Dorothy, a Publishing Project
With his concerns apropos his 2010 novel Freedom, and more specifically, in his essay “Why Bother?” in the collection How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen sought the return of the so-called social novel. It would seem that Nell Zink has taken up the call within a new genre, the environmental novel—or more accurately, the bird watching novel. Which novel, according to an interview with the author, she wrote to get Franzen’s attention. The strategy worked: Franzen, duly impressed, acted as her agent for awhile.
The result is Nell Zink’s charming The Wallcreeper. In it, American expat Tiffany follows her husband to Berne, Switzerland, and eventually to bird migratory stake-outs and alternative addresses in various B-titled towns (Berlin, Breitenhagen, and so on). The result is a fine syllabus of word play with the frequent dropping of slightly off-radar pop culture references, from the Marquis de Sade to Cat Stevens.
A novel about bird watching will likely be light on action, though this is remedied by a sub plot of rampant promiscuity among the characters. The keen reader can almost begin to suspect the writer is trying to tell us something we may not want to know about bird watchers: they’re a horny bunch.
Always willing to find a better option in matters of the heart, Tiffany is a self-saboteur of romance, fawning over fickle men who make outrageous sexual demands on her—though her avidity is no less insistent—and married men who give her the reassurance of stability by proxy. That she’s married to one of these chumps is perhaps to earn the reader’s sympathy.
The wallcreeper that gives the novel its title is an injured bird Tiffany’s husband rescues after a car accident. This event in turn instigates Tiffany’s miscarriage and her subsequent pursuit of birds. This bird is named with continental influence—the narrator seeks to fit in, after all—Rudolph Durrutti, Rudi for short. Rudi is made unceremonious lunch viz. a hawk, just as his symbolism establishes his purpose in the pathology of the protagonist’s life. Tiffany is like Rudi, away from her element, contending with a facsimile of the real in avoidance of actual danger. She is crawling the walls, as an impatient wallflower and an observer of her life’s search for love (and thus, meaning).
As for sex, early on she warns us, “My down there plays a minor role in several scenes to come.” Erotic hyper-awareness suffuses descriptions, as when “the Rhine climbed higher, rolling and writhing in its corset of stone, moaning to be free.” Or in describing Berne, where “The river enfolded the city like a uterine wall.” The reader may think Tiffany has hit rock bottom when she obliquely pursues, and is eventually hit on, and spurned, by a priest. But this is all done casually, not with the requisite Duras-esque heat.
When Stephen beds an eco-warrior involved with a militant environmental outfit—shuffling through liaisons wife and husband maintain their vows only in name—this spurs Tiffany to action. She dabbles in some mild eco-terrorism, which involves a patchwork dismantling of the ancient river walls of the Elbe, only to learn her laborious and time consuming work will damage a vital Osprey habitat.
First-person narratives are frequently distinguished by voice, and maybe less so by intellectual fecundity. Combining these two makes for a smart and witty yarn, though it can at times seem overwritten and self-conscious. This is likely intentional. The tone of satire, when it works, provides a breezy style that aims for the deadpan observation of Lorrie Moore, minus Moore’s characters’ chronic obliviousness.
There is exuberance in the writing, in the snap of language. Maintaining the avian theme, birds are a leitmotif. They function as a punctuation, even as a kind of thematic wallpaper. “The geese rose in a single chaotic clump, honking and shoving, and flew off across the river as if somebody had slapped them.” Likewise, Zink applies the anthropomorphic to a set of birds: “They carried on their courtships like hustlers cruising a church picnic, and defended their territories like Beau Geste.” (157). Though these similes maintain the theme, there’s often a slight disconnect that comes in the use of the inanimate object, as in, “I clenched my hands into claws and cried like a drift log in heavy surf.” Zink can rely too frequently on blanching clichés and tired neologisms, which can disabuse a reader of the impression of sophistication.
When detail is called for, a succinct aptness can elegantly nail a description. Who hasn’t heard birds “throw themselves into relentless singing the moment they felt the approach of dawn”? For as much as The Wallcreeper might beg for a moment not basting in irony, the consistency of the voice, and the well-wrought aperçus, can as readily earn the reader’s grudging admiration.
Detman has published fiction and reviews in over two dozen journals, most recently in Akashic Books Thursdaze and the Superstition Review. He is the author of the novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas (Figureground Press, 2014).