Authors can’t be tried for killing off their own characters, but there’s something nonchalant about the way Nell Zink bumps hers off. In the first line of her first novel, The Wallcreeper, the narrator, Tiffany, miscarries after the car her husband’s driving strikes the bird that gives the book its title. The bird becomes a house pet, and the couple name him after Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy Führer. They decide to send him back into the wild with a chip in his back, and on the next page, we see a hawk eating the wallcreeper’s heart out of its chest. Later, on a bird-watching trip in the Balkans, the husband is revealed to have a heart condition and within a few pages keels over dead. In Zink’s new novel, Mislaid, a minor character disappears from the narrative for years, then turns up as a teenager shooting herself on her grandmother’s grave after getting pregnant. There’s also a truck driver who threatens to reveal the book’s animating secret and conveniently crashes his truck and dies just after learning it.
Nabokov stage-managed his characters’ deaths like this: Think of the convenient car accident in Lolita that offs Charlotte Haze just after she discovers Humbert Humbert’s incriminating diary; or the way Humbert (thrombosis) and Lolita (complications of childbirth) are killed off in that “foreword” before the novel begins. It would be wrong to call Zink’s sophomore effort kinder or gentler than her debut (the new one also comes with its own front-and-center Nazi gag), but she does allow all the principal characters of Mislaid to survive, and even grants them happy endings and an unlikely (if from the start obviously inevitable) reunion, though only after they endure a series of sorrows and humiliations: sexual confusion, homophobic exclusion, disinheritance, artistic failure, motherlessness, fatherlessness, life on the lam, racism, poverty, descent into drug-dealing. One of them narrowly averts being gang-raped in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
That detail’s resemblance to recent headline-making allegations is strictly coincidental. Zink published The Wallcreeper last fall with the small feminist press Dorothy, which bought the rights for $300. Around that time, Mislaid fetched a six-figure deal from Ecco. This is all now part of a Nell Zink myth, codified in a recent New Yorker profile that neatly tucked the magazine into the genesis of its subject’s career. Here’s the way the story goes: a rugged childhood in rural Virginia; a mother who told the child she didn’t write as well as the Brontës did at that age; a bachelor’s degree in philosophy; a peripatetic early adulthood that included a phase of homelessness, a stint as a bricklayer, secretarial work in New York, editorship of a zine, a couple of impetuous marriages, an expatriation to Europe; a correspondence, struck up over their mutual concern for the plight of migratory birds, with Jonathan Franzen, whose report on the mass poaching of songbirds in Cyprus she’d seen in The New Yorker; Franzen’s curiosity about whether she wrote fiction; her creative flowering after her mother’s death that freed her in middle age (she’s 51) to write the way she writes, Brontës be damned. Like Georges Simenon, Zink writes the drafts of her novels in three weeks. There’s another, earlier effort in the drawer. She initially wrote The Wallcreeper to amuse Franzen, and she saw Mislaid as “agent bait.”
It’s not hard to love a renegade like her: points for her eschewal of the M.F.A. track; of careerism itself; of a mortgage in Brooklyn or anywhere else (she reportedly sleeps on a twin futon); and of engagements of another kind (she says she has vowed to avoid committed relationships). Then there’s Zink’s disdain for middle-class America writ large, the very thing most celebrated novelists make a project of accommodating in their books.
But Zink’s life story and her fairy-tale path to publication have nothing on the antic sparks of her prose, her freewheeling extra-canonical allusiveness, her swings from the register of love to a mode of contempt. The Wallcreeper is an environmentalist sex farce set mostly in Switzerland and Germany. It’s a picaresque with many not-uninteresting digressions into green activism, bird-watching, and wetlands-preservation policy. Both Tiffany and her husband, Stephen, become serial adulterers, which is the occasion for some of Zink’s best sentences: “We had loving beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking — loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.” Whatever the truth of the book’s three-week gestation and whatever Zink’s revision process is, her writing has a feverish quality. She dispenses with scene-setting and makes no attempt to regulate narrative time. There are lots of leaps and broad strokes. The story that emerges is Tiffany’s slow, tortured emancipation from husband (granted, he dies) and lovers into becoming, of course, the author of the account we’re reading.
Mislaid is a different sort of book, more tightly structured, more traditional (if cheekily so). The setting is Zink’s native Virginia, and the narration is omniscient in an old-timey sort of way. The book opens in the repressed, unjust, and genteel (if you’re rich and white) 1950s and sweeps into the more permissive, and somewhat lamer (if you’re rich and white) 1980s. It’s the story of another foolishly entered marriage trap, this one much more pernicious than the Wallcreeper one. For one thing, the spouses, Peggy and Lee Fleming, are both gay. And the match is dreadfully unequal. Lee is a domineering aristocrat and a famous poet. Peggy is a naïve, frustrated student at the women’s college where Lee teaches. Their experiment with straight sex, fun for a while, soon loses its luster, gets Peggy kicked out of school, and leaves them with two kids. Peggy is rendered housekeeper, hostess to a parade of Beat and New York School poets, and nanny to the children.
Mother escapes with daughter, son stays with father, and Zink’s comedy of identity intensifies. Fair-skinned Peggy and blonde Mireille Fleming go on the run as Meg and Karen Brown, hiding by passing as African-American by Virginia’s “one-drop rule” — an audacious stroke of plotting on Zink’s part bound to make some cringe. Mireille, the daughter of the good ol’ boy and the debutante (not that either of them was suited for those roles), grows up black and poor in a shack in the woods without electricity. Peg/Meg starts working for a part–Native American, part-redneck drug dealer, and they move into a housing project in town, then become secretly wealthy. After a dozen years, Karen winds up at UVA on a collision course with the preppy white brother she doesn’t remember.
Throughout all of this, Zink’s deadpan wit is matched by an ethical deadpan. Lee and Peg/Meg inhabit an ethical no-man’s-land, and for all their repugnant behavior, they remain ultimately sympathetic (even, in the end, to each other). Zink isn’t a moralist. She creates fictional worlds beyond the bounds of the going taboos, then pushes those bounds to logical extremes. To my eye, her nearest peer among American novelists is another woman around her age also sometimes resident in Germany: Helen DeWitt. Her Lightning Rods (2011), a fable of sex workers installed in corporate lavatories as something like appliances for the relief of male employees, has the same sort of audacity as Zink’s tale of reverse passing. Lightning Rods feeds on contemporary gender politics in much the way Mislaid uses southern racism as fuel for devious comic flights. You can just glimpse what Zink means by “agent bait,” though Mislaid is less a satire of race and sexuality in the American South than a satisfying parody of what such a (self-consciously serious and more obviously commercial) satire might look like — perhaps one by Jonathan Franzen.
As you might expect with books written in a rush, there’s a lighthearted, disposable quality to Zink’s novels. Once she has her characters in motion, she can let the machine churn and riff (brilliantly) along the way. But if she really drafts them in three weeks, she could write 15 books a year, revisions notwithstanding, and still have time for a European-length vacation. You wouldn’t hear me complaining about the flood.
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.