Nell Zink

In her review of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper, Lionel Shriver judges that the novel exists in a kind of narrative void so that "when all is said and done, you’re pretty much left with a strong voice and snappy one-liners. There’s an arbitrary quality. . .a sense that one thing could happen or something else altogether and it wouldn’t matter." Despite Zink's stylistic skills, the narrative lacks "a story that really rolls."

There is certainly a great deal of drift in the account of her life given by the novel's protagonist, Tiffany, even to the point that episodes follow each other almost randomly, but I am inclined to agree with Daniel Davis Wood, who interprets Tiffany's continual recourse to the "snappy one-liners" as "a strange sort of stylistic coping strategy" in the face of the essentially traumatic experiences she recounts. This perspective on the plotlessness of The Wallcreeper helps us to perceive a certain kind of compensating unity in the novel--a unity of voice and style--but Shriver's complaint that it meanders sufficiently to at times verge on the aimless does identify a quality of the novel that often threatens to induce lethargy even in readers otherwise willing to acknowledge the narrator's stylistic charms.

Ultimately, however, it is not really plot or story that this novel lacks, but an attention to form, the creation of an aesthetic order that engages the reader's interest as a substitute for conventionally developed plot. Even in mainstream literary fiction (perhaps especially in mainstream literary fiction), "form" is too often conceived as identical to plot, but in the most interesting fiction, the former transcends the latter, converging with voice and style to provide a work with its aesthetic identity, to fashion the "art" of the art of fiction. In The Wallcreeper, it is as if Zink gave all of her effort to creating a distinctive voice (at which she succeeds), one that leans heavily on witticisms and arresting expressions, while leaving form to take care of itself--which unfortunately it ultimately fails to do. If Tiffany's narration is intended as a kind of experiment with formlessness, the actual effect is paradoxically to put even more emphasis on character and, if not story of the well-made variety, on what happens.

This is not an auspicious context for an appreciation of The Wallcreeper. Aside from Tiffany, none of the characters in the novel are very interesting (although perhaps it is Tiffany's egocentric account that prevents her husband, Stephen, from becoming an interesting character, since finally we know so little about him it is difficult to apprehend him fully), and Tiffany herself through most of the novel is surely not a very likeable character. This finally does not prevent her from being a compelling character in her own way (compelling perhaps in her determination not to be a likeable character), but eventually her exasperating behavior palls from repetition, and the "snappy one-liners" are not enough to sustain any consistent concern for what she does. She spends a good deal of time relating her adulterous affairs, but again their sameness eventually becomes wearisome rather than salacious.

Eventually Tiffany becomes involved in a quasi-radical kind of environmentalism (quasi because it is related in such an affectless way, just something else she's gotten involved in), but most of these episodes seem designed principally to provide us with "information" about European environmental issues and EU bureaucracy. They are the most tedious parts of the book, but in their gratuitous way help to highlight for us the novel's more serious flaw. Without a sense of how these interludes contribute to the realization of the novel's formal ambitions--largely because it doesn't seem to have any such ambitions--the reader must conclude they have been included for no particular reason at all. 


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