Wednesday, July 8, 2015


My friend Bill gave me a gift card to our local bookstore for my birthday at the end of May and since I had just read an article in The New Yorker touting Nell Zink as the new hot novelist which also made her story seem pretty compelling, I used the gift card to buy her two novels.

Her story has one of those underdog-wins or creative-genius-finally-wins-recognition arcs that makes a lot of us feel good and certainly made me very happy for her. Like the fact she didn't get her first novel published until she was in her fifties, if I have the story straight, after working "in masonry" as the bio on MISLAID has it and lives in Germany (though is originally from Virginia) where she became a bird expert.

Jonathan Franzen received a letter from her after he wrote an article about birds in which he failed to mention some facts about Eastern European birds which she pointed out to him in a writing style that so impressed him he tried to get her first novel THE WALLCREEPER published but failed to interest anyone he had connections with. Zink meanwhile found a publisher with the wonderful name The Dorothy Project.

Franzen made it seem like THE WALLCREEPER was just too uniquely quirky for any mainstream publisher to show any interest in, but the novel doesn't seem that unique to me, nor that transgressive or radical or other things it's been called. It's more or less in the general category of the kind of quirkiness a lot of novelists were doing in the 1960s. Some blunt sexual passages, some obscure knowledge, in this case about birds and the wall creeper in particular (creating a mini-epic technical information trip ala a drastically compressed MOBY DICK, i.e. where Melville spent chapters on whaling THE WALLCREEPER spends paragraphs on birding) and clever writing.

I liked it and can see why others would, even if it isn't as original as Franzen and some critics have made it out to be. And her second novel, the more commercially acceptable one (which Franzen had advised her to attempt and it worked when it was published by Ecco ("an imprint of Harper Collins"))  MISLAID seemed to me to be more original and quirky than the supposedly too-uniquely-quirky-for-big-publishers THE WALLCREEPER.

MISLAID in fact is a tour-de-force and a more compelling read story-wise, it's like a slightly fabulist novelistic commentary on race (among other things including academia), very much in tune with recent headlines (PASSING FOR BLACK being one). I'm happy for Zink's newfound recognition and critical acclaim, she deserves it as much as any good writer whose work works, even if she isn't the totally-unique-writer-genius some critics and admirers claim.

No comments: