Agent Bait

Christopher Tayler

  • Nicotine by Nell Zink
    Fourth Estate, 288 pp, £14.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 00 817917 5
  • Private Novelist by Nell Zink
    Ecco, 336 pp, $15.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 06 245830 8

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in