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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.