Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nicotine by Nell Zink

Nell Zink is a writer that discomforts in a very real way. She deals head on with cultural issues in blunt ways, making farce where many writers would hold back. She is clearly of the left, but often satirizes the left. I first read her novel Mislaid in a book club several years ago. It played mostly as a farce around issues of identity. The club largely seemed nonplussed by or ambivalent about it. Someone in a different (online) book group said that the farcical nature of undercut any statement that could have been made about identity. I love farce, and I may have enjoyed it more than anyone else in the group. I think that actually helped it say something about identity. I liked it well enough to track down her debut novel, The Wallcreepers, about American bird lovers in Europe who gradually become eco-terrorists of sorts. I liked it slightly less, maybe because it was less of a farce. Still, I enjoyed both well enough that I bought Nicotine shortly after it was published, and several years later I’m finally reading it. I wish I’d read it sooner. Nicotine is as absurd and satirical as its predecessors. It is hilarious, particularly in the back half of the novel, and all the funnier because Zink writes it with a completely straight face, so to speak. But there is a grief that suffuses and grounds the whole and keeps it from being frivolous.

It starts with an abused child being rescued from a dump in Columbia. Twenty years later she is married to an older man, Norm, and the story shifts to her 11 year old daughter, Penny, and a very uncomfortable encounter between Penny and one of her half brothers, Matt. Norm is a sort of stoic/atheist/Jewish/shaman who works with chronically ill patients trying to help them cope with the fact they are dying. Matt, a total capitalist, thinks Norm is fleecing them. These two brief scenes have some shocking/funny imagery, but mainly exist to set up the rest of the book. Then the book jumps ahead just over a decade and Penny is in her twenties nursing her father as he dies. That death and grief grounds the rest of the book even as it shifts to a more comic tone.

The family dynamic is very uncomfortable. That discomfort is one of the book’s strengths, though. After Norm’s death there are four people, Penny, her mother and her two brothers who share ownership of several properties. Penny goes to live and improve on one of them and meets a group of squatters, all anarchists of some stripe and all outcasts from other protest groups because they all smoke. The house they live in that Penny’s family technically owns is called Nicotine. She falls in with the anarchists and they face off with her brother and each other.

What I love about Zink’s writing is that she manages to needle the left by pointing out their absurdities while still essentially being on their side. This partly works because she does not wink at the reader or use the characters to try to show how progressive she is. She is not concerned with the reader thinking she’s a good person or with pointing out how clever she is. Penny says at one point, "It's not my job to tell the story in a way that makes me look good," and that might as well be Zink’s motto. That approach makes the book work well; Zink’s characters all have strong political convictions, but they are real people, not ideological stand-ins. Not role models for piety. They are moral in that they are trying to sort through ethical questions, but they are not moralists. Or to the extent that they are, Zink undercuts them. So when the book has things to say about the power inequalities that exist between men and women, it’s in an admittedly absurd, but believable context. She’s not writing a tract or pamphlet, she’s writing a novel.* And the point is made more strongly because of that. That aspect of it reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s Bebb books written in the ‘70s about a corrupt con man minister and the people around him. Buechner, a believer himself was able to say some pretty profound things about faith because he was willing to mock some of its absurdities and focus on the novel and not the message. Some sectors of Christianity and some portions of the left do not have a sense of humor about themselves, and as such don’t realize how similarly they act. Zink and Buechner could not be more different as writers (though they both write excellent, moving and funny prose), but I’m glad they both were willing to poke fun at their ideologue colleagues. Their messages are put across much more strongly for not having been the point of their books.

Like certain works by Caitlin Kiernan, Samuel Delany or Phillip Roth, the book does get closer to erotica at times than I’m generally comfortable with. Like those writers, though, other aspects of the book work so well that I can easily overlook that. The prose is excellent. And again, it is very funny but has enough emotional heft to ground it. It has been a while since I last read her work, but if memory serves, Nicotine achieves a better tonal balance. Zink is fearless and has a unique voice. I'm looking forward to reading her most recent novel soon, and will almost certainly reread her other work.

Highly Recommended.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 25/75

*On this metric (and only on this metric) it makes an interesting comparison with the next book I read The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. Like Nicotine, I picked it up after really loving the author’s first two books, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. In those books you could tell Cash was influenced by Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard but not so much that he didn’t have his own voice. I look forward to rereading both at some point. I bought The Last Ballad when it came out because I liked the first two so well. Like Nicotine, it sat on the shelf for a long time only to be picked up now. It is an historical novel dealing with a Labor strike in rural North Carolina in 1929. Cash is too good a writer for it not to be an enjoyable read on some level, but it really disappointed me in comparison to his first two. It is a book that is overwhelmed by its ideology. For the record, I agree with I'd say 75-80% the book’s politics. But, except for the climax (which was quite well done) it had a preaching to choir/gospel tract of progressivism vibe that I found off-putting, maybe in part because I had just finished Nicotine. There are exceptions. Wendell Berry and Octavia Butler come to mind as writers whose books can be ideological to a similar degree and it bothers me less. But something about the way it’s handled in The Last Ballad just didn’t work for me. Cash is a very good writer and I will read more books by him and almost certainly reread his first two. I’m unlikely to return to this one though.

Pass/Mild Recommendation
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 26/75

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