Nell Zink’s route to publication became something of a story in itself: one that involved an email exchange about birds with Jonathan Franzen, which led to Franzen’s subsequently championing her work, and ended with not one but two novels — Mislaid and The Wallcreeper — published together in a lavish, design-savvy edition. But it was Zink’s style and ideas that drew fervid, hyperbolic praise. Fresh and undeniably original, this is fiction at odds with much of American literary convention, Zink’s prose refusing to conform to received ideas of how novels are constructed; time shifts, perspective changes and characterisation, for example, are all treated casually, almost with disdain. The word ‘genius’ was bandied around. So, unsurprisingly, Nicotine arrives with a certain amount of expectational baggage — and it’s a weight it struggles to shoulder.
Penny, an unemployed business graduate, is the conventional one in a family of nonconformists. Her father, Norm, is a Jewish shamanist; her mother, formerly Norm’s adopted child, comes from a South American tribe; while her two stepbrothers were abandoned by their mother in sketchy circumstances. When Norm dies, Penny ‘inherits’ his family home, now occupied by a group of pro-tobacco squatters. There she meets Rob, a sexy asexual with a secret, and Jazz, a sexually omnivorous vamp. Her life begins to change. Sort of.
Zink’s prose is an always fascinating instrument, one as flitting and amorphous as the attention span of her characters. Action is moved on by years in one sentence, focus narrows then widens, point of view is switched and reversed. It can be bewildering, but her sentences can stun, perfectly nailing a situation or emotion — the death of Norm, for example, is superbly controlled.
For all its technical artistry, however, Nicotine lacks cohesion, empathy, or a genuine sense of what it is about. It suggests itself as a comedic meditation on contemporary mores toward sex and death, and how the family, however constructed, mitigates both. But the characterisation is so flat, and the plotting so muddled that it’s hard to know what Zink is driving at. Penny, Rob and Jazz should be compelling company, but their narcissism and constant erotic obsessions are wearying rather than enlightening. More frustratingly, when revelations surface, detonating like plot bombs out of nowhere, characters simply carry on as before, unchanged and two-dimensional. As a consequence, Zink’s unsettling brilliance, as showcased in Mislaid, is underused in this ungainly and hurried follow-up.