Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nell Zink, _The Wallcreeper_

RECENT NOVELS BY American novelists that set American characters in eastern or central Europe typically take on the seriousness of eastern and central European novels. They can still be witty or farcical at moments, but (thinking of Caleb Crain or Garth Greenwell, say) they do curve towards the moral gravity and earnestness of Mann, Musil, Broch, Bernhard (who can all be funny--don't get me wrong--but the somber is never far away).

So, a distinctive thing about Zink's The Wallcreeper is that it is set mainly in Switzerland and Germany and has mainly American characters, but it relies on the deadpan, unfazed, somewhat flattened tone of a lot of American fiction (in my personal shorthand, the "Didion-effect") that does not show much elation over fortunate events nor much dismay over unfortunate ones.

The novel opens:

I [the narrator, Tiffany] was looking at the map when Stephen [her husband] swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.

Stephen swerved because he saw a rare bird--the wallcreeper of the title--and he stops to retrieve it. Oddly enough, even though a miscarriage is a serious life event, it hardly gets mentioned again. We are left to wonder how much it mattered to Tiffany.

The bird, however, gets a lot of attention in the following pages, getting a name (Rudi) and even some celebrity, due to its rarity. But on p. 55, Rudi (even though he is the title character) gets an abrupt Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho early exit:

I got my binoculars focused on Rudi in time to see the tiny hawk raise his head wet to the nostrils with Rudi's blood and plunge it again into Rudi's chest. Rudi's beautiful red and black wings with their absurd white polka dots twitched, twitched again, and died. The hawk ate his heart and flew away.

This event too is met with a certain flatness of affect. Stephen is temporarily upset, but Tiffany does not give much away, either at the moment or later.

Situations of genuine gravity keep occurring--betrayal, adultery, drug addiction, the fate of the planet [both Tiffany and Stephen are enviro-activists), and death--but the classic Mitteleuropa earnest reflection (the main ingredient of Nádas's A Book of Memories, which I had just finished) stays far away. Tiffany has frequent recourse to the wry & dry, candidly owns up to her own lapses and misperceptions, but does not give away much about her inner weather. Her emotional life is pretty much under seal.

So why did I end up enjoying this novel as much as I did? I admit, I almost gave up after Rudi met his end. (Zink's epigraph is from Ted Hughes: "I kill where I please because it is all mine.")

Partly, I think, because Zink somehow conveys that Tiffany is feeling a great deal more than she is letting on. Late in the novel, as she and Stephen are roaming the woods, they see a terrible sight:

One day we got to a dead ewe in time to catch the goose-stepping of the griffon vultures arriving to deliver its breech birth along with everything else except its rumen, bones, and pelt. Before I closed my eyes, it skyrocketed to first place on the  list of the most repellent spectacles I had ever witnessed, lending a vivid symbolic figuration to events I had hitherto refused to name.

The miscarriage, I'm guessing--unmentioned, intentionally and fiercely unmentioned, but unforgotten.
And maybe the repression makes sense. After all, in an eat-and-be-eaten world, how much brain-space can one spare for sentimentality?

Partly, too, Tiffany just becomes good company. She is smart, she's funny, and she spreads a lovely constellation of allusions: Horace Andy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prince Kropotkin and Slavoj Zizek. She even mentions Robert Walser and Thomas DeQuincey in the same sentence. So she's all right in my book.

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