A review of Nell Zink’s extraordinary novel The Wallcreeper

image

The short review is, “Nell Zink’s début novel The Wallcreeper is extraordinary.”

But this argument is insufficient, unsupported, you, dear reader, may protest. Why should you spend your hard-earned time reading The Wallcreeper, eh? (I read the book in four sittings. I was late to Sunday dinner for finishing the thing). To invert one of the better book short book reviews I’ve ever read: Every sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Is that not a good enough reason to read The Wallcreeper? Maybe you want to read some of those sentences. Here’s the first one:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.

Or a page or two later when our heroine/narrator Tiffany describes how she met Stephen:

Our first meeting prevented a crime. He saw me standing in front of the open gate of the vault.

(Don’t worry about that crime). Oh, and, on that first meeting with Stephen:

It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck. It might take a while, though, because Stephen looked as respectable as I did.

And here’s a simile from Tiffany, just because I love the line and can wedge it in here:

After the cranes had landed, the geese passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.

It occurs to me now that I’m probably doing this wrong, right? I should be summarizing the book a bit, no? I’m not particularly interested in that—the plot is the sentences—I mean, yeah, there’s a plot, about Tiffany and Stephen in Berne and later Berlin—and some other places too—and the different lovers they take and the various projects they undertake—music, language acquisition, ecoterrorism—and lots of birdwatching.

Maybe I should lazily just reblurb Keith Gessen’s blurb:

Who is Nell Zink? She claims to be an expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is; maybe she isn’t. I don’t know. I do know that this first novel arrives with a voice that is fully formed: mature, hilarious, terrifyingly intelligent, and wicked. The novel is about a bird-loving American couple that moves to Europe and becomes, basically, eco-terrorists. This is strange, and interesting, but in between is some writing about marriage, love, fidelity, Europe, and saving the earth that is as funny and as grown-up as anything I’ve read in years. And there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written. I hope he doesn’t kill Nell Zink

The DeLillo comparison is apt, but Zink’s novel is funnier than anything DeLillo’s done in ages. Maybe that’s not fair. “Funny” seems like a weak word, really, for Zink and her narrator Tiffany (and Stephen)—all the words I would use to describe what Zink’s doing here seem pale and imprecise. I mean wittysmartintelligent, devastatingconfounding. Extraordinary, right, that was the word I used above, yes? (He looks the word up in an online dictionary, somehow at 36 and a lifelong native English speaker unsure what it actually means). A placeholder like strange would work, except some of y’all take that word as a pejorative. Eccentric or quirky imply, I think, a rhetorical imprecision wholly absent from the novel. The Wallcreeper is a precise book. The book is very good. It is an interesting book. (What awful sentences those were! But true).

Can you know a book through the words the reviewer uses to describe it though? (No). Can you really know a character through the words she launches your way, anyway? In The Wallcreeper, Tiffany doesn’t really know herself, or Stephen, and the narrative is in some ways her kinda sorta finding out about herself (and Stephen, and other stuff), in a non-urgent manner. Or maybe very urgent, I don’t know—she and Stephen are in a constant state of crisis, sort of, or epiphany-making—

Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).

A wallcreeper is a small bird with crimson wings, by the way.

The titular wallcreeper, also by the way, is the thing that makes Stephen swerve in that opening sentence I shared for you above. The book is full of swerves, dips, dives, turns—each sentence swerves into the next, artfully, gracefully, precisely. Tiffany’s consciousness, or the language that Zink uses to represent Tiffany’s consciousness, swerves:

We walked down into the lower garden and sat on a bench. He looked into the pond and remarked favorably on the lack of goldfish. I thought of all the spawn-guzzling carp I had admired in the past and felt abashed. I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.

Beautiful!

But where was I? I think swerves was the metaphor I was batting about a bit—well, I suppose I could go on, suggest that all that swerving swerves up to Something More, that the novel swerves (swells? no, not swells) to an ending shot-through with mythical undertones (which our narrator punctures)—I mean to say that, yes, okay, the novel is a wonderful witty aesthetic read—each sentence made me want to read the next sentence—but readers who require More Than That will also get it. Or maybe not. The Wallcreeper, like all extraordinary novels, is Not For Everyone. The Wallcreeper was/is for me though, and I hope it will also be for you too.

The Wallcreeper is available directly from publisher The Dorothy Project and finer bookshops.

Is there any value that has value? (Donald Barthelme)

I asked the Cardinal questions, we had a conversation.

“I am thinking of a happy island more beautiful than can be imagined,” I said.

“I am thinking of a golden mountain which does not exist,” he said.

“Upon what does the world rest?” I asked.

“Upon an elephant,” he said.

“Upon what does the elephant rest?”

“Upon a tortoise.”

“Upon what does the tortoise rest?”

“Upon a red lawnmower.”

I wrote in my book, playful.

“Is there any value that has value?” I asked.

“If there is any value that has value, then it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case, for all that happens and is the case is accidental.” He was not serious. I wrote in my book, knows the drill.

From Donald Barthelme’s story “See the Moon?”

“July Stories” — Roberto Bolaño

July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.

From Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003.

“The Hungry Stones” — Rabindranath Tagore

“The Hungry Stones”

by

Rabindranath Tagore


My kinsman and myself were returning to Calcutta from our Puja trip when we met the man in a train. From his dress and bearing we took him at first for an up-country Mahomedan, but we were puzzled as we heard him talk. He discoursed upon all subjects so confidently that you might think the Disposer of All Things consulted him at all times in all that He did. Hitherto we had been perfectly happy, as we did not know that secret and unheard-of forces were at work, that the Russians had advanced close to us, that the English had deep and secret policies, that confusion among the native chiefs had come to a head. But our newly-acquired friend said with a sly smile: “There happen more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are reported in your newspapers.” As we had never stirred out of our homes before, the demeanour of the man struck us dumb with wonder. Be the topic ever so trivial, he would quote science, or comment on the Vedas, or repeat quatrains from some Persian poet; and as we had no pretence to a knowledge of science or the Vedas or Persian, our admiration for him went on increasing, and my kinsman, a theosophist, was firmly convinced that our fellow-passenger must have been supernaturally inspired by some strange “magnetism” or “occult power,” by an “astral body” or something of that kind. He listened to the tritest saying that fell from the lips of our extraordinary companion with devotional rapture, and secretly took down notes of his conversation. I fancy that the extraordinary man saw this, and was a little pleased with it.

When the train reached the junction, we assembled in the waiting room for the connection. It was then 10 P.M., and as the train, we heard, was likely to be very late, owing to something wrong in the lines, I spread my bed on the table and was about to lie down for a comfortable doze, when the extraordinary person deliberately set about spinning the following yarn. Of course, I could get no sleep that night.

When, owing to a disagreement about some questions of administrative policy, I threw up my post at Junagarh, and entered the service of the Nizam of Hydria, they appointed me at once, as a strong young man, collector of cotton duties at Barich.

Barich is a lovely place. The Susta “chatters over stony ways and babbles on the pebbles,” tripping, like a skilful dancing girl, in through the woods below the lonely hills. A flight of 150 steps rises from the river, and above that flight, on the river’s brim and at the foot of the hills, there stands a solitary marble palace. Around it there is no habitation of man—the village and the cotton mart of Barich being far off. Read More

A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest poses rhetorical, formal, and verbal challenges that will confound many readers new to the text. The abundance of (or excess of) guides and commentaries on the novel can perhaps have the adverse and unintentional consequence of making readers new to Infinite Jest believe that they can’t “get it” without help.  Much of the online analyses and resources for Infinite Jest are created by and targeted to readers who have finished or are rereading the novel. While I’ve read many insightful and enlightening commentaries on the novel over the years (and, in particular, over the past six weeks rereading IJ), my intuition remains that the superabundance of analysis may have the paradoxical effect of actually impeding readers new to the text. With this in mind, I’d suggest that first-time readers need only a dictionary and some patience.

(Still: Two online resources that might be useful are “Several More and Less Helpful Things for the Person Reading Infinite Jest,” which offers a glossary and a few other unobtrusive documents, and Infinite Jest: A Scene-by-Scene Guide,”which is not a guide at all, but rather a brief series of synopses of each scene in the novel, organized by page number and year; my sense is that this guide would be helpful to readers attempting to delineate the novel’s nonlinear chronology—however, I’d advise against peeking ahead).

The big advantage (and pleasure) of rereading Infinite Jest is that the rereader may come to understand the plot anew; IJ is richer and denser the second go around, its themes showing brighter as its formal construction clarifies. The rereader is free to attend to the imagery and motifs of the novel more intensely than a first-time reader, who must suss out a byzantine plot propelled by a plethora of characters. Readers new to IJ may find it helpful to attend from the outset to some of the novel’s repeated images, words, and phrases. Tracking motifs will help to clarify not only the novel’s themes and “messages,” but also its plot. I’ve listed just a few of these motifs below, leaving out the obvious ones like entertainment, drugs, tennis (and, more generally, sports and games), and death. The list is in no way definitive or analytic, nor do I present it as an expert; rather, it’s my hope that this short list might help a reader or two get more out of a first reading.


Heads

Cages

Faces

Maps

Masks

Cycles

Teeth

Waste

Infants

Pain

Deformities

Subjects

Objects

Read More

“…the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899″ (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

For years after, there were tales told in Colorado of the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899. Next day’d be full of rodeos, marching bands, and dynamite explosions—but that night there was man-made lightning, horses gone crazy for miles out into the prairie, electricity flooding up through the iron of their shoes, shoes that when they finally came off and got saved to use for cowboy quoits, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or to anything else nearby made of iron or steel, that’s when they weren’t collecting souvenirs on their way through the air—gunmen’s guns came right up out of their holsters and buck knives out from under pants legs, keys to traveling ladies’ hotel rooms and office safes, miners’ tags, fencenails, hairpins, all seeking the magnetic memory of that long-ago visit. Veterans of the Rebellion fixing to march in parades were unable to get to sleep, metallic elements had so got to humming through their bloodmaps. Children who drank the milk from the dairy cows who grazed nearby were found leaning against telegraph poles listening to the traffic speeding by through the wires above their heads, or going off to work in stockbrokers’ offices where, unsymmetrically intimate with the daily flow of prices, they were able to amass fortunes before anyone noticed. .

A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

“Masculine Literature” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Masculine Literature”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(from Our Androcentric Culutre; or, The Man Made World)


When we are offered a “woman’s” paper, page, or column, we find it filled with matter supposed to appeal to women as a sex or class; the writer mainly dwelling upon the Kaiser’s four K’s—Kuchen, Kinder, Kirche, Kleider. They iterate and reiterate endlessly the discussion of cookery, old and new; of the care of children; of the overwhelming subject of clothing; and of moral instruction. All this is recognized as “feminine” literature, and it must have some appeal else the women would not read it. What parallel have we in “masculine” literature?

“None!” is the proud reply. “Men are people! Women, being ‘the sex,’ have their limited feminine interests, their feminine point of view, which must be provided for. Men, however, are not restricted—to them belongs the world’s literature!”

Yes, it has belonged to them—ever since there was any. They have written it and they have read it. It is only lately that women, generally speaking, have been taught to read; still more lately that they have been allowed to write. It is but a little while since Harriet Martineau concealed her writing beneath her sewing when visitors came in—writing was “masculine”—sewing “feminine.” Read More

New Evan Lavender-Smith short story, “For This Relief, Much Thanks”

At The Offing, read “For This Relief, Much Thanks,” a new story by Evan Lavender-Smith. First two paragraphs:

Worried, even certain, will die on upcoming Peru trip — card-carrying hypochondriac — so jotting down some instructions for you. Here goes.

First thing, ms. on ugly brown reclining chair in study, containing, near end, these very instructions — card-carrying metafictionist — requires thorough proofreading before sending out. Aim high initially, as I am of opinion this one may deserve proper publication by proper house, proper distribution to brick-and-mortars, etc., unlike first two. Hopeful royalties, if any, suffice to cover boy’s dental care in upcoming years. Good boy, as you know, deserving of straight teeth. Maybe royalties enough to cover Little League uniforms/dues, though doubtful. Sorry couldn’t afford term life with smoking, unemployment, etc. Baseball equipment stuff way cheaper on Amazon. Try to find ways to make it work. Boy already knows how to be broke. Dentist is one next to Pro’s Ranch, only Spanish spoken there so have him keep moving ahead on his Duolingo app.

Read the rest of Evan Lavender-Smith’s story “For This Relief, Much Thanks.”

Barthelme has managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness (William H. Gass)

Barthelme has managed to place himself in the center of modern consciousness. Nothing surrealist about him, his dislocations are real, his material quite actual. Radio, television, movies, newspapers, books, magazines, social talk: these supply us with our experience. Rarely do we see trees, go meadowing, or capture crickets in a box. The aim of every media, we are nothing but the little darkening hatch they trace when, narrowly, they cross. Computers begin by discriminating only when they’re told to. Are they ahead that much? since that’s the way we end. At home I rest from throwing pots according to instructions by dipping in some history of the Trojan war; the fete of Vietnam is celebrated on the telly; my daughter’s radio is playing rock—perhaps it’s used cars or Stravinsky; my wife is telling me she loves me, is performing sexercises with a yogi Monday, has accepted a proposal to be photoed without clothing and now wonders if the draft will affect the teaching of freshman chemistry. Put end to end like words, my consciousness is a shitty run of category errors and non sequiturs. Putting end to end and next to next is Barthelme’s method, and in Barthelme, blessed method is everything.

From William H. Gass’s 1968 essay “The Leading edge of the Trash Phenomenon,” an ostensible review of Donald Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts.

“Final Curve” — Langston Hughes

final curve

“IIIIIIIIII.” — Gertrude Stein

“IIIIIIIIII.”
by
Gertrude Stein
from Geography and Plays (1922)

INCLINE.

Clinch, melody, hurry, spoon, special, dumb, cake, forrester. Fine, cane, carpet, incline, spread, gate, light, labor.

BANKING.

Coffee, cough, glass, spoon, white, singing. Choose, selection, visible, lightning, garden, conversation, ink, spending, light space, morning, celebration, invisible, reception, hour, glass, curving, summons, sparkle, suffering the minisection, sanctioning the widening, less than the wireless, more certain. All the change. Any counselling non consuming and split splendor.

Forward and a rapidity and no resemblance no more utterly. Safe light, more safes no more safe for the separation.

M—N H—.

A cook. A cook can see. Pointedly in uniform, exertion in a medium. A cook can see.

Clark which is awful, clark which is shameful, clark and order.

A pin is a plump point and pecking and combined and more much more is in fine.

Rats is, rats is oaken. Robber. Height, age, miles, plaster, pedal, more order.

Bake, a barn has cause and more late oat-cake specially.

Spend rubber, holder and coal, high, careful, in a pointed collar. A hideous south west is always a climb in aged seldom succeeded flavoring untimely, necessity white, hour in a glaze.

Break, sky blue light, obliquely, in a cut carpet, in the pack. A sound.

COO—GE.

Press in the ink and stare and cheese. Pick in the faint and feather and white. White in the plume.

M—N H—.

No noon back. No noon settler, no sun in the slant and carpet utterly surrounded.

No pressed plaster. None.

No pressing pan and pan cake. Not related exactly. Not related.

Matter in the center of single sand and slide in the hut.

No account of gibberish. No sky lark utterly.

Perfect lemon and cutting a central black. Not such clouding. A sugar, a lame sugar, certainly. No sobriety no silver ash tray. Read More