When I see photographs of epic sunsets, athletes performing physics-defying maneuvers, celestial phenomena, or wild animals staring benevolently into a camera lens, I often think two contradictory thoughts: how incredibly beautiful, and how incredibly deceptive. The ruse I’m referring to is my surface-level acceptance of remarkably complex events. When someone snags a pic of the Himalayan mountain range from Everest Base Camp I’m immediately enthralled, transported into a focused panorama that the picture-taker wanted to share. What I’m forced to skip over are the months and months of physical training, the years consumed with appraising gear, thousands of dollars spent on permits, long and restless flights, the painful acclimatization process, and the deep, emotional exhale that warranted a grateful photograph in the first place. Essentially, I miss the core of the experience. Though nothing to scoff at, what I’m left with is beauty, and, as a proliferation of stunning photographs can attest, beauty is quite common.
This same disproportion of surface-level “pretty” and access to emotional depths defines Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper. As premises go, a novel about bird-loving American newlyweds relocating to Europe and turning into swinging eco-terrorists has the potential to be absolutely engaging, or at least interesting, but the reader rarely sees beyond this flash. Instead we’re forced to tune into Zink’s incredibly developed voice, a voice full of caustic intelligence, maturity, wit, and provocative observations, a voice far more complex than any of the events depicted in the novel. However, Zink gives her proficient use of voice too many opportunities to fail, leaving the reader with a glitzy snapshot of one woman’s somewhat damaged life.
The strengths and weaknesses of Zink’s writing stem from her first-person narrator Tiffany (no character in the novel is given the added credibility of a surname), an impulsive and perceptive philanderer who is the real author of The Wallcreeper. Through Tiffany the reader observes her whirlwind courtship with new husband Stephen, her accidental miscarriage at Stephen’s hands, her adoption of a car-struck bird due to Stephen’s enthusiasm, and, very shortly after said miscarriage, an anal and oral rape by, you guessed it, Stephen. Did I mention all these events take place within the first nine of the novel’s not-even two hundred pages? The pace is lightning fast, and Zink-via-Tiffany doesn’t allow either the characters or the readers a chance to catch a breath.
This breakneck speed wouldn’t be such an issue if, even occasionally, the narration lingered long enough for the novel’s events to leave an impact. While dreading the moment when Stephen “pulls out”, Tiffany simultaneously claims “Girls are lame,” and realizes, “I was no longer in love! My sense of depending on Stephen for my happiness had evaporated. Furthermore, I had overcome my fear of intimacy. All intimacy was gone.” Were these newlyweds supposed to be happy and intimate knowing each other only three weeks before marriage? Was Tiffany relying solely on a misconception that finding a husband leads to marital bliss? Are her flippant, concise, descriptions of physical and emotional violation a way of coping with her situation, or merely witty foils to neutralize a series of heinous acts? I’m not entirely sure, because almost as soon as such heavy moments are presented we move on to something else. If a piece of fiction intentionally skips over the reader’s emotional response, why should the reader care?
The plot also suffers from a too-thick application of gloss. The titular wallcreeper is “a species of least concern,” maimed by amateur ornithologist Stephen in the same accident that caused Tiffany to miscarry. So while these newlyweds are discovering whom exactly they married in the most painful of ways, a broken bird “twees” in their small, Swiss kitchen, pulling slices of bacon from a pegboard while his gonads swell from a shortage of sex. The scenario and descriptions are funny, but like everything else, they lack any momentum to keep the story afloat. Zink must agree, because she kills the poor bastard a quarter of the way in, demonstrating that life is rough and using the now-dead bird as a cipher for the emotionally-detached Tiffany, a woman “seeking always those sunny days with a light fresh wind.”
The wallcreeper’s death acts as a transition into Tiffany and Stephen’s new all-consuming hobby: environmental activism. From this point on the reader meets a cast of first-name-basis characters who weave in and out and in again of the small-world circle that is European activism. The remainder of the plot seemingly revolves around adulterers’ whims, the negative effects of flowing rivers, club music, what marriage is, the interesting notion of absolute surrender, nature, philosophical love, and the extreme passage of time. Written in broad strokes, the plot has potential to maintain a forward lean, but unfortunately the reader has to dig too deep and connect too many dots and remains just as distant from these events as the narrator.
All these issues aside, Zink’s writing is superb. I found myself appreciating just how sharp, crass, intelligent, honest, and witty nearly every line is. Tiffany is incredibly perceptive, and nothing escapes her detailed understanding or scathing remarks. After the miscarriage she writes, “I wanted to be addressed in hushed tones of pity, even by myself. I wanted to hear my own whispers in the next room and know I was thinking of me.” And, when going to a club with both Stephen and Elvis, her first of several lovers, she describes the haggard partiers of their small Swiss village.
Young men unlikely to be in possession of Swiss passports danced with eyes half-closed, snapping their fingers, while women in various states of disrepair jockeyed into their axes of attention. Lumpy, lantern-jawed, pockmarked, bucktoothed, short, tall, or simply drunken women, here to pick up devil-may-care subaltern gigolos for a night of horror.
Zink’s writing possesses real energy, and she applies that energy to all aspects of the novel. But issues arise when almost every character is portrayed as just as intelligent, honest, and perceptive as Tiffany.
Many times Stephen rants about a complex situation or feeling, then shrinks it into a bite-sized maxim that he can easily throw into any argument. Olaf, an aging, successful lobbyist, has this ability too, as does the priestly Gernot, as does Tiffany’s sister Constance. What we have is an omniscient voice shared between multiple characters. This is Zink’s voice, and its overbearing presence rarely allows characters to operate independently. Only Elvis manages to escape this collective reasoning,—but due to his broken English, not his shortage of philosophical asides. During a café rendezvous with Tiffany after many years separation he exclaims, “Ah, Tiffany, you fail me. I close my eyes and always I am fucking you. When I see you, I cannot stop thinking this. Let me fuck you now? Why not? No one sees us. Not even you and me. We close our eyes. It stays a secret.” They’re sitting on barstools, but Elvis’s supreme metaphysical belief that anything is possible almost convinces Tiffany to go along, nearby espresso-sippers be damned.
There are additional inconsistencies, emotional gaps, excellent one-liners, and another death so useless it frustrated me to no end, but the point is: despite the beauty and honesty maintained by Zink’s writing, The Wallcreeper fails to linger after the last line is read. Instead the reader is left at the surface, enjoying the ride but zooming through a married couple’s complex negotiations with love, desire, impermanence, nature, dedication, work, Europe, and, ultimately, each other.