Into the Wild

Mislaid: A Novel BY Nell Zink. Ecco. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Mislaid: A Novel

It’s always pleasing when a strange and distinctive novelist comes outfitted with a name that she might have invented for one of her strange and distinctive characters, and still more pleasing when the actual facts of her personal history seem to have sprung directly from the cortical folds of her own weird brain. Take Nell Zink, an American writer in her early fifties who lives in Germany. Born in California and raised in Virginia, Zink has been, among other things, a construction worker, a secretary for the VP of European marketing for Colgate-Palmolive, the editor of an animal-themed post-punk fanzine, a doctoral student in media studies at the University of Tübingen, and a writer of technical texts in Tel Aviv. Subscribing to the principle, at once self-affirming and self-defeating, that, as she told the Paris Review, “there’s never a market for true art,” Zink spent years writing fiction that she only showed to a single friend, the Israeli poet Avner Shats. In 2011, she contacted Jonathan Franzen about a German ornithologist she admired. Struck by her letter, Franzen surmised that Zink was a writer. Bewildered by her nonexistent output, he told her to get serious about publishing.

Zink wrote much of The Wallcreeper (2014), her first published novel, in four days. The delirious, deadpan story of an American woman who gets married to a relative stranger as a means of early retirement and, one loopy roller coaster of a plot later, becomes an ecoterrorist in Germany, it was released last year by the tiny feminist press Dorothy. Zink then set out to write another, more commercial book. Her advance for The Wallcreeper was three hundred dollars. Her advance for Mislaid was roughly a thousand times that amount. True art or otherwise, Zink’s work has found its market.

Turning out two novels in such quick succession, and essentially on demand, might suggest a powerful imaginative facility as well as a certain playful insouciance, a lack of self-doubt, or of self-restraint, that could indicate boldness, or sloppiness, or both. These qualities are all in evidence in Mislaid. Zink needs no time to warm up her novelistic engine. The narrator of The Wallcreeper gets into a car accident and has a miscarriage in the book’s first sentence, and Mislaid takes off at a similar clip. On page one, we are introduced to Stillwater, a women’s college built on a former Virginia plantation that, by the mid-1960s, when Zink’s story begins, has become “a mecca for lesbians, with girls in shorts standing in the reeds to smoke, popping little black leeches with their fingers.” On page two, we meet Peggy Vaillaincourt, the only child of a housewife and an Episcopal priest whose ancestors sheltered John Wilkes Booth. On page three, Peggy realizes, by observing a burly PE teacher, that “she was intended to be a man.” By page eleven, she is one of Stillwater’s lesbian freshmen, a virginal playwright intent on getting into the writing workshop run by Lee Fleming, a genteel young Southern poet famous for both his verse and his appetite for other young men.

Lee tells her she needs to take a prerequisite course. A paragraph later, he and Peggy suspend their respective sexualities to consummate their mysterious mutual attraction in a canoe. Peggy gets pregnant. A wedding is arranged. Lee celebrates with a group of sailors at a bar called the Cockpit. The novel has barely begun before Peggy, expelled from Stillwater for inappropriate relations with faculty, is saddled with two children, Byrdie and Mireille, and a spiteful husband who fills their house with gentlemen lovers and poets who treat her as if she were “of a slightly lower social class—which she was. A woman.”

A young woman who thinks that she has made a love match only to find herself trapped in a stifling marriage with a tyrannical husband who fancies himself a genius and demands due fealty from his bride: This is one of the great conceits of the nineteenth-century novel, the conflict that powers books like Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady. But Zink has no interest in the psychological terrain explored in realist fiction, or in the trope of the bright-eyed heroine who must gain self-knowledge through a series of trials and tribulations. “Was Meg self-centered or what?” she asks. The answer is refreshingly straightforward: “Meg was self-centered.”

Zink’s guiding aesthetic is zaniness, and her preferred form is the caper. To pack her plot with the maximum amount of both, she turns to the template of Shakespearean pastoral comedy. Like Hermia and Rosalind before her, Peggy decides to free herself from oppression societal and domestic by making a run for the woods. Leaving Byrdie behind in the questionable care of Lee, she sets off with three-year-old Mireille in a Ford Fairlane. They take over an abandoned house in southeastern Virginia, where they live in happy and untroubled poverty.

Laurie Simmons, Study for Longhouse (Red Suitcase), 2003, C-print, 27 1/2 × 40".
Laurie Simmons, Study for Longhouse (Red Suitcase), 2003, C-print, 27 1/2 × 40″. Courtesy Laurie Simmons studio

Cross-dressing provided the perfect cover for Shakespeare’s runaway heroines, but that doesn’t quite cut it in 1970s America, especially given that the runaway in question is already a butch lesbian. Concerned that Lee will track her down, Peggy manages to obtain the birth certificate for a child named Karen Brown, who would have been roughly Mireille’s age had she not died at three. Mireille becomes Karen. Peggy, whose main source of income is the magic mushrooms she gathers in the woods and sells to a Native American called Lomax, starts going by Meg. The real Karen Brown was black. Mireille is blonde and “belly white, no trace of pink.” This apparent discrepancy doesn’t faze the Virginia school board, which subscribes to the one-drop rule. The theory of race as hard biological fact turns out, for Karen and Meg’s purposes, to be nearly indistinguishable from a theory of race as a malleable social construct. They don’t change their behavior; there’s no “acting” or “talking” black. They are black simply by virtue of saying so, and it turns out that this form of passing comes with a number of benefits. Being black gives Peggy further cover from Lee. It provides a point of social cohesion with her black neighbors, who accept her as one of theirs, as well as with her white neighbors, who are relieved to discover that she’s not a militant racial separatist. And though Karen, née Mireille, finds herself ostracized by her peers of all races, she earns the sympathy of adults:

To be perfect (adorably wee and blond) yet marked for failure (black and dressed in rags)—don’t we all know that feeling? The principal, who had voted for George Wallace for president, couldn’t watch her bounce away across the schoolyard without musing that a petite female with a white body and a black soul might in ten or twelve years’ time be a sort of dream come true, assuming she moved away to the city and pursued a career in show business, broadly defined.

When, many years later, Karen follows her boyfriend, Temple Moody—indisputably brilliant, and indisputably black—to the University of Virginia, it is on a minority scholarship granted in spite of her mediocre grades.

Like a child who sweetly denies any wrongdoing when caught tormenting an animal, Zink loves to play innocent while carrying out her nuttiest conceits, and her favorite thing to play innocent about, here as in The Wallcreeper, is sex and its gothic consequences. “This was before psychologists and counseling,” Zink writes of Peggy’s mother, “so if a girl lost her appetite or a woman felt guilty after a D&C, she would come to Mrs. Vaillaincourt, who felt important as a result.” At Lee’s prurient insistence, baby Byrdie is spared the knife because “circumcision was dreamed up by moralists and lotion salesmen to make hand jobs chafe.” As for Lee himself, whose confused and irrepressible libido is responsible for most of this mess, temperamentally he’s a romantic, but sexually “he was a top,” which is a bit like saying that Fagin in Oliver Twist would be every little boy’s favorite camp counselor if only he weren’t a Jew.

Zink’s capacity for invention is immense, and for much of its first half, Mislaid zips along with a giddy, lunatic momentum. Its perverse wackiness is irresistible; unlike just about everything engineered to make you laugh out loud, Zink’s novel actually does, over and over again. And then, just as the book starts to seem like it will never run out of tricks, stasis sets in. Zink’s spry, impish tone calcifies into camp; her tremendous facility turns facile. One problem is plot. To give Byrdie and Mireille a suitably Shakespearean reunion as students both enrolled at the University of Virginia, Zink has to move through a decade, relying on a series of increasingly stiff set pieces to run out the clock. The realist novel is often taken to task for its filler: What do we care if so-and-so refilled her teacup and looked out the window before signing her will with a ballpoint pen? But fantastical filler is even more tedious. You could be forgiven for checking out by the time Lomax and his cohort, for reasons not worth repeating, set up a squirrel sanctuary where they drop acid and eat steak and brownies.

The phenomenon of how and why we come to care about invented people and situations is the sacred mystery of fiction, but it has something to do with characters who have enough life in them to trick us into feeling the same things we might for real, flesh-and-blood humans. The strangest part of Mislaid is Zink’s abandonment, even punishment, of her initially vivid characters. As he ages, Lee descends into a creaky stereotype of a preening, dried-up gay man. The once feisty Peggy mellows to a vanishing point, and Mireille becomes so meek that she earns the nickname “Shadow.” It’s as if Zink, having set herself the challenge of pulling off a conventionally structured novel—premise, conflict, resolution—got bored with the endeavor halfway through and had to drag herself to the finish line, keeping herself interested only by turning her writing into a game of topping her own one-liners.

That might not be so far from the truth. Zink told the Paris Review that when Franzen, with his “high tolerance for obscure American idiom,” replaced Shats as her sole reader, “it was just too much fun to write for him instead, and I probably got carried away.” At its thinnest, Mislaid suffers from that insularity, the entertainer’s temptation to play to a familiar audience. But Zink is too irrepressible, too deliciously bananas, to get stuck in that pose for long. She knows how to let her freak flag fly. It won’t be long before she stakes it in new ground.

Alexandra Schwartz is the winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2014 Nona Balakian Citation.