Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. —Carolyn Ogburn
Ecco Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.99
It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems, one character tells another in Nell Zink’s new novel, Nicotine. “That was something your dad used to say, about how it’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems. If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused. It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal. Any distraction is noise. Anything extraneous is noise. Now try to define extraneous. In life, nothing’s extraneous. There’s no noise. It’s all signal.”
In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.
Every aspiring midlife novelist will likely be familiar already with the oft-recounted biography of Nell Zink, but her story seems to remain somehow blurred, evocative, just enough like every one of us to be any one of us but also distinctly, markedly unique. It doesn’t dull with repetition. Zink, like many of us, missed the “5 Under 35,” and the “20 Under 40,” mailed off her first manuscript in her late 40s to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, with whom, in a twist of fate that only real life can contrive, she’d begun exchanging emails about the songbirds of the Balkans. Her emails (which he would describe using words like feisty and presumptuous) were both remarkable and relentless; Franzen assumed she was a writer he’d met already, and playing some sort of a joke. When he finally understood she was not, he actively encouraged her to try writing fiction. Zink is said to have replied: “Oh, I’ve already done that.”
Nell Zink was born in Corona, California in 1964; she and her two brothers were raised in rural King George County, Virginia. She finished high school at Stuart Hall School in Staunton, VA, then majored in philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After undergrad, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived in anarchist coops (not unlike the ones she describes in Nicotine) and where, from 1993-1997, she published Animal Review, a ‘zine that interviewed punk musicians about their pets. She moved to Tel Aviv, then Berlin. She earned a doctorate in media studies at the University of Tübingen. She got married, and unmarried, and married again. She’s worked as a secretary, a technical writer, a translator; she’s waited tables and worked construction. She worked for four years as a bricklayer in the Tidewater area of Virginia, a job, she told Kathryn Shultz in the New Yorker, that was “more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career. In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.”
In other words, she lived the kind of private life of many people who, not being famous, do not have to explain their lives. As Zink says, “there’s a very clear distinction between taking your career seriously and taking your writing seriously.”
Because Zink was taking her writing seriously. For over fifteen years, she wrote fiction that she showed no one but the Israeli writer Avner Shats, to whom she’d been introduced by her second husband, the Israeli poet Zohar Eitan. (Two of the novellas Zink wrote for Shats have been published this month under the title Private Novelist.)
At the age of 50, Zink’s first published novel, Wallcreeper, was named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2014. Wallcreeper explores the topic of marriage through bird watching and eco-terrorism. Her second, Mislaid, takes on racial and sexual identity; it was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.
Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman in her 20s. Her father, Norm, is a self-help guru with massive real-estate holdings and a following of self-actualization groupies. His second wife, Amalia, is Penny’s mother; Amalia was a child of 13 when Norm first met her in the Colombian town of Cartagena. He adopts Amalia in order to bring her back to the United States after his first wife disappears, leaving her two sons, Penny’s half-brothers behind. In this free-wheeling familial structure, one that echoes the anarchist households in which the adult Penny will live, the boys’ mother’s absence is barely noticed.
Here’s what’s Zink writes about those self-help groupies who seek the promise of a better life, a description which again harkens forward to those communities Penny will find herself in as an adult:
There is tacit agreement among Norm’s followers that they make the world a better place by loving in it. They don’t change it. They redeem it, through the searching way they live their lives. The cult is populated by realist aesthetes. A cult of personality for those cultivating personalities. Expecting nothing more from life than self-actualization, accepting nothing less. Willing to settle for others’ self-actualization if their own turns balky.
Amalia is first shown at the age of thirteen; Penny is first shown at the age of twelve, naked and smoking and, shortly thereafter, accusing her decades-older half-brother Matt of attempting to rape her. The accusation is quickly dismissed both by her father and even Penny herself, but incest hovers like a palimpsest throughout.
The story proper opens in April 2016, exactly a year from the novel’s actual date of completion in April 2015. She tells us Penny, now in her 20s, is a graduate of an unnamed business school; her half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, and her mother, Amalia, are in their mid-40s. Her father, Norm, dies within the first pages of the book, and it’s his death that triggers a series of dissolutions that frames the narrator’s existence, if not the plot of the book itself. Zink’s book describes as closely as I’ve ever seen the transient nature of a certain variety of intimate relationship.
The first dissolution is Penny’s first encounter with death. She loves her father, seemingly the only one who does. She stays by his side as he enters Hospice care, whose dictate to do nothing to either prolong life or speed death means that he doesn’t get pain relief, and it’s up to Penny to swab out the crust from his throat. It’s not every novelist who would take on Hospice care in a satirical manner, but Zink’s attention is a serrated knife that takes no prisoners.
Once Norm dies, the family enters the well-known stages of estate management, another form of dissolution. In Norm’s case, this means primarily real estate holdings, some of which have already been sold, and others claimed. But, Penny is told, there is Norm’s parents’ home in Jersey City, which had been abandoned for years. When Penny is evicted from her father’s rent-controlled apartment upon news of his death, her step-brother offers her the abandoned house, advising her to evict the squatters living there. Instead, she falls in love, and moves in as a squatter herself.
As it turns out, the home, called Nicotine, is one of many semi-organized illegally occupied group houses throughout Jersey City. Though Zink describes only one of her many characters as “ageless and about thirty-five,” this breezy description could apply to just about everyone living in these collectives. There’s Stayfree, a feminist collective (“of both men and women”); Tranquility, whose residents protest for indigenous peoples’ rights; the DJD, the environmental collective that’s named for the enormous and enormously expensive couch that resides in the house. Nicotine’s ostensible purpose is to advocate for tobacco users’ rights, but most of the residents’ abundant free time is spent in the kinds of discussion familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time with the rootless, international community of artists, grad students, armchair philosophers, and trustifarians who, while drawn from a diverse cross-section of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, share the same attitude, both cynical and speculative, toward identity as they do towards property in general. That’s globalization; that’s modern life, Zink seems to be hinting. The reader quickly loses track of residents who come for discussions of, say, class or gender privilege, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The dissolution of identity, whether politics, gender, sexuality or any other belief system also plays a major role in the novel. Forget the regional distinctions of nationalism; forget the myth that some people are indigenous and others aren’t. When a character (Sunshine) tells Penny, “It’s just context-dependent! That’s how identity works,” the reader, like Penny, starts to feel a little queasy. There’s a vague feeling that we’re being led on: a lot of this is satire, after all. But where the lines of satire are drawn is far from clear.
Aphorism may be Zink’s most natural setting. “Smoking is like moving to Fukushima for the privacy,” she writes. Or, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” Zink’s cultural references are drawn with journalistic precision: she briefly references Donald Trump’s campaign, and a fictive President Hilary Clinton; includes 2016 state-of-the-art Virtual Reality sex toys, and describes a character retreating to her bedroom where she eats an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watches two episodes of Nurse Jackie. But the most contemporary element in Nicotine may be Zink’s slightly manic level of attention which offers what it needs to in two or three sentences before moving on. Almost everything is said via dialogue, in this style of writing, the ideas expressed more important than the character expressing them. This is literature styled by Twitter-feed, hashtagged by topic. Facebook is for old people.
Like Twitter, Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. It’s a kind of self-actualization of a narrative arc, pushing the reader into stasis, to rest in whatever is already known in the moment rather than pulling the reader towards what isn’t yet revealed. There’s a reason thrillers and mystery novels aren’t typically written in the present tense, but in the past. “And then I saw the gun, there, on the bed,” is inherently more suspenseful than, “I see the gun, there, on the bed.” (In fact, both a gun and a bed, make appearances in Nicotine; though both are used as guns and beds are often used, and occasionally in ways they’re not, there’s little in the way of suspense, which I place squarely on the use of the present tense.)
Zink herself refers to her choice, in a playful tongue-in-cheek way that’s characteristic of her writing. The rally against the TTIP (no one can quite remember what it stands for, but it’s clearly referencing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership) is coming up and two Nicotine residents (Rob and Anka) are brainstorming slogans which can be converted to hashtags for their protest signs:
“How about TTIP SUX?” he suggests.
“Present tense is a tactical error,” she says. “Makes it sound like we already lost.”
And maybe we have, in fact, already lost. We, westerners of whatever background or belief, live in a time of global dissolution and climate collapse that none of us understand. There is a despair that pervades this seemingly light-hearted novel. When Zink writes, “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying,” the reader almost feels the deep, smoky intake of breath herself, can almost see that breath drift across the warm night air. It’s one of the few passages that’s written to slow down attention, to welcome reflection.
The novel’s end finds the residents of Nicotine scattered—another form of dissolution—and the home itself transformed into a different kind of community center. Penny takes a job at her mother’s bank and shacks up with the no-longer-asexual Rob. The ending seems to belie the premise of the book’s title: nicotine, after all, is the addictive portion of tobacco. Nicotine isn’t what kills the smoker, not directly. Nicotine is what makes smoking so difficult to quit.
At one point, the novel’s sexy siren Jazz looks up from reading Jean Cocteau’s memoirs, sighing “He’s got that breezy, casual sophistication I’m always aiming for and never hitting.” Zink surely aims for breezy, casual sophistication, and in Nicotine, she almost hits it.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numéro Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.