October 2014

Brian Nicholson


The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Wallcreeper is an evocative word, an image of interiority suggestive of all the secrecy a house can hold inside it. The wallcreeper is also a literal bird, brought inside a home by a recently married couple, after said bird occasions a car crash. This wallcreeper is a red herring, dead soon enough, but sets a precedent that birding will be discussed as The Wallcreeper moves forward.

Avid birder Jonathan Franzen offers an endorsement on the front cover of The Wallcreeper, saying that its author, Nell Zink, "raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know." When considering this quotation, it is worth remembering that Franzen is not known for tastes that particularly favor the genuinely strange, and this book is firmly within his wheelhouse of domestic naturalism. It is largely about marital infidelity, and how humans working to effect positive environmental change soon encounter the fact that the environment would be better off without any human action whatsoever. It is quite possible the large and strange world the book reveals is mainly that of birds not often seen discussed in fiction.

Aside from the birds, most of the characters that enter into the narrative are prospective sexual partners for members of the married couple, particularly the wife, Tiffany, who narrates. All characters are viewed through this lens of a narrator that views new people as probably flirting. This determines the book's narrative style. Initially there is a sort of snappiness to the way information is conveyed, a sense that things are happening quickly, a sense of intelligence assumed in the reader and imparted by the author. The book introduces itself with a snappy pace establishing an intelligence designed to signal to the reader, as Tiffany says after meeting her future husband and exchanging a few sentences, "We will definitely fuck." But this meet-cute changes in character as the book goes on, and as the absence of plot reveals itself, there is far less action to convey briskly. The texture is retained, in far less eventful passages, of a voice that talks in ways that can be interpreted as intended jokes. This is not to say that they are particularly funny, but they have that cadence.

Mostly, as the expatriates move across Europe, these are observational routines discussing one locale or another. "Albania is the West Virginia of Europe. Single mothers there dress and live as men." Or:

If your basis for comparison is the town Clint Eastwood paints red and renames "Hell," you might like the suburbs of Seattle just fine. For me, even the city was a stretch. Easterners hear "coffee culture" and think of Vienna, not longshoremen idling their pickups at a drive-through. They don't know the uniform polo shorts at Starbucks are the alternative business model for when you want women customers to let their guard down. They hear "beach" and think of sand, not prefab boathouses selling onion roses and buckets of beer.

I don't really know what Zink or Tiffany is talking about here, but I recognize the air of condescension and know it is intended as humor, even in passages where its function is more plainly expository:

I had always thought major flooding came with the spring thaw. Those are the "Alps," he corrected me gently. The Elbe trickles down from bone-dry sandstone. Its flow is more dependent on the central European rainy season, otherwise known as summer vacation -- the reason Germans are to be found in such large numbers in July and August on Mediterranean beaches where it's too hot to move or breathe.

Fairly early on, a river is compared to uterine lining, and this, for me, was the moment the book's jokiness started to feel simply false, just the default mode of someone trying to impress. That's in a moment where, a miscarriage having occurred in the book's first sentence, such attention to anatomy felt potentially thematically resonant. As the book goes by, its understanding of the narrator's body is conveyed in a manner more traditionally sexual than deliberately gynecological, and her potential partners that flit by in the background like bits of scenery seen from a train reappear on return trips once their own marriages have fallen apart.

In absence of plot, we look to characterization to orient us, to tell us something about people that speaks with more specificity than the riffs on cultural mores that occupy the book's sense of ostensible humor. I am not so certain that the collections of traits found in The Wallcreeper cohere into characterizations that are understandable as indicative of anything. For instance, we are probably told more about the narrator's husband, Stephen, than we are told about anything else, besides birds and European cities. He is met in an office environment, and after the narrator marries him for the sake of financial stability, she learns that he is into birdwatching, electronic music, and drugs. Do those personality traits square with the late-in-the-novel revelation that he was also a virgin when they met? It can be joked about -- Stephen offers the potential punchline that his small amount of sexual partners, accrued throughout the novel, is pretty good for a birder -- but does it make a recognizable, or even understandable, image of a man who seems to be in his mid-thirties or early forties? These traits have been added to him the same way the smaller characters are added to the novel, like birds sighted and cataloged. What then is The Wallcreeper, if a domestic comedy with little grasp of its characters and jokes not particularly amusing, besides something that can maybe be counted as an odd bird?

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
Dorothy, A Publishing Project
ISBN: 978-0989760713
200 pages