When a tiny press called Dorothy published Nell Zink’s first novel, The Wallcreeper, in October, nobody knew much about her. She was American but had lived in Germany for years, though not in Berlin, the usual home of American artists in exile. Her novel had an opening sentence that would make an MFA instructor proud, even as it seemed to parody MFA style: ‘I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.’ The miscarriage is the product of a marriage that’s not built to last. This isn’t to say that Tiffany, the narrator, and Stephen, the husband, loathe each other. They’re both sincerely interested in the watching and protection of wild birds, as is Zink in real life. But, very early in the book, a few weeks after the crash, Tiffany has a realisation: ‘I had recovered from everything! I was no longer in love! My sense of depending on Stephen for my happiness had evaporated.’ Stephen responds to this development by growing his hair slightly and taking ketamine and a lover.
What follows is a sex and environmentalism farce that unfolds with some of the unstructured rhythms of a picaresque (the first half of the book is slightly weighted towards the sex). Tiffany becomes infatuated with ‘Elvis the Montenegrin’, who works at a petrol station, gets out of bed in the morning so that he can go dancing to drum’n’bass at night, and touches her hair in a nice way, ‘comparing it to heavy gold as if he had pulled off the heist of the century’. Then she breaks up with Elvis, immediately misses his ‘scattershot stupidity’, and falls slightly back in love with Stephen. They may not have a baby to care for, but they have the titular Wallcreeper, the bird that caused the opening car accident. They pin bits of food to a pegboard on the wall so that the bird can eat while perching in the manner to which it is accustomed. Stephen names the bird after Rudolf Hess, ‘because its colours were those of a Nazi flag, with black on its chin for the SS in spring’. Then Tiffany tacks on the surname of an anarcho-communist, so as to ‘imply a certain tolerance for at least the form of his joke while rejecting its content’, leaving the bird with the name Rudolf Durruti. Because Wallcreepers are uncommon, Rudolf becomes an attraction among other local birdwatchers. Then they release him, go looking for him in the mountains, and locate him just in time – ‘Hey, he’s got a nest! Way to go, Rudi!’ – to see a sparrowhawk catch and kill him.
The environmentalism part of the farce then becomes more prominent. Stephen, outraged about the effects of river dams on biodiversity and floodplains, decides to become an activist, and Tiffany follows along. Tiffany’s passivity is part of the emotional and ethical deadpan characteristic of Zink’s fiction. ‘My life,’ Tiffany thinks to herself at one point, ‘was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth.’ They print posters, get involved with something called the Global Rivers Alliance, and eventually take up pickaxes and shovels to dismantle a medieval levee on the Elbe so that the river can flood a tree farm. ‘Instead of blather in cyberspace, facts on the ground,’ Zink writes of this very gentle form of ecoterrorism. ‘For Stephen, the idea of direct action was like a cross between chocolate cake and the onset of mania.’ He soon gets bored and flits off, but Tiffany finds she enjoys sabotage. She reflects that ‘sabotage doesn’t look criminal if you get a young, middle-class housewife to do it. I looked like Jane Birkin in Slogan, if Slogan had been set in a scout camp in Poland. I worked the way Patty Hearst would have robbed banks if she’d never met the SLA. The militant wing of Global Rivers Alliance radiated innocent industry.’ At the end of the book, Tiffany is finally, conclusively liberated from matrimony when Stephen dies of a heart attack from which Tiffany mostly does not attempt to draw deeper meaning.
Zink reportedly wrote The Wallcreeper in three weeks, for the amusement of Jonathan Franzen, with whom she had struck up a strange, happy email correspondence after writing to him to recommend the work of a German ornithologist. It soon emerged that she had been writing for years, so she sent him Sailing towards the Sunset by Avner Shats, a novel she had written to amuse another email correspondent, the Israeli writer Avner Shats. Franzen urged Zink to publish and started to send her work around. You might think this would have ended Zink’s difficulties with the publishing industry, yet Franzen failed to get her a book deal. Dorothy bought The Wallcreeper after Zink approached them herself. She was paid $300 for the novel, which brought her lifetime earnings from writing to $300. Zink decided to write another book that she hoped would function as ‘agent bait’. Another three weeks later, she had Mislaid.
Zink was brought up in rural Virginia, and Mislaid, like its predecessor, has some parallels with its author’s life. Peggy Vaillaincourt grows up outside Richmond and then heads off to a small private in-state college with ambitions of becoming a playwright. She sleeps with and then marries Lee, a poetry professor. The main thing Peggy and Lee have in common is that they are gay, which doesn’t make for a terrific marriage. But at least Lee can enjoy the benefits that accrue to all married men, gay or straight, in the smoothly functioning patriarchal society of the early 1960s. ‘Fatherhood surprised him pleasantly,’ Zink writes. ‘As a male he assumed no unpleasant duties would accrue to him. He would be responsible for teaching the child conversational skills once it reached its teens.’ Meanwhile, Peggy is ‘made to bring out the baby and accept praise for her work as if she were a being of a slightly lower social class – which she was’. So she runs away with one of their two children, Mireille, who is four, and steals the birth certificate of a dead black girl so as to pass off her daughter and herself as light-skinned African-Americans. Mireille becomes Karen Brown. Peggy becomes Meg. Mislaid is mostly narrated in Zink’s characteristic tone of sarcastic moral neutrality, but sometimes she passes judgment, or seems to. She introduces Peggy’s theft of the birth certificate with the line: ‘and then she did something terrible.’
Mislaid slots itself into some of the most familiar subcategories of American literary fiction. The plot is structured around Peggy/Meg’s separation from and eventual reunion with Lee and their son, Byrdie: this makes Mislaid a family saga. With its racial transgressions, sexual confusion and depictions of domestic unhappiness, it’s also a social novel that tackles some of the late 20th-century’s ‘big issues’. The university setting also turns Mislaid into a campus novel. Stillwater College, Zink writes, is ‘as self-contained as an army base. But no basic training. No cleaning, no cooking. The work you had to do consisted of things like ponder Edna St Vincent Millay. If you screwed it up, they didn’t criticise you. They invited you to their offices, offered you sherry, and asked you what was wrong.’ It’s a joke about all the kinds of novel that Americans already know and love. This is why it was such effective agent bait – Zink got a very big advance.
The action intensifies towards the end of the book, with the last fifty pages featuring mistaken identities, menacing but ultimately ineffectual and harmless law enforcement officers, night-time chases and a conclusion in which everything implausibly works out for the best. There is also a scene in which Byrdie, now a student at the University of Virginia, needs to get rid of some drugs. So he mashes them up into five baseball-sized lumps and hurls them out the window of his fraternity house. ‘The first ball vanished invisibly into the night,’ Zink writes. The comic possibility of this sort of scenario is that the drugs will reappear later in some unexpected and disastrous way. They don’t – but Karen, wanting to be helpful, does guilelessly show the police where some acid is.
As would happen in a novel like this, Karen, too, turns out to be at UVA, and she and her long-lost brother meet at a druggy fraternity party without realising their connection. The drugs turn out to be important, because Karen and Byrdie’s ultimate discovery of their true relationship is brought about by the involvement of prosecutors, who think they’re on the verge of bringing down a campus drug ring. Mislaid is not primarily or even secondarily an earnest attempt to think about racism or the prison-industrial complex, but Zink knows what’s going on, and occasionally says so. The prosecutor’s theory is that Karen, whose name he doesn’t know, is working as Byrdie’s acid whore. To clarify, that’s ‘like a crack whore, only with acid’. The prosecutor knows that Karen isn’t trading sex for drugs ‘in reality’, but he also knows that ‘reality wasn’t directly relevant’ to his job, which is the production of public fantasies that dramatise social fears: ‘“Acid whore”, he said aloud, rehearsing for the newspapers … “A so-called fraternity house where a drug lord lured a penniless local girl …” Decency forbids further reproduction of his shameful imaginings.’
Zink doesn’t try too hard to tie up loose ends, but there is one aspect of the novel that feels conspicuously underdeveloped, which is Meg’s desire to write plays. (‘Typically they were murder mysteries with no mystery. A woman sneaks across the stage and plunges a knife into the neck of a sleeping man. He says a few choice last words and dies.’) Zink mentions this a few times, and Meg’s literary ambitions are theoretically part of her reason for wanting to escape marriage. But Zink never explains, for example, why Meg should want to write plays as opposed to anything else, or why she should want to write at all, and it has little bearing on the otherwise very neatly engineered plot. It’s as though Zink is simultaneously unwilling to elaborate on this aspect of her protagonist’s life and unwilling to eliminate it altogether.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Zink said that her mother criticised her childhood attempts at writing by telling her that the Brontës had been much better writers at her age. Combined with the usual self-generated feelings of inferiority, that was enough to keep Zink’s writing essentially private for decades. In fact, she didn’t try to publish her work until the year her mother died at the age of 85. The rapid pace at which these first two novels were written suggests a graphomania that hasn’t yet had the chance to take satisfaction in its freedom. Zink fires all over the place, which makes it all the more impressive that her shots usually land. She has yet to identify a favourite among the many fictional worlds available to her, and she may decide it’s not worth picking a favourite at all. She can probably figure some of this out by writing and publishing a dozen books in the next 18 months.