There’s a funny sequence halfway through Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, in which one of the main characters, a frustrated playwright, tries without much luck to get her career off the ground. “She subscribed to Writer’s Market and queried five agents about her play The Wicked Lord,” Zink writes:
They all said the most interesting character dies too near the start. She reacted by writing a play in two days and a night about a utopian lesbian commune defending itself from real estate interests. The villain saved his appearance for the end. The lesbians became the bacchants of Euripides, killing him in a festive manner.
It was gripping and seemed to write itself. But she knew you can’t publish material like that.
The joke, or one of the jokes, is that Zink does publish material like that—her next novel, Nicotine, was about a utopian (smokers’) commune battling its churlish landlords. She also has a habit of killing off interesting characters sooner than seems wise, though the cheerful revenge of the bacchantes in her books rarely takes the form of physical violence. Her novels, famously written quickly (three weeks is usually cited as the time it took to draft each of her first three books), do, at times, read as though they wrote themselves; their startling combinations of registers and breakneck plots sometimes give the impression that they sprang directly from the author’s unconscious, if a more rigorously structured one than that of, say, the Beats. Though Dickens is often invoked as a point of comparison for writers of wildly varying styles and quality, Zink may be the contemporary writer who most deserves the comparison. She has a Dickensian gift for caricature and set pieces, as well as his nagging, theatrical tendency to wrap all the story’s loose ends in a bow. There are hints of early Penelope Fitzgerald in her embrace of misfits (as well as in her late start to publishing), and a healthy dose of the English novelist Barbara Trapido, whose Brother of the More Famous Jack shares Zink’s zest for bad literary manners.
But she is, for the most part, startlingly original. The five books that Zink has published since 2014 are defined by a fervent restlessness, a desire to ignore the strictures that usually confine the contemporary novel. Her books, and her characters, are impolite about sex, race, gender, and class in ways that are often thrilling, and occasionally tiresome. Viewed from a distance, her novels, based on their subject matter alone, each seem to be “about” one or more significant contemporary topics: her first novel, The Wallcreeper, is a picaresque about environmental activism; Mislaid’s plot revolves around a white lesbian passing as black in Virginia in order to elude her gay husband; and her latest novel, Doxology, follows a New York couple from the…
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