Friday, September 23, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Nell Zink/The Wallcreeper

the kirby bee nell zink the wallcreeper book review

I’ve never been much for birds. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their existence. And I’m aware they’re likely related to dinosaurs so that gives them some cachet. But beyond an occasional glance as one sweeps across my line of sight or flies just a little too close to my head, nothing. 

Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to know what a Wallcreeper looked like. So I googled, and began sifting through the various images, clicking from one to the next until I came across one that caught my attention

In it the bird is in full flight, moving through the air with a bug hanging from its beak. Its wings, spread out wide from its body, are black with splashes of red and the most arresting line of large white polka dots right at the end of the feathers. That picture snuck up on me. I wasn’t prepared for it, wasn’t prepared for the way I sat staring at the screen, soaking up the beauty of this bird. 

In a way, Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, snuck up on me too. It felt a little like Zink had pulled back a curtain, letting me peek into this strange world she’d created, letting me squirm at the edges of these somewhat dubious character’s lives. I had no preconceived ideas about this novel— except for a recommendation from a friend, I’d not read or listened to a review of any kind. I went in cold. I came out feeling like I’d been unceremoniously pushed back outside the curtain. Dumped onto the cool earth. And yet, I loved it. 

The Paris Review describes The Wallcreeper as a coming of age story, and in some ways I suppose it is. Americans Tiffany and Stephen meet when he interviews for the pharmaceutical company she works for. A meeting Tiffany, the narrator of the book, says this about: ‘It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck’. They marry three weeks later and Tiffany follows Stephen and his job to Berne, a small town in northern Germany. What follows is a frankly chaotic story. 

Tiffany and Stephen's relationship is at the centre of the book—though it is Tiffany's story—and it's fascinating to watch them exist with and shift against each other. Their relationship is both marred and seemingly strengthened by their multiple affairs and after Stephen abandons his job, they move across Europe and become increasingly engaged in environmental causes—you might even call them eco-terrorists, as Keith Gessen does.

The Wallcreeper though, above all else—marriage, infidelity, birds (there are lots and lots of birds), coming of age stories—seems stridently environmental. Some kind of comment on the human impact on the environment and how the likely best thing for the planet is the cessation of mankind. Which, let’s be honest, is probably accurate. 

However, of the book, Zink says this: 

‘I wanted to communicate vital topics in nature conservation to men and women in their thirties, the leaders of tomorrow, by wrapping them up in sophisticated language and conflicted sex. It worked for the first few pages. After that I had some personal setbacks and continued it as a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code.’

Which explains a lot, really. There are no chapters in The Wallcreeper, with only line breaks to suggest at the movement of time. The story progresses at a brisk pace, which helps with the chaos. And some aspects of the character’s border on absurd. 

That said, Zink has a way with words. And, as is my custom, I found myself underlying sentences that struck me. Zink, through Tiffany (knowing Zink describes it as a tortured autobiography makes it difficult to separate Tiffany the character from Zink the writer, but then maybe she’s supposed to be Stephen or Gernot or Olaf?) makes some startlingly blunt observations in the most economical of language. Of the miscarriage that occurs within the first line of the book, Tiffany says: ‘I rolled over to my side and coughed. I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed’. Later, she will use similarly blunt language to describe another significant event (which I won’t mention here because spoilers etc.) which had me gasping, hand over mouth. 

And yet other times, her characters made remarkable observations that had me sitting back in my chair, replaying the sentences over and over in my head. At one point, after Stephen asks Tiffany to tell him about herself, she recounts her life in a series of sentence long anecdotes and ends with the line ‘I’ve never met anybody I can be entirely sure I’ve actually met’. Well, have you? 

These types of experimental novels can sometimes be hard work, the reader slogging through complicated prose, sifting the words for meaning. And while The Wallcreeper is undoubtedly experimental, I was captivated. Reading it over a single weekend in great big gulps. The characters may have, at times, had me shaking my head in disbelief, but I still found myself thoroughly absorbed in their world.

In a not particularly effusive review, Bookslut describes Zink’s debut as ‘an odd bird’, suggesting both a plot and coherent characterisations are missing. I really have to disagree. Perhaps there is no defined three-act structure here and no particularly redeeming characters, but if you’re reading fiction to find those things, maybe avoid experimental work like this—or just fiction altogether?

The Wallcreeper might refuse to abide by ‘the rules’ but there are real characters here. Complex, infuriating, predictable and unpredictable, confusing and ugly characters that push against one another as they hurtle towards something none of them seem prepared for, or even aware of. Which, when you think about it, seems less experimental and more a simple reflection of the lives we live.