Weird and Pleasant: On Nell Zink’s “Avalon”

May 28, 2022   •   By Huda Awan


Nell Zink

ONE WONDERS, from time to time, what the contemporary hetero-romantic novel ought to look like post-#MeToo, post–whatever wave of feminism we’re on, post–mass female inculcation into the belief that a woman doesn’t need a man to be happy. Is there hope for romance between men and women? In truth, my life improved immensely once I gave up the idea that all my personal relations with men are doomed due to some inherent misogyny and inequality between genders, and that I ought to live my life in a fortress of female independence. Perhaps I live in delusion. The trouble is, I live much happier; the possibility of a romance that enlivens more than it exhausts no longer feels foreclosed, and that possibility is a reason to live (never mind its likelihood). But where is this sense of possibility in contemporary fiction? Recent millennial depictions of romance have not been romantic so much as they have been harrowing, following self-destructive women on ill-fated quests for intimacy with inappropriate or downright horrible men. Are contemporary fictional romances destined to remain unresolved, or to be resolved in singledom, in defiance of neat, easy, and heteronormative answers?

Avalon, the latest novel by Nell Zink, feels like an avowed “nope” to that question. Where novels about romantic entanglements like Raven Leilani’s Luster and Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation do away with fairy-tale endings and attempt to show life as it is, Avalon ultimately allows its suffering heroine, Bran — a modern-day Californian Cinderella — her “inexpressible happiness.” In doing so, it shows what life could be. It sounds cliché — and in some senses, it is — but Zink is strangely well suited to rescuing the tropes of the fairy-tale romance, given the sheer wackiness with which she imbues her fiction. Even the novel’s various intellectual questions are treated with Zink’s trademark lightness, and woven through the conventional romantic narrative arc are a number of absurd but entertaining philosophical conversations; the novel’s characters debate aesthetics in dramatically declarative statements, arguing whether or not art with social transformation as its driving force is just as fascist as the oppressor it hopes to undermine. Literary references, which are 10 a penny, range from Arthurian fantasies to Kafka to the ideas of famed hypnosis proponent Milton Erickson. Some of these ideas are so discombobulating for our first-person narrator that she humorously uses ellipses to trail off pronouncements from her love interest, Peter, when her comprehension and interest begin to fail. Is this a cue from Zink to the reader? One could feasibly unpack the more conceptual fodder, but the ideas are not always coherent, and in any case, they might not really be the point. Or at least the ideas are not what my boy-crazy brain chooses to fixate on when reading a novel that pivots around an immediate and life-affirming crush.

From its opening pages, Avalon suggests that this romance will succeed, and throughout champions a broader kind of idealism. Comparing herself to her more middle-class friends, Bran declares, “I had a right to aspire to the same utopian condition. I would stake what resources I had, so meagre they were almost nudity. I would risk it all, risking almost nothing, because, unlike everybody else I knew, Peter wanted me trailing clouds of glory and nothing else.” In rewarding Bran for this aspiration, Avalon sets itself against the contemporary proliferation of “dystopian narratives.” As Peter, a Sontagian aesthete majoring in English at UCLA (and a mouthpiece for the novel’s utopian ideology), says earlier in the book,

All our dominant narratives are dystopian, but that’s a dishonest term, a prevarication. Climate change, authoritarianism, and rape culture are not anti-utopias that would ring in utopia if they stopped. They dominate public discourse to slake our lust for humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, defilement, destruction […] The only narratives that break through to a shared reality are the ones that conform to a fascist aesthetics of dystopian entertainment.

On the surface, Bran’s life is ripe for that kind of dystopian entertainment. She lives in Torrance, California, with her stepfather Doug at Bourdon Farms, a plant nursery that seems to be on the margins of respectable society: “At best, gray market: more likely, black,” says Bran early on in the novel. The farm is owned by the Henderson family, of which Doug’s father, Grandpa Larry, is the patriarch. Bran, the only female resident, is forced into unpaid labor alongside undocumented immigrants in exchange for bed and board, simply because she has nowhere else to go; her mother abandons her to join a Buddhist temple when she’s 10, later dying there of ovarian cancer. Her biological father is similarly nowhere to be seen, having deserted her mother to emigrate to Australia when she was a baby. Bran’s only other living relatives are her maternal grandparents, who are too poor to take her in or offer any meaningful financial support. And so she is left on the Hendersons’ farm, her teenage bedroom a lean-to that stinks of mice. She spends her days “shoveling horse manure off a flatbed truck and liquefying it with a hose,” with no post-high-school plans and no assets to her name, bar the beat-up Mazda she buys with her meager graduation money. What’s more, the Hendersons maintain “an atmosphere of looming sexual menace as a matter of policy.” The sense of threat is intensified by a gang of Grandpa Larry’s biker friends who loiter about the farm, and who may or may not be involved in some kind of illicit activity.

Bran’s circumstances are grim, and for a while, seemingly hopeless. But Zink is clear about one thing: she has no intention of exhuming her heroine’s troubled past in gory detail just for the sake of it. Of course, it’s not all rosy. Traumatic incidents are revealed and do occur, but they exist primarily to drive the two main plot points forward: Bran’s budding romance with Peter, and her own personal and artistic development. Indeed, the inciting moment of Avalon — the event that finally compels Bran to leave her dire living situation — is an incident of sexual harassment at a party on the farm, wherein the bikers corner Bran and try to pull up her shirt to catch a glimpse of her breasts. Rightly distraught, Bran yells and flails “like somebody with no sense of humor” and flees the scene. Her instinct is to run toward Peter’s UCLA dorm, but it’s too far away, so instead she runs a mile to the family home of her school friend Will, whose parents kindly take her in. In the end, that initial impediment proves decisive; Susan and Mark provide her with a laptop and help her find a job, putting her on a path toward financial independence and artistic freedom, and with Peter’s encouragement, Bran decides that she’s going to be a screenwriter.


Zink’s novels are known for their wondrously wild plot lines. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was a mad, sex-fueled flirtation with ecofascism around Europe, while Nicotine followed the middle-class daughter of a deceased shamanic leader who falls in with a group of squatting activists united by their interest in smokers’ rights. Avalon is, by comparison, a far more restrained venture in terms of what actually happens, though Zink’s penchant for absurdity glimmers cheekily in other aspects of the book, namely its philosophical digressions on art and aesthetics. “Plot is the game,” declared Zink in a short piece for Publishers Weekly following the publication of The Wallcreeper, and to read her work is generally to be rocket-launched through events and revelations that unravel in truly bizarre directions. But Avalon demonstrates a different aspect of Zink’s range — with this novel, she loosens up on flexing her imaginative capacity, and allows a remarkable tenderness to permeate the narrative, without compromising on her characteristic humor and predilection for the American idiom.

The result is delightfully refreshing. Bran’s voice is a beguiling addition to Zink’s previous work, particularly for the space Zink gives her to sincerely air her emotions — if even a bit bluntly at times. Avalon is also a welcome inclusion to the genre into whose tropes and conventions Zink breathes new life; what happens to Bran in abstract terms is not so unusual (girl meets boy, girl “comes of age”), but the particular oddities of her life revitalize the seeming banality of a crush. Contemporary responses to romance’s traditionally overwrought and simplistic idealism have largely been to subvert plot expectations; recent novels such as Rebecca Watson’s little scratch and Halle Butler’s The New Me do away with plot completely, not only moving to examine the nature of their female protagonists’ interiorities, but also changing what that interiority focuses on — in the former’s case, sexual assault, and in the latter’s, the dead-endedness of temp work, both of which might be argued to be “more real” and “more urgent” than a romance that works out. On the other hand, the previously mentioned Acts of Desperation, which does follow a romantic relationship, gives us a depressive heroine who eventually leaves her abusive boyfriend. Yet the unnamed narrator seems no less isolated at the end as she was at the beginning, as if reflecting a bittersweet truth about life: that there is no escape from loneliness.

But what’s so wrong with letting the girl have the guy, or indeed, a life? What more could one hope for, in our late-stage capitalist wasteland, than genuine romantic connection? Zink is not so gauche as to suggest that the state of culture or politics at large might improve; Avalon’s sense of hope is cautiously individual and relates solely to its heroine’s outcomes, which by the end, do change for the better. What is more remarkable, however, is how Zink’s writing detangles hope from its aesthetic expectations, as if to say that hope is not necessarily a trite mode of thinking or feeling, and that there’s a way to write about hope today that isn’t manipulative or overly sentimental. That way of writing might, for some, be one of extreme restraint and control, but for Zink it seems entirely natural. The sense of muted optimism that pervades Avalon is gratifyingly modern in its ability to strike a balance between being earnest (but not too serious), droll, and self-aware in a way that isn’t gratuitously reflexive.

Here, it would be useful to speak of the singularity of Zink’s style. Plot might be the game, but in alluding to its primacy Zink does herself a disservice. In the end, style and execution of that style are the skills with which the player wins the game, and Zink’s knack for voice here is delicious. She pilfers contemporary discursive ticks and wields them with an air of abandon; of their friend Jay’s awful flamenco dancing, Peter thinks “that far from garnering condemnation for racist appropriation of a ‘Gypsy’ aesthetics, he was in danger of drawing even greater condemnation for the abjectness of his failure to appropriate it.” Bran’s infatuation with Peter is rendered so blithely, it makes one giddy to read about it: “Sometimes I managed to slip into a retrospective view and make fun of myself for feeling such anticipation, but never enough to stop myself from feeling it,” she says while planning a trip to see him. Meanwhile, Peter speaks to Bran in flippant and ridiculous allusions that constitute a perversely captivating intellectual game. “I’m fated to marry the other Iseult,” says Peter, who is engaged for most of the novel, “‘Iseult of the White Hands.’ He looked down at my hands (scarred, sun-tanned, calloused, scabby) and let them fall. All was preordained lunacy. I left elated, walking on air.” Peter is clearly messing with her, but instead of moralistically problematizing that behavior, or even feeling ambivalently, Bran simply indulges in her crush, musing that “I was used to things being weird, but not to their being pleasant at the same time. I could feel that I was being fucked with, and I liked it a lot.”

And how delightful it is to read a pair of sentences that convey with such economy the insidious pleasure of being fucked with! I doubt that any young women reading Avalon will see the complexity of their inner lives beautifully rendered in exacting prose, but then, that’s what our journals are for. What they might come away with instead is a few hearty laughs, some zany musings on the state of Western culture, and the invigorating sense that sometimes things can work out — that you could conceivably self-actualize and secure the object of your desire. What could be more liberating than that?


Huda Awan is a writer based in London.