10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

[Spoilers.]

1) Any book that quotes from Four Quartets, my favorite long poem, wins my prizes.

2) I like that every now and then she reminds you that many conversations rendered in English are actually taking place in German. It gives the whole book this great occasional (but very strong) sense of alienation and misunderstanding and exile, even loneliness (which is much of what Tiffany suffers from, I think). And it makes you see that Tiffany and Stephen don’t really understand one another any better, even though they’re both speaking their native English.

3) My objection to most younger writers’ books (that I read) these days is that they’re trying so hard to sound older than they are. Nell Zink is trying to sound a good deal younger than she is, which is harder. To some degree I’m sure this is just her voice (as demonstrated The Paris Review interview, which is almost as fun as The Wallcreeper), and I wish more people were talking about the voice. When I used to teach high school writers, a lot of them were obsessed with this. I always told them voice is the last thing any writer should worry about. But if I was going to tell them what “voice” was, I’d tell them to read this book. It’s an almost entirely voice-driven novel, and it’s a great voice. The plot is haphazard and secondary, full of jump-cuts and loose or abrupt ends. The characters are deliberately under-developed, but not because they’re simpleminded or boring people. “There are no simple people in The Wallcreeper,” Nell told an interviewer. It’s because like most people (and probably all adulterers) they act from contradictory, complex, impulsive, selfish and inscrutable motives. (I learned that years ago from Mac Wellman’s “The Theater of Good Intentions.”) You can’t drill down into these characters.

4) The Wallcreeper is not a psychological novel (happily). It’s not really a thematic one, either, although it’s close. The book picks up important sociopolitical issues and blithely drops them—or it’s so efficient in summarizing them that it doesn’t need to elaborate: “[…] hail-fellow-well-met good old boy executives who laughed off multi-million-dollar fines for taking risks that killed people” pretty much finishes off corporate America in a sentence fragment, and what the book does to Tukwila, Washington (“the trap in the drain”) dispenses with the American suburbs in slightly more than a seven-sentence paragraph. (The Wallcreeper makes you want to leave the country immediately, giddily, and never come back.) And the late line uttered by Gernot–“Women are all the same. Inscrutable guardians of inexpressible passions, and sentimental about money.”—is so dismissive and trenchant and irresponsible that if a man wrote it he’d be denounced. It happens also to be pretty much true, and hilarious. And again, voice: that comma after “passions” is what makes the line work—the voice has pace. It sneaks up on you, or it withholds and then delivers. Tiffany realizes, “Wow, love is as strong as death!” after she starts missing the guy she dumped. This is the simile she arrives at to describe her feelings: “I felt like generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death.” It’s “shot to death” that lands the punchline. The line that compares England, “the mythical Eden,” to the US, which is “the land of the citizen scientist and the bag limit,” made me laugh so hard I had to put the book down. I never laugh at books.

5) She’s been writing a long time, and it shows. She’s often been writing for audiences of one, and that shows, too. (I like. of course, that she took pains to point out that there’s a difference between taking your writing seriously and taking your “career” seriously.) The voice is offhand and breezy and intimate, careless of whether anyone else reads it, which is the best kind of writing. It’s not lyrical writing. It’s not “beautiful.” It’s certainly not workshop writing. It’s just excited and confident, and deceptively painstaking. She’s fond of budding aphorisms that will flutter (like a wallcreeper) and end in cul-de-sacs of laconic humor. Little riffs begin to stray out of control and are firmly brought to heel. Whenever the book threatens to get even slightly sentimental or ponderous or “morally” inclined, she’ll cut that right off. The sex in the book is never romantic, nor even particularly appealing. No one is attractive, including the supposedly hot stripper who is Tiffany’s sister, a bit of a jerk, and has the deeply unsexy name of Constance. (True to her name, she comes to Tiffany’s rescue late in the book.)

6) Now obviously the book has some pretty big things on its mind, or it probably wouldn’t have made any impact. It’s about the environment and nature, and about the way our reproductive urges are heavily bound up in the ones that are destructive (and self-destructive), which is the way nature works: it’s equal parts sex and death, even though, as she points out, we mistakenly think of nature’s “eternal recurrence.” Adultery is just advanced mate selection, and to some degree sheer survival. Tiffany and Stephen do some birdwatching of a moa. Moas are extinct, which she does not mention (the book has taken a pleasantly absurd turn, up into Albania on a donkey). What she does mention is more to the point: They usually see the moa while they’re procreating in the bushes. Actually, there’s probably something going over my head here.

Earlier, the titular wallcreeper, which is the surrogate child given to Tiffany and Stephen after her book-opening miscarriage via car accident (this man-vs./and-machine issue later reinforced by the passage on page 48—“we failed technology when it needed us most”), was let free into the wild—and was promptly devoured by a sparrowhawk. (It’s like that scene in The Simpsons where Lisa cuts a fish free of a six-pack ring; when she tosses the fish back into the ocean, she doesn’t see it land right in the jaws of a shark.)

Genitalia are just part of the environment: “a river in springtime”; then, on page 166: “sexual organs […] to broadcast and receive spiky, irritating bits of information,” not “to be pink and velvety-soft and oblivious.” They have a job to do. But by this point in the book, the “spring flood” is now up in the mind, not the genitalia, specifically in the condition of “boredom”—although Tiffany gets tangled in this extended metaphor and abandons it, just as Nell Zink discards plot lines and even characters after she’s gotten what she can get out of them. To some degree the novel’s jangle between Big Ideas and intimate exposures is the happy result of artistic shortfall. She told an interviewer:

I wanted to communicate vital topics in nature conservation to men and women in their thirties, the leaders of tomorrow, by wrapping them up in sophisticated language and conflicted sex. It worked for the first few pages. After that I had some personal setbacks and continued it as a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code.

7) I love, in this same passage, the line: “Knowledge, an allergen.” It goes right back to page 33:

Just opening your eyes puts you in front of a mirror, psychologically speaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Or rather, garbage goes in, but you never get rid of it. It just lies there turning to dust and slowly wafting a thin layer of grime on to every other object in your brain. Scraping the gunk off is not only a major challenge, but the chief burden of human existence.

Basically, this gunk-scraping is fending off boredom, and boredom is death, and what causes them is not the empty periods of nothing-to-do (as any writer can tell you, and the book does, boredom is in fact “the essence of fecundity like a river in springtime”). It’s the endless gunk and grime of the day, the trivia and petty obstacles that get in your way and then into your mind. Chores, rote work, distractions, necessities: in other words, “breeding and feeding.” (I always liked the line in Len Jenkin’s Careless Love about the purpose of life: “Feed, fuck, learn a few things, and die.”) Nell Zink told The Paris Review about having worked in construction, as a waitress, etc.—anything to keep the brain as free and clear of gunk as possible—and (in another interview) mentioned abandoning her habit of “being in love with adorable men” for a practice of “hot superficial sexual relationships with guys I otherwise ignored. This is so, so key for artistic praxis.”

8) The line, “beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.” I just love this. It seems key to the book’s entire complex of engagement. Birdwatching, irrelevant and unnecessary. But then, we wouldn’t care about nature, probably, if we didn’t think it was beautiful. We’re wired into it.

9) The book opens ferociously. Car wreck, miscarriage, and then Stephen’s almost totally unsympathetic reaction—he just wants her to stop crying. This is immediately followed by his sodomy rape of his wife. Later he dies with Darwinian lack of character, ceremony and sympathy: “At some point after that he was dead.” It turns out he just had a bad heart, and that is not intended symbolically any more than it is biologically, I don’t think. (He is a complex character, Nell said in an interview, but we can only get a sidelong glance at him; he repels scrutiny.) All of this is delivered with casual comic breeziness—no unnecessary beauty in this book, no elegies or apostrophes. Same with the author’s formidable erudition; her reading is worn as lightly as everything else: Tiffany’s bouts of severe sadness and loneliness; the environmental destruction; the marriage that is faithless from day one.

10) No one seems to have said anything about the ending, which takes the book’s biggest risk. The narrative catches up with itself, meta-style, after the priest lectures her:

Stop following orders. Do what you want. Work selfishly. Without the experience of control, you will never have the experience of creativity. Stop giving yourself away, and you will have more to offer than your body and soul. Keep them and cultivate them. Learn, learn, and once again learn!

And then: “In between wallpapering”—boredom objectified—“I wrote The Wallcreeper.” This little line, so characteristically tossed off, echoes other books, like Proust, of course, and Nausea by Sartre (and there’s a nice “wallpaper”/”wallcreeper” wordplay). It’s a bit of a move, although she doesn’t capitalize on it. Like the author, Tiff doesn’t immediately Become A Writer. She gets a degree, then a job, then “found[s] an ecological planning bureau” that does good for the environment and for humans. Does the novel need this epilogue? It could end after “I said I would take it under advisement” and the effect would be much the same: the very existence of this novel would bear out some of the epilogue’s implications. So I’m not sure, and I like being not sure.

I don’t know anything about Jonathan Franzen, which is my loss and failure, but if you want to tell me where his apparent cameo is, I’d be curious to know.