Sarah Ditum

A New York state of mind – Doxology reviewed

Time, tide, and the sacred in the everyday – 50 years in the Big Apple

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Nell Zink

4th Estate, pp. 402, £14.99

Doxology covers five decades and a spacious 400 pages, with all the subplots and digressions you would expect of a baggy monster realist novel. It moves from the subculture of straight edge punk to the backrooms of political powerbroking, and surveys ground from East Harlem to rural Ethiopia. There are at least half a dozen characters who take command of the narration for a substantial chunk of the story, and many more whose consciousnesses we breeze through as cameos. Yet the overall feeling isn’t of plenty, but of precarity. From the opening sentence, it seems that time is always about to run out.

‘Unknown to all, and for as long as he lived, Joe Harris was a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,’ is how Nell Zink launches us into this world, immediately daubing the situation with mortality. Joe — whose condition manifests as inherent musicality and an assumption that everyone means him well — will become an unexpected alt-rock star. His friends Pam (a punk and a programmer) and Dan (an ‘Eighties hipster’) pay their dues in the gutters of the New York music scene, but are pulled away from music by early parenthood. And their daughter Flora will grow up to have an idealist zeal which draws her into the battleground of the 2016 presidential election.

As the novel is set largely in New York, two other, more public shocks also loom over the story besides the death of Joe: the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and the election of Trump. There are also more gradual disturbances swelling, including a growing recognition of environmental depletion and the stealth revolution of the internet. Zink doesn’t so much foreshadow this upheaval to come as announce it with bathetic forthrightness. ‘The tech community saw salvation in the abandonment of things, which would be replaced by information,’ she writes of late 20th-century digital utopianism. ‘The world’s naiveté was grotesque.’ (As well as being a very funny writer, she’s refreshingly unembarrassed about moral judgment.)

Yet even the things we know are going to happen retain the weight of the unexpected, and that’s down to Zink’s facility for recreating not just the detail but also the texture of the past. The title refers to the liturgy’s words of praise for God, and this is a novel with its eye on the sacred in the everyday. We may all be doomed but, like Joe, we can at least sing worshipfully to this cursed and beautiful universe on our way out.