More than any other living American novelist, Nell Zink is subject to strange mythologies. What's stranger, they seem to all be true. She didn't have a novel published until her late 40s, but then churned out three in as many years. She's been living in Germany for some reason. She was discovered by Jonathan Franzen after she wrote him lots of emails. She wrote two of her novels in the span of about six weeks.
Zink is also one of the most exciting people writing books right now, springing out of the firmament with a fully formed voice that feels at once controlled and completely batshit. Previous novels were about tourists who go rogue as eco-terrorists (The Wallcreeper), or a white woman who escapes her obsessive husband by passing as an albino black before raising her very blond child the same way (Mislaid). Her newest, Nicotine (Ecco, 304 pages, $26.99), likewise follows the sociopathic dream logic of early Gus Van Sant or '70s French anarch Bertrand Blier.
On its first page, a middle-aged American discovers a 13-year-old Colombian girl as she "stands in a landscape made almost entirely of garbage, screaming at a common domestic sow." By page 5, she's his wife and the mother of his daughter—but is nonetheless sleeping with his son, who is older than her. And by page 11, Amalia's daughter, Penny, is watching her father die at a religious hospice run by nurses who refuse him painkillers, because the internet made them believe he is a drug-seeking Satanist. They are afraid of making mistakes, because the hospice is "run like one of those brothels that are nominally strip clubs. The license affords no protection to the dancers."
But amid plot that seems chaos, Zink's voice throughout is gentle and restrained—a strong and sad chain of unlikely insight and sideways metaphor—and the world her book describes seems like ours.
Actually, it seems a lot like Portland. After her father's death, Penny goes back to the family home to discover it's become a well-maintained activist squat called Nicotine—ostracized from the other squats in their collective because everybody there smokes cigarettes.
"They wouldn't even let me smoke at a NORML smoke-in," complains a girl named Sorry. "They said nicotine is a nerve poison, and they were drinking beer."
"It's activism that's poison," says another.
But, of course, rather than take charge of the home and evict them, Penny falls in love with a man there who claims to be asexual. We're at, like, page 60 now. Like The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, the book seems to change its subject almost every 30 pages in a way that alters almost everything before it. It is a series of catalyzing reactions that leaves the reader, finally, feeling like the one who's changed.
GO: Nell Zink reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., powells.com, on Tuesday, Oct. 11. 7:30 pm. Free.