By Nell Zink
Dorothy, a publishing project
Reviewed by Nora Boydston
"There are terrible things that never get easier, and there are things even more terrible that get easier with time and repetition."
The Wallcreeper begins inauspiciously with a car accident that precipitates the narrator's miscarriage. I must admit when I read the first sentence, I was a bit worried. Was this going to be another one of those books?
In the past few years, I have encountered a glut of literary fiction about women trying to get pregnant. Even though I have always been open to stories about any subject, I've become tired of the sameness of a certain kind of story. It's gotten to the point where I can tell within a few paragraphs whether I'm going to like a book or not. I may be a picky reader, but in actuality I have only one criterion: surprise.
So, after shrugging off my worries about Zink's first sentence, I made my way through the next few dizzying pages, and I realized blissfully: no, this was not going to be another one of those books at all. Instead, it is not only one of the most interesting pieces of fiction I've read in recent memory, but also a wholly unexpected and innovative play on the "women's novel."
Zink begins with the familiar architecture of domestic realism—an unhappy, unfulfilled female protagonist and her troubled marriage—and promptly takes an axe to the reader's expectations. Her writing is remarkably fresh, in every sense of the word: it is original, zeitgeisty, and delightfully irreverent. And so it is both surprising and not surprising that this is Zink's first novel. She writes with the assurance of a more seasoned author, but maintains the wonder and innovation of a debut novelist.
Tiff—the aforementioned protagonist—is an unsettling reboot of the pre-Gloria Steinem housewife trope. She followed her husband Stephen—about whom she apparently knows very little except for his passion for birding and electronic dance music—to Europe for his career. Tiff seems to lack any interests or aspirations of her own outside her overwhelming desire to never work. She didn't even really want to be pregnant, and other than the physical pain and emotional alienation the miscarriage causes, she actually seems relieved. (It is also a relief to the reader, because one couldn't imagine these two characters raising a well-adjusted child.)
In both Tiff and Stephen's mind, their marriage is a contract; they have "a deal." How thoroughly they've discussed the terms of said deal is debatable though (there isn't much discussion of anything in their marriage). The deal apparently doesn't include fidelity, because neither are very concerned with their own or their spouse's. Even so, neither of them seems compelled by any authentic desire at all. Even in their extramarital affairs, they appear to be just going through the motions or ticking off items on their "life list." (On Stephen's list: trying anal sex, fathering a child. On Tiff's: not trying anal sex, who knows what else.)
Eventually it becomes clear that Tiff is at least a somewhat unreliable narrator. As she moves from traumatized to numb, her narration vacillates from coy to blunt. Early on, she refers to her own reproductive organs as her "down there." She is completely disconnected from not only her own body and sexuality, but also her own thoughts and feelings. The perfect description of Tiff can be found in James Joyce's story "A Painful Case": she lives at a little distance from her body. Despite not particularly liking her, the reader still roots for her to succeed, whatever that might mean. In fact, there is not a single 'likeable' character in The Wallcreeper. Every one of them—Tiff, Stephen, and their various sexual partners and business associates (often a mix of the two)—are oblivious and self-absorbed. In conversation, their words are obtuse and casually cruel.
Zink's linguistic prowess is impressive. In addition to the unpredictable plot, her descriptions of people ("I caught the bus from the airport with a young woman whose hair was lacquered into a ponytail as hard and shiny as a shrimp [. . .] Her fingernails were glossy claws [. . .] Her voice had the same stentorian sheen") places ("Tukwila, in my opinion, was the trap in the drain. Nobody lives there voluntarily except people who saw nothing but westerns before their grandfathers pawned their TVs"), and her characters' inner lives ("For months I lay like a windfall peach contemplating its own bitter almond") are vivid and unique.
Tiff's world seems to exist slightly adjacent to our own, perhaps a parallel universe where everything is the same yet slightly different, and thus utterly disturbing. Even though the reader doesn't see them coming, the sometimes bizarre plot twists never feel arbitrary. Zink's sure hand inspires such confidence that the characters are completely believable and so their actions are clearly the only possibilities for them. Zink takes all-too-familiar themes—sex, marriage, infidelity, infertility—and juxtaposes them with less common ones—ornithology, environmental activism—to frame Tiff's quest to find meaning in an ever-changing landscape that seems completely beyond her control.
Halfway through the book, rivers overtake birds as the dominant leitmotif. While Tiff and Stephen bounce around Europe, they get caught up in environmental activism to preserve rivers. Once again Zink takes an overused metaphor (life is a river) and puts her own spin on it. Tiff allows herself to be carried along by life's current, appearing to be an empty vessel, compelled not by her own desires (as she mistakenly declares: "I only did things I felt strongly moved to do") but rather by the actions of others. The course she travels feels inevitable, and she merely allows things to happen.
Eventually, Tiff undertakes a project of her own—removing a dam from the Elbe river one stone at a time—and it's the first time she shows any initiative. Everyone advises her against it, and truly it seems like a fool's errand. Her work goes almost entirely unnoticed and unappreciated. When spring comes, however, her plan accomplishes what she had hoped: it "frees" the river and floods the nearby tree farm, but also destroys the habitat of some of her beloved birds. Her chosen work turns out not to be futile, but destructive.
I eagerly followed Tiff on her journey toward selfhood, of finding worth through work. And while it was interesting to watch her ricochet around, about two-thirds through the book, I began to hope that something definitive would happen at the end. While I am usually content with a novel ending ambiguously, this was one story I couldn't stand to see drift off into a vague, blurry distance. Thankfully, the narrative does build to a critical mass, and a denouement that completely and satisfyingly blindsided me.
The Wallcreeper is an odd, meandering tapestry revealing a totally credible life that originally felt unbelievable. I had the curious feeling that this is how the book of my inner life might read to a stranger: shocking and inscrutable, but somehow making sense on an elemental level.