The Wallcreeper (Excerpt)
by Nell Zink, recommended by Dorothy, a publishing project
EDITOR’S NOTE BY DANIELLE DUTTON
On March 5, 2013 — the night before my son’s fourth birthday, as I sat on the floor wrapping a book about the solar system — an email crash-landed into my inbox. It was from an American writer in Germany called Nell Zink. I had never heard of Nell Zink, nor — as far as I could tell — had anyone else. This fact was probably not lost on Nell Zink, since she introduced herself to me then as “an obscure writer of truly stunning obscurity.” She had a manuscript, she explained, and had happened to meet in Germany an old school friend of mine who’d told her about my press. Apparently this old friend mentioned that I was interested in books about “women’s issues,” and Nell assured me that her protagonist, Tiffany, was “as female as all get out.” Also, she knew Jonathan Franzen (Nell, not Tiffany), or she claimed to, which if anything made her seem only more confusingly mysterious. She’d been writing for years without publishing, it seems, and now here was a book about a European bird called a wallcreeper, an exceptionally beautiful bird, and also about Tiffany and her “red-hot husband” Stephen, and would I be interested in seeing it? She promised me it would be fun to read and exquisitely well-written. It turns out she was right on both counts.
I clearly remember beginning The Wallcreeper. Despite knowing nothing about who’d sent it to me, by the fourth or fifth page I was already imagining how I would lay it out, what the cover should look like, and, more than anything, wondering who the hell this person was who wrote like this and had never published any of it. (Keith Gessen, who kindly gave us a blurb for the book, must have experienced the same bafflement, as he starts his blurb by asking, “Who is Nell Zink?”) As I read on, the book only got better — it was funny, smart, sexy, weird, and exquisitely written — and now here comes October and Dorothy will celebrate its tenth title and fifth year — and celebrate all the amazing books we have already been privileged to publish — with a debut novel that every reader so far seems to love as much as we do. At the time I write this, The Wallcreeper has just received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and has been lauded (by PW) as “the hot indie book of the fall.” We’re thrilled to be publishing it. It’s a pleasure to recommend it — and Nell Zink — to you here.
Editor, Dorothy, a publishing project
The Wallcreeper (Excerpt)
by Nell Zink, recommended by Dorothy, a publishing project
Elvis said he wanted to go dancing, which would involve staying out very late. Going dancing was his reason for being, and he wanted to share it with me. I wasn’t sure I could get that past Stephen, but I agreed to try. Stephen said, “That sounds like a date.”
“It totally is a date. Obviously this guy wants in my pants. But I mean, when’s the last time you went dancing? For me I think it was my sophomore year. And I wouldn’t know where to go. He’s a nice guy. I’m sure you know him. The guy with the beard at the gas station. He’s totally harmless. He’s a disciple of Slavoj Žižek.”
Stephen snapped the International Herald Tribune tight to turn the page. “That is the tiredest line in Christendom,” he said.
“I know. It’s not his fault he’s a tragic figure. It’s never a tragic figure’s fault. That’s what makes them tragic. But he says he knows this really fun place to go dancing, not a disco but, like, a bar where they play all kind of ‘mixed music.’”
“Do you need a chaperone?”
“Would you please?” I said. I couldn’t really say no. We picked Elvis up at his place. I had never been there. It was farther out of town, up at the edge of the woods. An old house. He came out as soon as the car pulled up. The street obviously didn’t get much traffic late at night. Elvis directed us to the most pitiful bar I ever saw. Young men unlikely to be in the possession of Swiss passports danced with eyes half-closed, snapping their fingers, while women in various states of disrepair jockeyed into their axes of attention. Lumpy, lantern-jawed, pockmarked, bucktoothed, short, tall, or simply drunken women, here to pick up devil-may-care subaltern gigolos for a night of horror.
I saw Elvis through new eyes. “You are so much beautiful,” he would often say charmingly as he worshipped at the altar of my body. Looking around, I could only think that a bar where I am the best-looking woman by a factor of ten is not a bar where I want to be, and that beauty is apparently relative. I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world is 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. Just opening your eyes puts you in front of a mirror, psychologically speaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Or rather, garbage goes in, but you never get rid of it. It just lies there turning to dust and slowly wafting a thin layer of grime on to every other object in your brain. Scraping the gunk off is not only a major challenge, but the chief burden of human existence. That’s why I keep things so clean. Otherwise I would see little flecks of Rudolf-shit everywhere I looked, from Fragonard to the Duino Elegies.
“I am not staying here,” Stephen said. “Do you want to stay?”
Elvis asked if he knew another place. Our next stop was called Mancuso’s Loft. It was running drum ’n’ bass. The proprietor waved us in. Here I saw Stephen through new eyes. Then I ran to the ladies’ room and stuffed my ears with toilet paper. Stephen led me to the floor and yelled, “I’m going to dance a little bit!” He then proceeded to dance as if he had never seen me, or any other human being, before in his life. Cranes came to mind.
Touching my elbow, Elvis remarked, “This club is so much beautiful,” and headed for the bar. Elvis was right. In Mancuso’s Loft, I felt below average-looking and quite conspicuously ill-dressed. My pants revealed nothing whatever. My shoes were comfy. My shirt had long sleeves so thick I was soon terribly hot.
“I like your husband,” Elvis said. I said that was not really his assigned task. “No, he has something. Un certain je ne sais quoi. You know what I need? A girlfriend. By myself, I am never getting into this place. You think they let me in? A brown man alone, with a beard? Ha!”
“You’re not brown! You’re lily-white anywhere but Denmark!”
“Many times, I am standing in the queue outside clubs like this. And all the time, I think I am living in Berne. But I am not living in Berne. I am living in the Berne that reveals itself to me, okay, a white ‘Yugo’ if you please but with no connections, with nothing. A cashier in the petrol station, with nothing to his account but a few women. Yes, I say it openly. I have nothing to offer this town but my body. My body to strike the keys of the cash register, my body to find other bodies and search for warmth. My body is my capital. You, this beautiful woman, are my social capital. And then I was taking you, you particularly, to this horrible bar. I see now it is so very horrible, this bar.”
“Elvis, calm down,” I said. “You’re a model of successful integration. You even speak Berndeutsch, and you’ve only been here eleven years!”
“Are they speaking Berndeutsch in this club? No, they speak French!” I didn’t know how he had decided on that one, because I could barely hear even him, much less other people. “I speak the language of the gas station! I have shamed myself. I hoped to leverage one woman to meet another. Not to earn a woman with the honest work and the natural beauty of my body! This crazy Swiss language has made me a capitalist of women! And what is my wages? I insult you, the most beautiful woman in Switzerland. This town has made of me a body without a brain. I will leave this place and go to Geneva,” he concluded, taking both my hands.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“No, I won’t if you don’t permit it!” he cried ecstatically, throwing his arms around me.
Stephen drifted over, bouncing on the tips of his toes, and beckoned to me. “You need ketamine?” he whispered.
“Umm, no?” I said.
“I got three,” he said. “I think I might stay here. You want the car keys? I’ll take a taxi.”
“Don’t give Elvis any drugs.”
“I don’t take drugs,” Elvis volunteered. He had never been in a band, so he could hear much better than we could. Stephen and I were always stage-whispering about people sitting near us in cafés and drawing stares.
“That’s dandy,” I said. I pocketed the keys and took Elvis’s hand. “Let’s blow this joint. That okay with you?”
Stephen mouthed the word, “Arrivederci.”
We arrived at the wind-struck farmhouse where Elvis lived with (judging from angle of the stairs) a herd of chamois and mounted to the third floor hand in hand. After a warm and harmonious session of sixty-nine (Elvis was not too tall) to the sounds of Montenegrin folk rock (East Elysium — my favorite song was “Wings [Who You Are?]”), he said, “I want to buttfuck you.”
“What is it with guys?” I said. “You’re all obsessed.”
“I never mentioned it before!”
“So where did you get the idea? From bad porn with stock footage from the sixties? From daring postmodern novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover?”
“From doing it.”
“FYI, it’s no fun, so forget it.”
“Just forget it?”
Elvis said mournfully, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t care that it’s ‘no fun.’ That’s the difference between our thing and a real love.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “I don’t mean to sound like a crank, but are you saying that what makes our relationship valuable is my willingness to suffer for you? Are you aware that I’ve never suffered for you for even, like, one second? That’s what makes our relationship so optimal, in my opinion.”
“You must have done buttfucking to know that it’s ‘no fun.’ So you suffered for someone else, right?”
“So now you want to move up in the world?”
“I’m in love with you. I want a sign that I mean so much to you.”
“You asked me if I’d move to Geneva with you, and I said no. You accepted that right away.”
“I can’t ask so much of you. That’s too much.”
“Are you aware that if you gave me a choice, like if I actually had two options in life, anal sex and moving to Geneva — ”
“You would move to Geneva?” He threw his arms around me again, quivering with spontaneous joy.
“You’re not understanding me,” I said, pushing pillows in the corner so I could sit up. “There’s suffering, and then there’s boring stuff, and then there’s stuff that’s just plain stupid. I’ve done my share of suffering for Stephen. And other guys. Like crucifixion, I mean that level of suffering. Like St. Laurence. ‘Turn me over! I’m done on this side!’ I don’t see what that has to do with having a good relationship. It should be about getting through difficult stuff together. Difficult stuff the world throws at you, not difficult stuff you do to each other. The difference right now between me and St. Laurence is, he didn’t have the option of taking his hand off the hot stove.”
“You are fierce,” he replied, pulling the blanket up around his naked body to hide it. “I am never asking another woman for buttfucking.”
“Are you bisexual?”
He frowned. “I am polymorphous pervert! Where I find love!”
I shifted back into neutral and once again accepted the need for negative capability in this world. We had loving, beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking — loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake. I mean, you just ignore the hamsters and look at the big picture.
The next day, around six p.m. after he woke up, Stephen said, “Let’s make a baby.”
“I feel like Saint Laurence on the gridiron,” I said.
“No, you’re mixed up. Miscarriage is nothing compared to childbirth. You got off easy. You’re like Saint Laurence saying he doesn’t want to go to Italy in July. I’m asking you right now to risk your life and health for my reproductive success. I feed, you breed. Come on!”
“Sounds tempting,” I said. “If I could lay eggs and you agreed to sit on them, I might even do it.”
“Can we fake it?” he said. “Are you fertile?”
“Then meet the father of your triplets!”
“You’re totally insane,” I said approvingly. Stephen was actually sort of interesting when his mind opened the iron gates a crack and let the light out.
“The central ruling principle of my life,” Stephen explained in a grandfatherly way, “is ‘Let’s Not And Say We Did.’ Most people don’t give a fuck what you’ve done and not done. If I put a picture of you and a baby on my desk, I can get promoted. All anybody wants to know is little sketchy bits of information, strictly censored, and that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Did you ever sit down and actually make a list of what you know about, like, Togo? ‘Is in Africa.’ That would be the grand total of your knowledge. But when people say the word ‘Togo’ you let it pass, the same way you let hundreds of people pass you on the street and in the halls every day. And every one of them is as big as Togo, inside.”
“That’s pure bathos, and I know nothing about Togo,” I said. “But somebody like, say, Omar’s wife, I don’t know her either, but what with my life wisdom and mirror neurons and all that, I figure I have a pretty good sense of what she’s about. But only because I’ve met her. I mean, if I said, ‘Togo is charming,’ you’d get the idea that you liked it until further notice, but if then I said, ‘Togo brags about doing those impossible word puzzle things in the Atlantic and dropping out of Harvard med to get a doctorate in nutrition,’ you’d think, who is it trying to impress? But you haven’t even begun to talk about its secret sorrows or whatever.”
“You can bet your buttons Togo has secret sorrows,” Stephen said. “If anybody knew what they were, the world would be filled with raw, bowel-torn howling. That’s Stanislaw Lem. I was going to say, I didn’t love you when I married you. It was like, ‘Let’s Not And Say We Did.’ But now I feel like Apu in The World of Apu, except instead of being faithful to me and dying in childbirth like you’re supposed to, you’re fucking this Arab guy. So tell me, Tiff, what is going on?”
“Montenegrin my ass! He’s Syrian if he’s a day! ‘Elvis’! It’s like a Filipino telemarketer calling himself Aragorn!”
“Ever try to make a list of everything you know about Elvis?”
“What would be the point? I was just trying to have some exciting sex.”
“Could you not try?”
I was silent.
“Could you love me a little?”
“Actually I do love you. Elvis told me. It’s breaking his heart.”
On Monday morning I bought the International Herald Tribune and some milk and said, “Elvis, I need to talk to you.” For the first time I noticed that he was reading Hürriyet. Over coffee at my place, he explained that his family had left Montenegro some generations before. But their women preserved the legendary beauty and kindness of the people of Montenegro, once immortalized so memorably by Cervantes in his lady of Ulcinj (D’ulcinea), and their men weren’t bad either. He showed me his Turkish passport. His name really was Elvis.
“Tiffany, my love,” he said. “What does it matter where I am from? You are an American! You know better than any shit European that we are all equal children of God!”
The next Saturday we went birding to an ugly artificial lake and Stephen asked me to talk about myself. “Let’s see,” I said, “being little sucked, but it had its advantages. Sledding is a lot more exciting before you turn ten. Of course I couldn’t really swim until I was eleven.”
“Well, my parents weren’t real particular about their choice of a boarding school, so I went to basically a home for wayward girls. I didn’t learn a whole lot. Like, our chemistry teacher was the choir director’s wife. I used to play around in the lab on weekends. I used to dump all the mercury on the counter and play with it.”
“I was supposed to go to Bryn Mawr after my junior year, but it was too much money, so I took a scholarship to Agnes Scott.”
He shuddered appreciatively.
“Then I moved to Philly and got a job, and then I met you.”
“Well, life is short.”
“My child bride.”
“Hey, it’s not that bad! I had a thing with the riding coach at school, and in Philly I OD’d on heroin and they called me crusty mattress-back!”
“I’m kidding. That was somebody else. This girl name of, um, Cindy — ”
“You just made her up.”
“Okay, her name was Candy. I’m serious. Candy Hart. It sounds like a transvestite from Andy Warhol’s factory, so probably she made it up. She said she was from Blue Bell, so probably she was from Lancaster, and she said she was fourteen, so probably she was seventeen. I’ve never met anybody I can be entirely sure I’ve actually met.”
We saw bearded reedlings and a ruff. We would have seen more, but there were dog walkers there scaring everything off.
We went on a birding vacation to the lagoons of Bardawil. All the men I saw there reminded me of Elvis.
When I got back I demanded answers. He cradled his coffee in his hands and said, “Now I am telling you the truth. I am a Syrian Jew. My grandfather converted to Catholicism in 1948, but he took a Druze name by mistake and was not trusted by the Forces Libanaises, so then — ”
“Just shut up,” I said. “I think you’re cute. That’s your nationality. Cute.”
On the phone my sister said, “Tiff, you have got to get a life. You think I have time to have sex? Guess again! I spend so much money on outfits for work I had to get another job!”
I said to Stephen at dinner that maybe we should try again to have a child. Our marriage had begun in the most daunting way imaginable. We had barely known each other, and then we had those accidents and that jarring disconnect between causes (empty-headed young people liking each other, wallcreepers) and effects (pain, death).
He objected. He said, “I’m sure there are couples that are fated to be together, like they meet each other in kindergarten and date on and off for twenty years, and finally they give up because they realize they’ve gotten so far down their common road that there’s nobody else in the entire universe they can talk to, because they have a private language and everything like that. Do you really think that applies to us? What do we have in common? We don’t even have Rudi anymore.”
“A baby would be something in common.”
“That’s it. Have kids and turn so weird from the stress that nobody else ever understands another word we say. A couple that’s completely wrapped up in each other can get through anything, because they don’t have a choice. Right now we have the option of floating through life without being chained to anybody, but instead we pile on a ton of bricks and go whomp down to the ground.”
“Are we ever going to both want a baby at the same time?”
“I hope not!” Stephen said. “I want to float through life. I like being with you, and I don’t want to be chained to anybody. I mean, when you got pregnant, I could deal, but if you’re not pregnant, I can also deal.”
“That’s a relief. I was afraid if I didn’t have kids soon, you’d make me get a job.”
He paused and looked at me fixedly for a good ten seconds. “I’m starting to catch on to you,” he said. “You were born wasted. You live in a naturally occurring k-hole.”
“I do my best.”
“Here’s the deal. 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.”
“Like a moa,” I suggested.
“Exactly. There will never be another one like it, and there was never one like it ever, so actually it’s a moa that arose from spontaneous generation. A quantum moa.”
“Babies are totally quantum,” I said. “That’s why it feels so weird when they die. You feel like it had its whole entire life taken away and all the lights went out at once, like it got raptured out of its first tooth and high school graduation in the same moment.”
We munched on food for a bit.
I said, “Stephen, may I ask you something? When we had anal sex that one time, was that for your life list?”
“It wasn’t on my list.”
“I’m sorry. I figured human beings are curious. I try not to avert my eyes when life throws new experiences my way. But I guess nobody ever asked me to stick the pelagics up my ass.”