Always on the lookout for something truly original, I was tempted by Nell Zink’s (just the name!) eccentric sounding book The Wallcreeper.
The novel comes with an endorsement from Jonathan Franzen who more or less discovered Zink and a barrage of media coverage. As it turned out, I was disappointed although I do have hopes for Zink; her snappy funny prose and outrageous humour is definitively something new, but without a better story it just doesn’t work.
The Wallcreeper starts off with promising originality. Our narrator Tiffany marries Stephen, a man she has known for all of three weeks, about whom she hardly knows anything. ‘He’s a keeper’ her parents say puzzlingly; surely they must know him even less? Tiffany and Stephen relocate to Berne in Switzerland with Stephen’s pharmaceutical company job. As the book begins, they have just been in a car accident, causing Tiffany to have a miscarriage. Stephen, a keen birdwatcher, is more preoccupied by the wallcreeper he’s just spotted outside the car than his bleeding wife.
Zink’s novel is packed with these absurd, surprising and morbidly funny moments, accompanied by offbeat comments. As when Stephen and Tiffany are discussing whether to try for another baby or not:
I need your baby for my life list. It’s one of the ten thousand things I need to do before I die, along with climbing Mt. Everest and seeing the pink and white terraces of Rotomahana. The baby is the ultimate mega-tick.
As you will have gathered, Stephen’s not exactly a mature kind of person, and neither is Tiffany, by the way. All they do is shag around, Tiffany with the hot petrol station attendant Elvis, a Montenegrin who’s convinced that Berne ‘has made of me a body without a brain’ and who wants to move to Geneva to regain his self-respect (as if that’s likely to help), with Olaf, the married birdwatcher, or with any other men she stumbles over. Stephen, who’s no better, goes for his colleague’s wife, Birke the environmentalist or even Tiffany’s sister.
According to Stephen, birds spend all their time ‘breeding and feeding’, behaviour that pretty much sums up his own existence. I guess this is where Zink’s message lies, a comment on our obsession with consumption and sex. Feminism also features with Tiffany’s unwillingness and inability to work (‘I had intimated that I was a writer with industry connections so he wouldn’t make me work’), the root cause for her lack of self-respect, as we’ll see later in the book.
Zink’s premise and fast paced writing is entertaining enough, but unfortunately the story goes nowhere. Stephen’s pathetic attempts at becoming an eco-warrior reads like a memo about the environmental movement and Zink’s initial spark and humour are lost. The book fizzles out with our protagonists’ bird watching in the swamps of Kosovo or contemplating hydroelectric projects in Albania. Let’s hope her next book Mislaid has more to offer.