Photo by Fred Filkorn
It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf… — Benjamin Woodard
With The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink has crafted a novel that’s truly difficult to summarize, for while one could say the book is a lampoon of modern relationships, or an elongated joke about eco-terrorism, or a satire concerning birdwatchers and American expats stumbling through life in Europe, each of these interpretations fails to capture the pure insanity that rockets through the narrative’s gnarled veins. Instead, the novel begs for a more naked description, one finding focus not in recapped transgressions, necessarily, but in simple adjectives: sexy, funny, strange, and clever. It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf, that demands close reading to decipher subtle verbal jabs, yet one that also remains mysterious in its rambling success, that covers so much ground with so few words that the reader is provoked to ask, “How does such a crazed book work so well?”
At the heart of the novel rest Tiffany and Stephen, young newlyweds who move from Philadelphia to Switzerland after Stephen lands a job in research and development for a shadowy company based in Berne. Their story opens with a marvelously loaded sentence: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Immediately, Zink tags the reader with an immense amount of physical, spatial information—travel, pregnancy—as well as four turns in action (“looking” “swerved” “hit” “occasioned”). In a more conventional narrative, such a line would function as a springboard for a sad novel circling the loss of an unborn child, yet Zink employs this sentence for two reasons: to set the rhythm of what’s to come, and to use the trauma to simply replace the unborn child with a wallcreeper bird, the actual cause of the accident (“I thought it was dead,” Stephen claims. “I just wanted to get it off the road.”), who the couple—birdwatchers, naturally—take home and begin to nurture. The miscarriage does linger for a few pages, particularly in a sequence where Stephen tries to entice an uninterested Tiffany to have sex standing up in the kitchen, yet the couple’s lives continue forward with the same sharp efficiency of the novel’s compact opening line. Thus, it isn’t long until Tiffany strikes up an affair with a local named Elvis, the wallcreeper grows large and is released into the wild (where it meets a swift, entertaining demise), and Stephen takes an interest in a politically charged upstart committed to halting the expansion of hydroelectric power in the Rhine. The couple moves to Berlin to be closer to the upstart’s action, and as they continue to dabble in extramarital flings, Tiffany—unemployed, living off of Stephen’s income, and attempting to write a screenplay—strays toward more violent methods of invoking environmental change.
To say more about the plot of The Wallcreeper would be a disservice to both it and the reader, for half the pleasure of the novel is seeing just how far Zink will take her characters. It’s this fearlessness that makes the novel so immensely potent. Zink writes without restraint, and the result feels something like a trip through the best kind of haunted house, one where you have no idea what’s around the next bend, where you’re simultaneously laughing and cringing at the rapid fire of ghosts and goblins crossing your path. She is a master at crafting exchanges both blunt and hilarious. Take this initial scene between Tiffany and Stephen:
“Tiffany,” he said. “That means divine revelation. From theophany.”
“It means a lampshade,” I said. “It’s a way to get around the problem of putting your light under a bushel. The light and the bushel are one.”
He didn’t back away. It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck.
In just two lines of dialogue, Zink tells the reader exactly who these two characters are: the idealist and the realist; the thoughtful and the sarcastic; the astute and the naïve. This truncated conversation not only allows Zink to skip generic paragraphs of character description, but it helps to reinforce the zippy groove pace of the novel. Add to this the sequence’s final punch line—“We will definitely fuck”—and the future indiscretions of Stephen and Tiffany seem inevitable: can one truly be surprised of their flexible fidelity when sex seems imminent from such a strangely banal chat?
Zink has tremendous fun with such punch lines. Before relocating to Berlin, for example, Tiffany describes the residents there (“No one was sleek or fluffy in Berlin, not even me. In four weeks I didn’t see a single good-looking person on the street.”), only to follow up her distaste with the admission, “Accordingly, Stephen insisted we move there.” Yet while such direct guffaws are satisfying, The Wallcreeper also succeeds when looked at as a whole, for Zink binds the eccentricities of her characters with an admirable, satirical commentary on modern life. There’s a “disposable generation” quality to Tiffany and Stephen. These two hold very little close, be it apartments, lost hopes, careers, or lovers, and so it is brilliant when such a pair, so willing to toss emotional and material possessions aside, decides to change the world through environmental activism. There’s a wonderful paradox at play here, one the characters never quite realize, and it speaks to the way so many of us try to erase years of futility with a single act of generosity.
In addition, Zink pokes fun at the concept of female dependency throughout the novel. Tiffany, in need of male companionship to support her financially, willingly shuffles around Europe with her husband. Her motivation also comes from the men surrounding her, and her engagements reflect their interests. She is our narrator, yes, but even while seeing the world through her eyes, it becomes obvious that she is also a character in serious need of a jolt of independence, and Zink relishes in this awareness, commenting nimbly on Tiffany’s false sense of freedom and prodding young women to, perhaps, reconsider their own forged paths, to avoid the trap of a legacy defined by the men that enclose them. Moreover, this jab speaks to the way in which The Wallcreeper has been received by the critical mass. As is often the case when reviewing a novel from a relative unknown, one tends to compare the work to that of a celebrated contemporary, and with Zink, that contemporary quite often has been Don DeLillo (his name even comes up on the back cover blurb from Keith Gessen). While such comparisons are certainly understandable, writing wise, they also reinforce the patriarchal stereotype Zink clearly parodies in her novel. With so many wonderful, successful female writers also crafting funny, sexy, strange, clever novels, why choose to hang Zink’s debut over the shoulders of a man?
Questions like this help The Wallcreeper extend its life beyond the page. This is a novel that clicks both instantly and in hindsight. It’s rare to read a book that so fruitfully welds so many elements without flailing, especially from a debut novelist.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon Review, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.