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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit