Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is the romantic novel backwards. Its central relationship all but begins with marriage (Tiff and Stephen have known each other three weeks), a starting point for the realisation that they do not love each other. Tiff happily follows Stephen to Bern where he works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, while she pretends she is writing a screenplay:
“I had intimated that I was a writer with industry connections so he wouldn’t make me work.”
It would be fair to say they marry without really (or even superficially) knowing each other. Stephen’s devotion to birds is notable from the first page when, after a collision with one which causes him to crash the car, he checks the bird before Tiff, and yet later she is still able to ask him, “Wait, how did you get into birds?” (The bird in question is the titular wallcreeper, which they take home with them as a handy symbol; the avian raison d’tre ‘breed and feed’ is their credo for a while). Inevitably they both soon have lovers, a relationship in Stephen’s case which sees him abandon his career for the environmental movement.
What makes The Wallcreeper such an exhilarating read, though, is its voice, which strikes the reader as fresh and unafraid from the opening line:
“I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.”
In fact, Zink seems to have opening lines to spare. What about:
“Our first meeting prevented a crime.”
“I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant. It was just one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk.”
Clearly Zink can craft a snappy, surprising sentence when she needs to. She is particularly adept when it comes to describing sexual experience – a notoriously difficult subject to get right – using language which is neither lyrical nor crude to develop a complex perspective that owes nothing to pornography. Here, for example, is an already (justly) famous passage where she recounts Stephen’s sudden and unilateral decision to penetrate her anally:
“Now, all my life I had fantasized about used sexually in every way I could think of on the spur of the respective moment. How naive I was, I said to myself. In actuality this was like using a bedpan on the kitchen counter. I knew with certainty that “pain” is a euphemism even more namby-pamby than “defilement.” Look at Stephen! He thinks he’s having sex! Smell his hand! It’s touching my hair! I thought, Tiff, my friend, we shall modify a curling iron and burn this out of your brain…
“I gasped for air, dreading the moment when he would pull out, and thought, Girls are lame.”
In this short passage, Zink manages to convey Tiff’s physical, emotional and intellectual response by using language in an astonishing number of different ways and still manages to surprise us at the end.
Zink’s skill with language can also be a weakness, however. Not only is our narrator the mistress of zeitgeist-capturing statements, everyone she knows seems equally intent on talking in punchy aphorisms. Zink’s characters have a keen need to feel interesting and express opinions. They also exist beyond the reach of countries. We move from the international world of pharmaceuticals to the international world of charities; though sense of place is important in her settings (Berne, Berlin), this is not reflected in Zink’s characters. Only Elvis, her Turkish lover, is unable to cross borders, or speak in flowing English. When he takes Tiff to a rundown bar to dance, her reaction is telling:
“I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world was not all college girls and secretaries and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough.”
Elvis is the lover she stops seeing when he tells her his ex-wife is pregnant; the more respectable, and more married, Olaf is the lover whose car she runs after. Left without Stephen and Olaf, her first reaction is to ask another man to marry her. For most of the novel Tiff is far from being a feminist. Only at the end does she seem to realise: “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined.”
Tiff is ultimately a spoilt and rather ridiculous character who woos the reader with language and honesty. Her involvement with environmental charity Global Rivers Alliance is the accidental result of her relationships, just like her interest in birds. She is not untypical of the novel’s characters: even Stephen’s pharmaceutical work is on a device he hoped would benefit himself. My impression is that Zink finds them more serious than I do, but I could be wrong.
Zink is an incredible stylist and it is evident that this is a writer who has honed her skills with language over time. Yet, it also apparent that she is a writer used to a select audience. The novel’s bracing first half falters as pet preoccupations overwhelm her characterisation. However, remarkably few writers merit the intake of breath that you experience on first being plunged into her prose – with a second novel already published it will be interesting to see what she does next.