.’
Robert Musil said that irony needs some suffering behind it, ‘otherwise it is the attitude of a know-it-all,’ and although Tiff persuades you that she has the right credentials she sometimes pushes her riffs quite close to over-cuteness. In Mislaid (2015),a novel Zink wrote as ‘agent bait’, the cuteness is contained, or licensed, by overt satirical intent: the book is a comedy of racial and sexual identity written in a jokey, 18th-centuryish third person (‘Decency forbids further reproduction of his shameful imaginings’). This time there’s a plot: the young (white) lesbian wife of a grand, gay (white) Southern poet runs off with her infant daughter and conceals herself from his inquiries by passing as a black lone parent. The racial caste system in rural Virginia being what it is, the blonde daughter, Karen, grows up not only thinking of herself as being black but accepted as such by everyone around her, to the extent that, years later, an admissions officer at the university in Charlottesville gives her a place only because he worries that her scholarship-student boyfriend may get lonely in her absence and ‘become a danger to himself and white women’.
Zink has a lot of fun giving the mother, Meg, a chance to expound Foucault’s theories of sexuality to an encounter group for unhappy smalltown housewives. (One of them recalls that ‘the French like black people, or might be black themselves – she wasn’t sure.’) She writes knowingly about voucher-based efforts to keep school segregation in place, and about the ideological formation that the authorities wish to foster in talented black students:
Black men overcame (an intransitive verb), and that was that … Nobody suggested to Temple that his family had been cheated. Nobody wanted him growing up thinking people are bad or that the world is a bad place. That would have been Christianity or the Gnostic heresy, though they didn’t put it in those terms. They portrayed the world as in need of repair, not as populated by people you’d be insane not to hate. Resentment of collective ill-treatment of the race was fine, if it helped him fine-tune his sense of justice.
In this context, it may well be an extension of the joke, rather than a lapse into sentiment, that – after an encounter with a gentlemanly student who is, unknown to Karen, her long-lost brother – the novel ends with a lengthy, absurdly contrived recognition-and-reconciliation sequence in which the virtuous young heroine finds out that she’s rich, white and two years younger than she’s been led to believe.
Nicotine, like Mislaid, revolves around a brother and sister, the girl a good-hearted ingénue, the boy a worldlier character with an interest in urban planning, who have a complicated family history to unravel. Like the preceding novel, it’s written in a comic tone, with plenty of dark material, but this time satire is replaced by gentle irony. The heroine, Penny, is an unemployed recent graduate, the daughter of Norm, an elderly Jewish hippie, and Amalia, an indigenous Colombian woman – Norm adopted her in the 1980s while setting up a clinic to help cancer patients self-actualise by tripping on ayahuasca, and later married her – who now works as a human resources exec in New York. Mystery surrounds the fate of Norm’s first wife, the mother of Penny’s older half-brothers – Patrick, a gentle semi-dropout, and Matt, an angry waste-disposal entrepreneur who’s projected, from the get-go, as a sexually threatening figure. He’s first seen, in a flashback, forcefully bundling the adolescent Penny into her bed, brushing her thigh with his erect penis in the process, after she has walked in on him having sex with his girlfriend.
The story begins with Norm’s death in a hospice, a process that’s starkly and feelingfully described, with a jolt of indignation about the legal restrictions on serving up large helpings of drugs. (The management’s caginess about the possibility of a painless death under general anaesthesia, available only to those who know the right way to ask for it, causes the narrator to liken the hospice to ‘one of those brothels that are nominally strip clubs’.) Then the characters start to come into focus, along with the shape of a plot. Among the properties Norm leaves his heirs is the house he grew up in Jersey City, a house that no one in the family has given much thought to for decades. Penny, with Matt’s encouragement, agrees to boot out the squatters who are said to be living there, oversee repairs and put the house up for sale. But the squatters turn out to be charming, and one of them, Rob, is ‘*CUTE!!!*’: ‘slim and muscular, with a graceful way of moving, plus this inquisitive yet self-assured dignity-type thing’. In no time Penny has moved in – she doesn’t tell them what’s brought her there – and come to share their housing network’s aims for activists ‘from all over the progressive spectrum’. The house is known as Nicotine because its inhabitants are diehard tobacco addicts who have a designated smoking area at street protests.
Zink is very fond of these characters. Sensitive Sorry, sexy Jazz and unattainable Rob – who invites Penny into his bed and then explains that he’s asexual (‘We don’t have to sleep together to sleep together’) – get page after page of dialogue, rendered with an impressive command of millennialisms. ‘Bae’, adult colouring books, the ‘because’ thing (‘There were no rats in this town … Because cats’), emojis, ‘vocal fry’, ‘Am I being trans-phobic?’, onesies, ‘Now I have PTSD’, people who ‘just want to be alone with their TVs and squee over Benedict Cumberbatch’: it’s all in there, deployed with such a lack of mean-spiritedness that, well, YMMV (‘your mileage may vary’). Either way, there isn’t much detectable irony in the large number of times they all laugh at a ‘good-natured joke’, and there’s only a little more in such sentences as ‘The lobby and sidewalk flood with activists from all over the world, many in vaguely ethnic costume. Just looking at them makes her feel important and involved. She feels her commitment to Aids activism grow.’ The problem isn’t so much that Zink isn’t enough of a sourpuss about idealistic young people as that she takes the characters’ appeal as read. As a result, Penny finds herself pouring a ‘mix of love, anger, knowledge, and scepticism’ into a bunch of people whom she and the reader have barely got to know.
Penny’s vague duplicity in the matter of having gone there with the original goal of evicting her new friends has the look of a useful source of misunderstandings for a third-act crisis. Instead, Zink blows Penny’s cover in short order by having Matt show up at the house and bring his dark sexuality to bear on Jazz, for whom he develops a violent passion. The set of conflicts that emerges – over who’ll win whose hand, and over Matt’s vengeful plan to gentrify the house – feeds into Penny’s efforts to find out what happened to Matt’s mother all those years ago, and in time a few shadows creep into the picture. Being a revolutionary is expensive, Amalia observes. Wouldn’t Penny be better off as a commodities analyst? Penny takes this reasoning on board, and she and her friends can’t really think outside the logic of the system they mean to oppose. She pictures her attachment to Rob as an investment: rival women are ‘competing emotional VCs’, and to dump him would be to ‘take a write-down’. Her iPhone colours her inner monologue – ‘she thinks a series of hastily jotted firecrackers and red heart shapes, mentally texting friends about her discovery’ – and her mind jumps with ‘idle computing power’. The narrator’s close attention to ‘Cajun salmon with glazed turnip risotto’, ‘vegan pupusas’ and the like also seems to imply that the squatter crew may be ‘ineffectual … pseudo-revolutionaries’.
The darkest tones are reserved for Matt, a sexual predator and abuser who’s depicted in almost Dostoevskian terms. He is left outside the system of resolutions that the novel engineers for everyone else, and the unpleasant energy he brings to his epilogue-like last appearance suggests that Zink isn’t finished with figures of his sort yet. Mostly, though, the book conforms to its author’s description of it as having ‘a serious core of sappy humanism’. Zink’s views on the lameness of young people’s sexual mores – ‘I’m from the generation that enslaved men and made them give you head for an hour,’ she told a reporter (‘within earshot of a wholesome-looking family’) last year, ‘and the current generation is the one that says, “You can fuck me in the ass and I’ll still be a virgin”’ – play out in a subplot concerning Rob, who turns out not to be asexual after all: he’s merely self-conscious about having a small penis. Still, hot sex in a minivan with a man with a small penis, though a funny way to bring a love story to a close, doesn’t disguise the love story’s essential corniness. The most poignant line in the book, which is set in 2016, comes in a description of an entertainment that the characters stage: ‘Cassidy plays the role of President Hillary Clinton.’
Two hard-to-define works, ‘Sailing towards the Sunset by Avner Shats’, written ‘one chapter per day in December 1998’ and offered here in a ‘new spell-checked edition … prepared in 2011’, and ‘European Story for Avner Shats’, which is dated ‘August 25-September 22 2005’, make up Private Novelist. The first was written in Israel, where Zink moved in 1996 after marrying Zohar Eitan, an Israeli poet and musicologist whom she’d met in Philadelphia. Through Eitan she got to know Avner Shats, a trickily self-deprecating writer – his Wikipedia page calls him ‘Israel’s token postmodernist’ – who won a prize in 1998 for his first novel, Lashut el Ha-Shkiah (‘Sailing to the Sunset’). Unable to read Hebrew well enough to tackle it, Zink got to work on her own version ‘based … on rumours and hearsay’, emailing it to Shats in daily instalments. Shats explains in his introduction to Private Novelist that he later translated the result into Hebrew, ‘thus creating the monstrosity titled “Sailing toward the Sunset by Avner Shats by Nell Zink, translated by Avner Shats.”’ The friendship and correspondence outlasted Zink’s marriage, and she wrote ‘European Story’ around themes and characters suggested by Shats, observing that after she’d moved to Germany she needed to practise writing English.
So the two novellas are private jokes. Or perhaps they needed to be framed that way in order to be written, a possibility that the narrator of the first one, ‘a fictional literary figure … the novelist Nell Zink’, mulls over too. She includes characters named after Shats and Eitan, and why not? Even Kafka
could not stop his intimate confessions from entering the public domain and becoming, by virtue of their authenticity, his most popular works. When we read a work written for publication, we allow a stranger to direct our behaviour and narrow our focus. When we read that same stranger’s diaries and letters, our reality is widened and enriched.
It is this voyeuristic urge present in all of us, along with the vogue for books recalling survey courses in comparative literature, which I hope to exploit by promoting, as though it were a novel, this series of elaborately coded personal letters.
There are frequent digressions on Zink’s favourite reading material. Her version of the anxiety of influence, she says, is a ‘fear of failure to make clear exactly what my unconscious influences are and why I like them so much’. She throws in a translation of a piece by Robert Walser, pays tribute to Kathy Acker and boasts of not having read or even seen a single book by Raymond Carver. Tristram Shandy and The Pickwick Papers are said to be better than the complete works of Faulkner and Burroughs, and there are many discussions of George Eliot. At the same time, in her role as a mock-translator, she improvises a consciously ludicrous storyline involving a Mossad agent, a submarine that’s powered – like a golem – by a sacred scroll, and a woman from the Shetland Islands who was originally a seal but took human form because she ‘had this crush on this totally cute guy’ and says things like: ‘Missile attacks are so annoying! I hate them.’ ‘European Story’, which stages a mad debate about cultural value and authenticity between some lovelorn academics, is less studiedly antic but still finds a walk-on part for Peter Sloterdijk.
It’s not quite right to say that neither novella is a work of great ambition. They’re both filled with the stuff, but need to go through so many ironic contortions as a condition of existing in the first place that their whimsy can’t fail to seem a bit self-protective. Still, you’re left in no doubt that Zink has a lot of self to protect. As exercises in pure voice both are pitch-perfect, with an apparently effortless stream of comic set-pieces and Woody Allenish one-liners, and a reservoir of mysterious feeling. ‘If I ever lose my fear of the mass audience,’ she joked last year, ‘maybe I’ll just become a banal crank or something.’ Nicotine made me worry that she might have a point, but the speedy writing in Private Novelist reassured me. She can probably afford to miss the bus now and then if another two are likely to turn up any minute.