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.