Nell Zink’s ‘The Wallcreeper’ Is the Debut Novel of the Year

It opens with a wallcreeper — a small, beautiful, and territorial bird found in Eurasia — and a miscarriage. It ends with death and muted self-actualization. In between, there is (a lot) of adulterous sex, the repeated buildup and breakdown of a marriage, eco-terrorism, and a waterfall of observations about contemporary social and romantic life wrapped in an excruciating wit that suggests its author, Nell Zink, is anything but a novice. The Wallcreeper, in fact, is the best debut novel of the year by an American author, and it should be read and discussed by anyone who cares about young life in the 21st century.

Not much is known about Nell Zink: this much is confirmed by the scant publicity materials and coverage afforded to her work thus far. She appears to have been “discovered” — at least in America — by Jonathan Franzen, a fellow birder. Prior to writing The Wallcreeper, she apparently started a post-punk zine in the 1990s, and, more recently, she has published with the journal n+1. (Keith Gessen and Franzen wrote the jacket copy.) According to a Q&A provided by her publisher, the excellent Dorothy books, Zink is an American expatriate living in Germany.

Given that The Wallcreeper takes place primarily in the cities and rural regions of Germany and broader Europe, this would seem to suggest that the novel is a Kunstlerroman, or an autobiographical novel that charts its own path to creation. But even this is left in question, given how little we know of Zink’s prehistory. We do know, though, that Zink has written fiction before. Only, in the vein of Kafka, these works were written for friends: other novelists and poets like Zohar Eitan and Avner Shats. (She calls these works “impromptus,” a name that calls to mind Graham Greene’s “entertainments.”) The Wallcreeper, as it happens, began as an impromptu written as a letter to Franzen, who had given Zink “stern” encouragement to write for a broader audience. I mention all of this because it’s utterly baffling that such a painful, hilarious, and thoroughly accomplished novel could be a first attempt.

The driver of the novel, its protagonist and voice, is Tiffany, a thoroughly contemporary personality that somehow hearkens back to the Brontë’s and Jane Austin (and Zink confirms that Austen is a reference for The Wallcreeper). After hastily entering into a marriage with Stephen, an intelligent, drug-addled audiophile with a burgeoning interest in birdwatching, Tiffany quickly becomes sexually — and often romantically — disenfranchised with young married life. (Elif Batuman’s recent piece on marriage as abduction chimes here.) But Tiffany, who often riffs on her financial and intellectual dependence on Stephen, quickly takes flight once the couple relocates to Europe, where they decide to move (more or less) on a whim. In this way, the escapism (to Europe or Asia) of the young characters recalls recent novels by Tao Lin, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner. Only in the case of Zink’s Tiffany, this constant movement (which marks the plot) is propelled more by sexual precarity and lust than run-of-the-mill existential malaise.

As the all-too-lifelike tug-and-pull of disaffection propels the couple throughout Europe, where they are increasingly enmeshed in birding and, eventually, ecological action, the couple becomes atomized. Tiffany begins to sleep with other men, at first casually, but often out of a love that, as the novel moves forward, she cannot separate from unbridled lust. Emotionally guarded to a fault, Stephen, aware of Tiffany’s affairs, then begins to take up his own sexual and romantic liaisons, but the marriage remains tremulously intact. As a salient, honest, and totally necessary depiction of 21st century marriage, in other words, The Wallcreeper is both raw and refreshing.

The novel may not be read as a story about the frustration and futility of environmental activism — and this is a good way to make it sound more boring than it is — but it should be, in a way. Zink expertly short-circuits political and romantic life. As her marital commitments dissolve, Tiffany’s commitment to environmental activism intensifies. The novel culminates in an act of environmental sabotage that comes across as both more studied and more convincing than many of Don DeLillo’s comparable moves, if mostly because Zink is gifted with an eye (and an ear) for romantic, cultural, and ecological habitats.

Given that The Wallcreeper was written as a letter for Franzen (as a kind of dare), there is no shortage of birding metaphors. Early in the novel, when Stephen reduces the lives of birds to “breeding and feeding,” Tiffany is lightly annoyed. But the theme recurs; much of the novel, it might be said, concerns the very human acts of “breeding and feeding,” or sex and survival. But the novel also suggests that just as birds in their environment should be loved for their manifold beauty, so should human lives, despite all appearances, not be reduced to avarice and selfishness. At the heart of the novel is the image of the wallcreeper, a bird that Stephen and Tiffany attempt to keep in captivity before releasing it into the wild, where it is quickly (and hilariously) eaten by a hawk. Tiffany too is captivated, in more ways than one, by the men she loves, but, by the nove’s conclusion, she is revealed to be more than the sum of her captors.

In an interview with her publisher, Nell Zink reveals her philosophy of the novel in striking terms:

My least favorite novels find the courage to say the crass thing everybody is thinking. My favorite novels work to resolve the dissonances that most trouble their honest, eloquent authors. But literary novels are art for art’s sake, whatever the subject matter.

The dissonances that Zink works to resolve in The Wallcreeper crack with political and social urgency. It’s a major debut, one that proves its author is gifted, strangely and beguilingly, with no shortage of honesty and eloquence.