The Key to Nell Zink's Subversive Satire

Nicotine, the author’s third novel, is a humorous meditation on how people balance their public and private selves.

Ecco / Fred Filkhorn / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Many writers who are said to “come out of nowhere” are just young—what makes their fame surprising is their youth. The novelist Nell Zink’s route to success has been genuinely unusual. Until a small publisher released The Wallcreeper in 2014, she was a complete unknown, a bricklayer turned secretary turned translator from Virginia who moved to Bad Belzig and wrote fiction in private. Zink’s closest brush with the literary world had been exchanging letters (about birding) with Jonathan Franzen, who encouraged her to get serious about her writing. In short order, she has developed a reputation as an idiosyncratic talent, had her work long-listed for the National Book Award, and been profiled in national magazines.

Zink, 52, has now published her third novel, Nicotine, which is a disappointment compared with its two wily, almost unclassifiable predecessors. About halfway through, the protagonist says of her mother, “I don’t know what she’s going to get up to next, but it’s sure to be a tragicomedy with much OMG.” And that’s a fine encapsulation of the novel. By turns dark and funny, the drama inspires a careless, off-the-cuff response: OMG, or maybe LOL.

Yet beneath the froth runs the same rich theme that has informed her distinctive satiric perspective from the start: the slippery nature of our public identities and loyalties. Zink takes a special interest in how we present ourselves socially—how we navigate the mutable relation between private reality and appearance, between insider and outsider status. In prose that deploys social theory and delivers one-liners with equal antic verve, Zink makes sure that her role-shifting characters keep her readers off-balance.

The Wallcreeper, a manic monologue that skewers middle-class social mores and sacred cows, turns on the conceit that everything is a sham—and on the notion that nobody is totally convinced. The narrator, Tiff, barely knows her husband. How could she, having married Stephen mere weeks after their first meeting? What’s more, Stephen’s “ruling principle” is “let’s not and say we did.” He believes that “most people don’t give a fuck what you’ve done and not done,” so all that matters is the facade.

Zink creates amusing mayhem by planting doubts about such confident cynicism. Good luck figuring out why Stephen abandons his job as a pharmaceutical researcher to join the environmental movement. Is he passionate about restoring rivers, or is he trying to please his paramour, Birke? For that matter, is Birke pure of heart, or is she drawn to activism because she likes making posters and giving interviews? Whatever the truth, they successfully pass for true believers at conferences. But even, or especially, Stephen isn’t spared a dose of angst about his bona fides.

Zink captures his predicament in a brilliant bit of marital byplay. To Stephen’s complaint that engineers and ecologists condescend to him, Tiff offers what she thinks is a comforting reality check: “You’re an activist running a media campaign. They know that.” Stephen takes umbrage. “I know I’m a self-styled activist promoting a slogan. You don’t have to remind me.” Grudgingly, Stephen concedes that styling and being, publicizing and doing are not the same.

Zink’s second novel, Mislaid (2015), is more ambitious—a screwball, vaguely Shakespearian comedy of errors in which the protagonist tries on and casts off characteristics we generally consider immutable: sexual orientation and race. As a teenager, Peggy comes to the conclusion that “she was intended to be a man,” by which she means that she’s a lesbian. At college, however, she and a gay male poetry professor fall for each other, to their complete surprise.

Their attraction is sincere, which isn’t to say that Zink presents sexual orientation as wholly situational, much less imaginary. Eventually, the spell wears off. Lee goes back to liking men, and Peggy goes back to liking women. They would probably remember the affair as nothing more than a puzzling interlude if it hadn’t had consequences: a son and a daughter. Of course parenthood doesn’t stop Peggy from challenging the contours of identity even further as the novel barrels on. She and her daughter run away from Lee, and they impersonate “tawny black people” to elude the authorities. Although this is absurd—they have blond hair—it is no more absurd than American racial categories. “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people,” the narrator explains:

Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse ….The only way to tell white from colored for purposes of segregation was the one-drop rule: if one of your ancestors was black—ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham—so were you.

Just when it looks as though Zink is delving into pure fantasy—a world in which appearances don’t matter in the slightest— in fact she is exposing the reality of the one-drop rule, a system that has nothing to do with skin color. Two white people can easily pass for black and, in effect, be black. Indeed, everyone treats them as if they were black, and that is their lived experience: White girls call Peggy’s daughter “nigger” and black girls call her “half-white.”

The third time around, Zink skips the telling nuances and settles for hurried farce. Once again, her characters don different hats, as it were; the difference is that in Nicotine they’re more obviously poseurs, their morphing less self-aware and more frivolous. Penny, the central character, is a flighty 20-something surrounded by flighty 20-somethings, and eager for distance from her hippy family. Zink gives her an exotic backstory—her mother was a 13-year-old member of the Kogi tribe in Columbia when her father, a middle-aged white American, spotted her, adopted her, and then married her. But the focus is on the present, not the past.

Sent to inspect her father’s childhood home, Penny discovers that it’s been turned into a squatters’ co-op, one of several in his old New Jersey neighborhood. Although she’s supposed to move the squatters along, she decides to join them instead after falling for their de facto leader, Rob, who’s alluring in part because he is off-limits (he claims he’s asexual).

Nicotine serves up light sexual comedy and broadbrush satire of social activist pretenses, recalling Zink’s previous work in what almost feels like self-parody. “The requirement to live in [a co-op] is that activism be your main occupation,” Rob explains. “The houses all have themes,” of rather different calibers:

Some [themes] are pretty trivial—bicycle activists like me, tree tenders, you know, small-time BS—and some are big mainstream political issues like environmental stuff, disarmament, different health issues, AIDS and TB and whatever.

Actually, Rob’s house barely has a theme at all; the only unifying factor is that its residents are addicted to nicotine and rail against a society that ostracizes smokers.

Sincere commitment to a cause is hard to find among any of the squatters, who seize opportunities to join the bougie world as soon as they arise. Rob’s claims to being asexual don’t amount to much either. It turns out he’s been numbing his desires with nicotine because he’s ashamed of his penis size. All it takes is a little nudging, and he’s ready to embrace sex. Maintaining an outsider pose, Zink has shown before, is hard—not because against-the-grain allegiances go deep, but because they don’t. Yet on this occasion the astringent insight can’t rescue a narrative that ends up feeling as silly as the characters.

What about Penny’s parents, a couple who evidently violated social norms with their May-December, cross-cultural romance? An odd kind of spoiler is in order: Zink leaves the potentially discomfiting implications of that storyline unexamined. In Penny’s family, a relative suggests, people may be adopting rebellious poses out of more conventional motives than she realizes. Since we never find out for sure— Zink opts for loose ends— Nicotine feels unfinished. Lore has it that she writes astonishingly quickly, drafting her novels in less than a month, so here’s hoping Zink was simply in a rush to turn to something truly different.