Nicotine by Nell Zink
Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was short, succinct, and aware of contemporary gender politics. In other words, the opposite of a Jonathan Franzen novel. Franzen helped thrust The Wallcreeper into the world and encouraged Zink to publish during a correspondence about songbirds. Zink’s third novel, Nicotine, feels much more Franzian—meandering, expansive, and centered around the dramas of a wealthy family while overlooking opportunities for critical introspection.
At the center of Nicotine is Penny, the youngest daughter of Norm, a cult leader. Penny cares for her ailing father before his death leaves her homeless; in providing hospice care for Norm, she loses control of his New York City apartment. Her mother intends to live alone in the family’s suburban New Jersey estate while her much older half brothers, both already financially established, lay claim to other properties. As a compromise, Penny’s family offers her temporary residence in an abandoned property in gentrifying Jersey City with the caveat she become responsible for removing any squatters and prepare the house to be sold. When Penny arrives, she finds the squatters are an activist collective who call themselves Nicotine. She chooses to align with them rather than her family, setting in motion the novel’s main conflict between Penny and her half-brother Matt.
Nicotine lacks the frenetic pace of Zink’s previous novels. Early in both Mislaid and The Wallcreeper, big decisions are made that launch us directly into kinetic plots. Nicotine builds slowly. Zink drags us through early episodes of Penny’s childhood before showing us Norm’s protracted death, and while these scenes set the stage for the showdown between Penny and her family, they also slow the initial pace of the novel.
The drifting narrative allows for a cast of imperfect and weird individuals to collide with each other. Sex infuses the story, and it’s fun to anticipate the implosion of relationships as lovers furtively swap partners. Penny’s love interest, Rob, identifies as non-sexual but allows himself to be seduced by Penny’s hyper-sexual friend Jazz. Jazz, in turn, is pursued by Penny’s step-brother. Zink lubricates the novel with these sexual liaisons, although nobody feels the consequences, not unlike the pansexual fantasies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There are moments in the novel that suggest Zink wants to engage in a criticism of global capitalism, inherited wealth, and income disparity. But these are fleeting. For instance, Penny’s older, richer half-brother Matt eventually forces himself into the Nicotine house to remove the squatters in a bid to redevelop the property. Problematically, he’s fallen in love with Jazz. Zink casts him as the villain, and his access to money tarnishes his character.
That’s Matt’s plan. The name might attract donations or other support from his father’s cult, reducing his time to break even while freeing up cash for real estate speculation. Ultimately some neighbors may face rent hikes, but one anarchist in particular, if all goes well, will dwell rent-free in more comfortable surroundings than she has ever known. His own generosity moves him to tears, as he knows from hearing the from hearing the Bread song “It don’t Matter to Me” on the radio on the way over.
Money marks Matt like a black hat in a 1950s cowboy western. Meanwhile, Penny, left homeless, is meant to be a contrast to Matt, but Zink overlooks Penny’s own privilege and access to wealth. She only “struggles” with poverty relative to her much wealthier half-brothers. She’s graduated from college, in New York City, and her mother even offers to connect her with a job.
She isn’t worried about money. She just wants a job and a place to stay so she doesn’t end up worrying about money.
She doesn’t feel guilty for thinking about money. It’s the foundation of material existence, at least until the revolution comes and sweeps it away. Until then, we need to find out place in the money ecosystem, our niche in the money chain.
Penny’s place in the global financial hierarchy is near the top, a point that seems lost on these characters—and here Zink misses an opportunity to engage in the class issue. Even the activist collective has access to money in the form of mysterious loans nobody seems to know the source of. Zink has created an economy where poverty doesn’t really exist.
Matt expects that he can buy Jazz’s love in part by gentrifying her activist collective. He stalks Jazz across the country to California. But Jazz often forgives Matt’s aggressive sexual pursuit, joking she will one day marry him. There is an ambiguity in the message here. Should we condemn Matt for his abusive behavior, or like Jazz, accept it as a form of flirtation? The answer is never clear, and that ambiguity feels accidental and incomplete.
Nicotine is a well-built novel and there is plenty to like. Zink’s wittiness emerges more subtly than in Mislaid or The Wallcreeper, but what the novel lacks in humor, Zink makes up for in smooth, concise storytelling. Nicotine progresses steadily while the plot’s remains unpredictable. It is book that demands you finish reading.