Lost and found: in Nell Zink’s fiction identities are fluid and words carry significant weight. Photo: Christian Jungeblodt/The Guardian
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How Nell Zink's bizarre brilliance found her success at fifty

After years of experimental exchanges with writer friends, she now drafts whole novels in weeks.

Mislaid/The Wallcreeper
Nell Zink
Fourth Estate, 456pp, £20

Truth is stranger than fiction. In the week I picked up Nell Zink’s novel Mislaid – the tale of an on-the-run white mother and daughter who manage to convince the world that they’re black – Rachel Dolezal was revealed to be genetically white, despite having lived for years as a black teacher and activist in the US. Zink’s characters have none of the psychological and cultural complications that seem to surround Dolezal’s story: her protagonist Meg’s change of identity is no more than a ruse to escape an exploitative marriage. She doesn’t alter her behaviour to appear more black; nor does her daughter. Zink, who was brought up in rural Virginia, says that these absurdities are an accurate reflection of her milieu, some of whom she was surprised to learn, according to the “one-drop rule”, were people of colour.

The story of Zink’s sudden success at the age of 50 is scarcely less surprising. After years of experimental exchanges with writer friends, she now drafts whole novels in weeks. Her work was championed by Jonathan Franzen after an online correspondence with him about bird welfare.

Her first novel, The Wallcreeper, published in 2014 in the US and now issued with Mislaid in a handsome box, is an equally wild ride: an American expat couple lose faith in love and turn to birding, then environmental terrorism. Tiff and Stephen take in dubstep, opium and extramarital affairs before they settle on saving the world. Zink’s scale is vast but she can swoop in on personal crises with the accuracy of a bird of prey. Perhaps it’s because the exhilarating pace creates a blur, but I find it difficult to be offended by her potentially controversial plot points: despite the books’ shock-and-awe tactics, Zink’s characters are basically nice. Meg and her daughter, Karen, are accepted by the black community and their drug-dealing activities involve nothing that you’d see on The Wire. No one acts out of malice. Damage is collateral, caused by the enlightened self-interest of characters trying to lead a good life while still managing to get laid: an existence predicated on “breeding and feeding”.

Zink’s heroines are so clear-eyed on social economics that their Bartleby-esque passivity seems a radical gesture. In Mislaid, Meg, content to live for years in a “monastic”, abandoned shack, only wonders later what motivated her retreat from society. In The Wallcreeper, Tiff follows Stephen to Switzerland, takes a Berndeutsch class in which she learns “ten verbs for work”, then decides to rely on her husband, as: “Stephen had a job that could support us both and secretarial work bored me.” Her discovery that she “wasn’t a feminist” is the beginning of an odd redemption through hard manual work and punishing – if erratic – marital loyalty.

Few reviewers discuss Zink’s work in terms of feminism but both of her books highlight the obstacles in women’s lives and ways to live beyond them. Zink is an anti-essentialist. No one is 100 per cent black (or gay or straight); nor are male and female adequate categories. Boundaries are created by language. In Mislaid, Meg (also known as Peggy) notices “the woman everyone said was the maintenance man at the elementary school. It was indirectly her fault that Peggy thought of ‘man’ as a job title.”

Mislaid is an ode to the power of words. Zink’s characters live – and sometimes nearly die – by the book. Temple, a brilliant autodidact, “was adrift when it came to questions that addressed his environment rather than literature”. Zink’s relentless references and aphorisms are exhilarating (though some find them plain smart-ass). “If I tell myself stories,” Tiff warns in The Wallcreeper, “I get very sentimental very fast.” Language is linked to love and sex (Karen in Mislaid is “James Joyced” into bed) but Tiff learns that the body is also where words stop:

I recalled things I had seen in the hospital that did not admit of euphemism – certain stark natural occurrences that gave the lie to language itself simply because no one, anywhere, absolutely no one in the world, would ever take a notion to claim they were fun. Irredeemable moments with no exchange value whatsoever.

The plots of both books turn on love, romantic or familial. In Mislaid, Mireille the blonde becomes “Karen Brown” through that most Victorian of MacGuffins, the stolen birth certificate, and the story’s final twists are left unexplained. And the mysterious “device” that Stephen is researching in The Wallcreeper never becomes a factor in the plot. Instead, much of the tension is emotional. Mislaid is all about family values, albeit liberal ones – the only couple excluded from the happy ending refuse to welcome the reworking of the relationship grid.

Zink’s fiction has been called satire but it doesn’t rely on the genre’s conventions of exaggeration or cruelty, just a sharp eye for irony. She has used the word “earnestness” to describe Franzen’s novels. There’s an earnestness at the heart of her work, too. Mislaid is a lot of fun and you’ll exit the book feeling that the world is smarter, brisker and brighter than before – but The Wallcreeper’s strange, nebulous weightiness, both personal and political, make her first novel a work of bizarre brilliance. 

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.