REVIEW: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
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by Jenna Leigh Evans
Nell Zink’s compelling, sexy, weird, and highly intellectual novel opens, tellingly, with this quote by Ted Hughes: “I kill where I please because it is all mine.”
This is an apt introduction to a take-no-prisoners jaunt through an anthrocentric, patriarchal culture as seen through the eyes of Tiffany, a young newlywed who undermines her connection to nature, eros and self by impulsively marrying (and cleaving to) a man who more closely resembles a fencepost than a human being, and by fiercely resisting finding meaningful work in favor of puttering aimlessly around the house.
Steven is a DJ who dances as if he had never seen another human being dance, a birder more tuned in to his tally than the creatures he tallies, and eventually a political activist with no real convictions. At the opening of the story, he drives smack into a rare bird (the Wallcreeper) and is so thrilled by being able to tag it for his list he exclaims, “I identified it before I even hit it” — because dead birds don’t count for sightings. Tiffany, meanwhile, is miscarrying her baby. When she sobs inconsolably, a grief Zink refers to specifically as bodily distress, Steven clamps his hands over her ears. “Much later he told me he thought if I couldn’t hear myself I might stop,” Zink writes.
These threads of male disconnection in the midst of female primal experience are wound tighter and tighter. Tiffany finds that a foray into anal sex, rather than helping her overcome her fear of intimacy as she’d hoped, brings nothing but simple physical pain (albeit very amusingly described pain), while Steven emerges from the experience radiant with delight. Later, he admits that it had been on his list — the joy of drawing a line through it the joy of the conqueror.
But Zink doesn’t let her female characters off the hook. Unapologetically, neutrally, the novel probes Tiffany’s desperate (and disparate) craving for both domesticity and wildness. When its need for sex makes it unmanageable, Steven and Tiffany’s captive bird has to be banished from their home — but they can’t bear to let it go as it is. So, newly microchipped, clipped, banded, and trained to return, the Wallcreeper is released into the wild, where it meets a comically horrible fate. The dullness of Tiffany’s self-created captivity drives her to an affair with a beautiful, clueless Turkish man named Elvis, which makes her feel daring and wild. Steven, while espousing desire for Tiffany’s sleek poise, launches his own clandestine relationship with a messy, mangy-looking ecological activist, who draws them both into a world of high-stakes yet completely inept eco-terrorism. At this point, the novel’s sly, pointed humor takes a turn for the utterly unsparing.
It’s rare that a debut novel so offbeat, and with such sharp little teeth, is also a page-turner. Rarer still does one like this get past the gatekeepers of the publishing world. It’s exciting that The Wallcreeper did.
by Nell Zink