“Basically I retired when I was 36,” writes Nell Zink in reply to a question posed to her by the Paris Review. For those familiar with her debut novel The Wallcreeper (2014) this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: the novel’s narrator, Tiffany, is a habitually unemployed twenty-something living in Bern, Switzerland. What’s more surprising is that the interview consists of only two questions, concerning work experience and whether Zink is writing full-time now, or, in the Review’s words, “living the dream.” Fortunately, Zink deftly redefines the parameters of the question, emphasizing that she’s been living the dream ever since she moved to Germany in 2000, a place where “poverty is not criminalized.” The implication seems to be that she has been writing full-time for a long, long time now.
It’s not the first time an unrepentant American émigré has gone from rags to rags to riches. Almost automatically, and a bit unfairly, an American writing in Europe will draw comparisons to some of our most canonized icons: Hemingway and Henry James. In part this is because “abroad” is where we have come to expect the avant-garde to hail from. Rare breeds go there, a motley crew of misfits, exiles and artists. All one needs to have on arrival is a comfortable relation to the workforce: find a social democracy, a sympathetic ruling class, a favorable currency or some combination of the three, and voilà. The forty-hour week becomes a memory to sigh at, and you can move on to nobler pursuits. Or at least this has become the expectation. These days it can be taken for granted that the expat novel is a product about and born of leisure.
In walks Zink, who has stated elsewhere that she once worked as a bricklayer because she “couldn’t really lift a cinder block.” Also, the pay was good and she preferred manual labor to copywriting or editing, so as not to pollute her prose. “The purity of essence,” she calls it. But don’t be fooled. Like Hemingway, it seems Zink moved abroad in order not to work, or at least in order to work less—not, like James, due to distaste for the United States. The unifier here is money: either one has plenty of it, or not enough. But while Hemingway’s expat novels reflected his flirtation with aristocracy, Zink’s narrator Tiffany is always toeing the fine line between abject poverty and relying on somebody else’s charity. More often than not, that somebody is Tiffany’s husband Stephen, who offers a seemingly infinite supply of both financial support and emotional abuse. It is an arrangement that gives her a fair amount of freedom to do what she wants, as long as she stays within the bounds of her dependence. In one scene, Elvis, Tiffany’s penniless, Syrian-Jewish lover, encourages her to take Berndeutsch classes. In a paragraph spanning the ten-week course, she says:
I learned ten verbs for work: work hard (drylige, bügle, chrampfe, schaffe, wärche), get stuck with jobs no one else wants to do (chrüpple), work slowly (chnorze), work carelessly (fuuschte), work absentmindedly (lauere), stay at home and putter around doing little harmless chores (chlütterle)… When people other than Stephen asked me what I did, I could say, “Chlütterle.”
Tiffany’s teacher says she learns quickly because she doesn’t know any German. But she never learns any more Berndeutsch either, and the ten verbs for work are all we ever get from her.
It’s not long before Stephen finds out about Elvis, but there’s no melodrama here. One of the stranger things about this novel is the levity with which such things are shrugged off. Stephen casually brings the affair up during a half-joking argument about whether or not to have another child (the story begins as parenthetically as the revelation of Tiffany’s infidelity, only here it’s with her miscarriage, but more on that later) and he never threatens to cut her off financially. Other small tortures abound, however, indicating in no uncertain terms the more tangible dominant-submissive aspects of their relationship. Tiffany relates early on that Stephen “entered my butt with the rest of his hand followed by his penis” then “came, crying out like a dinosaur” and a little while later “sort of fucked my mouth.”
She’s akin to a prisoner whose warden doesn’t believe in locks. She could run to someone else, but what’s the use? And besides, it’s such a stately penitentiary. “Berne was beautiful. It had colonnades like Bologna and boutiques like New York … a delicious texture advertising rich interior. Nothing was a façade. It was clean all the way down forever and ever, like the earth in Whitman’s ‘This Compost.’” Yet amid her gushing, Tiffany and her surroundings perform a less-than-subtle dialectic: “The river enfolded the city like a uterine wall,” she says. Any committed flâneur could say what is occurring here: ego and space collide, feeling bubbles to the surface. In these pages, the ostensibly picturesque is constantly being subverted by unseen, repressed or categorically indifferent forces. So while we are envious of the general tenor of our protagonists’ lifestyles—their sort of compromised and therefore plausible utopia—we can’t but pity them. Plot-wise, it makes for an ideal cocktail of poverty and adventure tempered by despair and guilt (with a side of coitus), so that, in the end, in spite of its irreverence, The Wallcreeper is remarkably humane. Characters’ moods, feelings and motivations adapt plausibly to the challenges thrown their way. Basic desires—to be loved, to be happy, to have influence, to be free, to have money—are clear and compelling drivers here. The only problem is, Tiffany and Stephen are preternaturally inept at all of these things.
There is entropy in every sordid corner of Zink’s prose. The candid revelations of troubling events, too-witty repartee and unwelcome coincidence (like Tiffany’s chance encounter with an ex-lover on the street who wants to have coffee and another go) can leave the reader wondering if this is Kafka for backpackers. At times the story (fragmented, chapterless) can feel as if an old friend is telling you about their very strange stint in Europe a few years back, how great it was. But the details are strangely proportioned and meted out in odd places. The bad parts are often glazed over but never entirely forgotten. And they keep recurring, too, like an unshakeable nightmare. You might begin to believe they loom larger than they should.
As time progresses, Stephen begins volunteering at the Global Rivers Alliance (GRA) and fucking activist-in-tandem Birke on the side. The GRA’s main objective is to stem and reverse the construction of hydroelectric power dams along the Rhine. Initially, Stephen, who’s employed as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company, is excited to be involved:
I have to admit this selling stuff that doesn’t sell itself is interesting to me. With a medical device, all you need is an indication and some terminally ill hostages to lay back and let the money wash over you. Selling the idea that the Rhine should be looking like the Yukon is an actual challenge.
Unfortunately for him, it will remain so. Tiffany tells us that his “aesthetics were not persuasive. Slogans he had come up with, things like ‘Hydropower: Satan Meets Moloch Uptown’ or ‘Fucked Without a Kiss’ … reaping nothing but the sidelong look post-punks are always getting from Young People 2.0 that means, ‘You are so unprofessional.’”
When a dejected Stephen comes home from the Rhine Conference, a large gathering of representatives from key environmental groups, Tiffany treats him like he just got home from his first day at school. “Were they not nice to you?” she asks. “They paid no attention to me,” he replies. “It’s like they can smell that I know nothing about ecology or hydrology or engineering … The only thing they think laymen are good for is to supply emotional arguments that might make somebody put up with nature…” He goes on, she fails to understand, and the scene devolves into a bipartisan critique of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
A Coleridge aficionado if there ever was one, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that truly fine poetry “always remembers that it was first song,” but Zink’s prose doubts the inherent value of music. It stops, it stutters; it is the product of the kind of neuroses that stem from only being able “to supply emotional arguments.” If Tiffany and Stephen both want to see changes in their lives, the difference is that Stephen, a hyper-literate white phallus, usually gets what he wants. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow that, in the war against corporate-sponsored catastrophe, even someone as privileged as he can be reduced to cheap, unskilled labor.
The Wallcreeper does what the contemporary novel—the Very Good Contemporary Novel, that is—has largely failed to do: it takes global environmental issues seriously, not only with regards to logistics but by dissecting why and how the collective human psyche so often fails to cope with the problem. Yet in the end it’s difficult to say whether or not Zink is optimistic about the issues she raises: love and marriage, and our ability to save the planet. I find it hard to believe she would invest this much time and energy in these themes if she wasn’t, but that could be my own wishful thinking. When her fiction starts bordering on the essay, the lines between Zink and Tiffany’s worldviews first begin to blur, then desublimate:
Saving the world wasn’t exciting or dynamic … the malady it hoped to cure had pockets so deep they could have swallowed the environmental movement and every other eccentricity in civil society without a burp. You might stop them building a dam at a given site this decade, but maybe they never wanted to. The pockets—huge, deregulated private utilities—were mutually opaque and nominally in competition, but somehow or other they always seemed to share priorities. Or rather a single priority: freedom. They wanted to be able to plan as if nothing else on Earth existed. Their chief responsibility was to their investors, who wanted them to be the best pockets they could be. Places to store value. Deep and capacious, with space for liquid billions and no holes.
For the moment, industry backed away from the rivers. It started asking for woodlands for wind turbines and fracking as an alternative to lignite coal. Birke had won.
We’ve heard much of this before. The opaque and powerful forces of neoliberal ideology, corporate greed and private wealth vs. us. But what makes Zink tick is how we suffer, not as helpless cogs in an indifferent machine, but as willful egos, active agents of our own destruction, fucking and sneaking our way around any problem we feel is too great for us to solve on our own. For her, private sorrows and selfish ambitions are powerful but sympathetic realities. There’s a subtle dichotomy at work, the tension between actual helplessness and one’s own sense of being useless.
There’s a scene in The Sun Also Rises that has aged somewhat poorly to my mind. After the fiesta has ended, and Jake Barnes has gone broke, the entourage goes for a pair of nice, long, leisurely drives through Basque country, just for the heck of it. They even make it to the French side, the first time to Biarritz, the second to Saint Jean de Luz—very lovely. Yet every time I read it—in 2009, 2011, 2014—it becomes increasingly difficult to stomach. I can’t help thinking that this was the beginning of the end. Those were the days of guiltless ignorance and car culture, before an emission was something that floated out of your exhaust pipe and made the production of children a moral conundrum. The Great War had just ended; the next war hadn’t yet begun. If only we can drive far enough, Jake and friends must have thought, maybe history won’t catch up this time. And so they drove.
Fair or not, this is Zink’s inheritance. The economic and artistic freedoms offered by expat living haven’t changed, nor have its amusements, but pretty much everything else has. Which at last brings us back to the troublesome wallcreeper, Tichodroma muraria, the novel’s namesake. In the first scene, Stephen swerves off the road in an attempt to dodge the rare bird, causing a pregnant Tiffany to miscarry their first child. While inspecting the damage, he identifies and picks up a male with an injured wing. After retrieving this thing—symbol maybe, or omen—from the side of the road, they bring it back to Bern, name it Rudolph and attempt to nurse it back to health. One day, after it flies through the window and is “borne away on the wind,” Stephen says they should make a baby right now. Since Tiffany’s not up for it, she asks about zero population growth and global warming, because, as excuses go, “it was plausible.”
The wallcreeper returns. For a while it lives in their house, tweeting and protesting, until eventually they are forced to let it go due to pressure from the online birdwatching caucus. The real reason their child (and thus their future) doesn’t exist is because they don’t care for one another. Rudi’s fate is not to be spoiled, but it should suffice to say that, like all wallcreepers, he may be “an avatar of the one true wallcreeper”:
To Stephen [birds] were paragons of insatiable, elemental appetite. I saw them differently. I imagined two ducks, loyal partners. When the hunters cornered them, would they turn to face them, holding hands? Hell no. They would scatter like flies in as many directions as there were ducks.
Humans, like wallcreepers, are seasonal birds. In the beginning of Act III we find Tiffany in Germany, living in an old priest’s house, undoing the artificial banks of the Elbe in a private act of ecoterrorism. She’s not completely sure she’s saving anything, but by moving rocks from one place to another place she grows stronger by the day. Stephen, meanwhile, is in Albania, shooting smack and birdwatching full time. They aren’t exactly separated, but it’s difficult to say they’re together. They still occasionally float the idea of having another child, but only as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, and anyway they’re pretty sure it wouldn’t work. Doubt is passion’s opposite, and neither one of them is primed for a nuclear family. In the most holistic sense their relationship is immaterial: They’re at their best when they aren’t touching. “We’re all fucked,” Stephen says, “the whole world is fucked. But then I remember that you know how to look out for yourself, and I feel better. Like it’s not the weight of the world, just my own little column of air.”
Two winters ago, I was on a ferry to a Thai beach resort when I remarked to a friend that maybe it was best not to make much money in life. I wanted to do something charitable for a change, at least in my twenties, and I remember thinking at the time that this was a generally agreeable thing to say. But my friend took a stern tone with me. What would be better, he challenged, was for me to become an investment banker and use my limitless earning potential to bankroll my good intentions. An argument ensued in which I felt right but sounded implausible, if not idealistic. The next day we bought mushrooms and ate them by the sea, as beachgoers in Thailand are wont to do. The drugs brought no real insight, just a couple of laughs.
It was only after reading The Wallcreeper that my friend’s suggestion stopped sounding so perverse to me. Nell Zink practices what critic Raymond Williams has referred to in drama as the “subjunctive,” in which potential modes of liberation are tried and failed onstage in order to arouse “the spectator’s perception that the people on stage were wrong: they are defeated but you can see why they were defeated, so it’s your job to go home and make your own revolution.” Tiffany and Stephen’s failures are many, but taken as a whole they can be seen as failures of balance. Happiness slips away from them when their private lives are not in harmony with the political outcomes they desire. Or, to put it another way, if the feeling of helplessness is a legitimate psychosomatic response to the violence of global capitalism, uselessness is something we have invented to resign ourselves to that fact. Because if we really are helpless and useless as Tiffany and Stephen are perceived to be, if we are as insignificant as we think, then why do we still feel responsible?
Take the guilt I felt on arriving at a Thai beach resort. In effect my response was to cap and trade—to preserve myself by making a small, non-binding commitment. But the notion that by being poor and sympathetic I could make a difference was laughable. There are literally countless poor sympathetic people. They labor in factories and windowless offices, drive cabs, sell trinkets, or stitch together a meek living of their own. The question, then, is what can already privileged people actually accomplish with our untapped reserves of guilt? Near the end of the book, the old priest encourages Tiffany, “Stop following orders. Do what you want. Work selfishly.” We are given no particular verb for this kind of work, but Tiffany takes his advice to heart and ceases to do chlütterle, a decision that proves more revolutionary than any which preceded it. We learn that she is the true author of The Wallcreeper. That doesn’t concern her much, though; it’s merely a byline. More importantly, she founds an ecological planning bureau and makes “dredging the Elbe prohibitively expensive” with her environmental impact statements. This act of mimesis reads as a critique of the work itself, as if the novel has already been shelved, perhaps never published at all. The real joy for Tiffany is watching children swim in her bend of the river, enjoying the fruits of her new labor. It’s what might be called a “happy ending.”