What Are Novels For?: Privilege, Race, and Shelter in Nell Zink’s “Mislaid”
By Medaya OcherJune 22, 2015
Mislaid by Nell Zink
I STILL FEEL somewhat proprietary about Nell Zink, even though I recognize that this sense of ownership is misguided. In fact, Zink had already been discovered when I first read her work about a year ago, when a couple of short “scenes” appeared in an issue of n+1. They were odd little vignettes, the most memorable of which took place in a publisher’s office where women waited for years and years to be seen while men were shooed right in. Within a couple of pages of dialogue, Zink casually referenced the Serbo-Croatian war, OkCupid, Freud and Wittgenstein; she invented a new genre — YA GR or, Young Adult Golden Retriever. By the time she got to ridiculing established male writers, both classic and contemporary (Hemingway, Eggers, “Jonathan Saffron Franzen”), I was smitten.
Zink had a similar effect on one of the male writers she mocked. She first contacted Jonathan Franzen four years ago about a piece he had written on bird preservation. There was a bird specialist in the Balkans that she wanted him to know about. They began corresponding regularly and he was so excited about her writing that he became determined to help her publish one of her books, which up until that point she had written exclusively for friends or lovers. Zink eventually got herself a contract with Dorothy, an excellent small feminist press run by the writer Danielle Dutton. Dorothy published Zink’s first novel, The Wallcreeper, last year. I looked forward to it partly because the title immediately reminded me of the The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Remember that final scene, when the narrator finally tears the patternless wallpaper in her bedroom prison? She nestles her shoulder in a “smooch” on the wall and creeps around on hands and knees, over and over the body of John, her doctor-husband, who has unfortunately fainted in her way.
I was projecting my interests onto The Wallcreeper, though I wasn’t wrong to make that connection. The titular wallcreeper in Zink’s book is a rescued bird rather than a housewife undergoing a rest cure, but the two books do tackle similar issues — marriage, women’s work, poisoned environments. Stylistically, however, they are quite a bit different. Like Zink’s short plays, The Wallcreeper doesn’t so much creep as move at breakneck speed, pausing for almost nothing. It begins, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Many critics have cited that first sentence as indicative of the tone of the rest of the book, which is consistently unsentimental, funny, and ruthless. The book chronicles the marriage of Stephen and Tiff as they banter ferociously, and conduct casual affairs. Both of them are involved in environmental action — Stephen mostly works for various organizations while Tiff casually commits herself to a more rogue course of action. She becomes an ecoterrorist and dismantles a river dam by hand. The goal is to save a forest by surreptitiously flooding it, raising the diminished groundwater to save the trees from drying up and dying. Tiff takes the task on admirably, personally hauling and throwing rocks off the bank and into the river. Luckily, “sabotage doesn’t look criminal if you get a young, middle-class housewife to do it.”
There are many remarkable things about this book aside from its aesthetic singularity and verbal energy. The Wallcreeper prominently features another kind of rare bird: a completely unapologetically sexual and politically active female body. Tiff’s radical style of environmental intervention distinguishes The Wallcreeper from other “eco-novels” like, say, Freedom, whose engagement with environmental action is far from unemotional or punk. Walter’s depressed, personal crusade against cats is as close to a DIY ethos as Freedom gets. Zink’s is a refreshing sensibility, especially at a time when it is officially illegal to say “climate change” in Florida.
I saw Zink in person at Skylight bookstore in Los Angeles this past October, and the experience only strengthened my allegiance. That night, she told us, she had planned on reading the second chapter of The Wallcreeper, which happens to feature a lengthy and graphic anal sex scene between Stephen and Tiff. Unfortunately, her elderly uncle and his date, a white-haired flamenco dance instructor, were sitting in the audience. Zink publicly agonized about the uncomfortable situation and then, to everyone’s delight, decided to read it anyway. Later, during a Q&A, she confessed that she wrote the book in part to show Franzen how to write a good eco-novel, and, while she was at it, a sex scene from a woman’s point of view. Let me just say, if Zink had not insulted Jonathan Franzen through many different mediums and in many different ways, but had only read an anal sex scene to her grinning uncle, that too would have been enough. I’ve sat through enough Passover Seders to recognize when I should be grateful.
Mislaid is Nell Zink’s new novel, published this last month by Ecco. It chronicles the life of Peggy Vaillaincourt, a precocious young woman born in the late 1940s, into the unostentatious wealth of Virginia Episcopalians. Peggy, who realizes that she is “meant to be a man” in high school, goes to Stillwater College in Virginia to become an even more erudite lesbian. Shortly after she arrives however, she has an affair with a faculty poet named Lee Fleming, the son of a prominent Virginia family. Lee is himself gay, but momentarily fascinated by Peggy’s graceful boyish figure. Soon enough, this mismatch results in two children — a boy named Byrdie and a girl named Mireille — and deep misery for both parents. Lee sleeps around and entertains visiting poets while Peggy takes care of the children, feeling “as if she were a being of a slightly lower social class — which she was. A woman.” Eventually Peggy plots an elaborate escape, taking little Mireille with her, though it means risking prosecution or worse, institutionalization, by Lee’s powerful family. Peggy steals the birth certificate of a young black girl and travels even further south into Virginia, where she and her daughter take on the identities of two black women, Meg and Karen Brown. They do nothing to disguise themselves because they live in the South in the 1960s, where the one-drop rule is still in effect. The novel evokes the rule as a plot device, underlining its injustice and its preposterousness:
Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people […] The only way to tell white from colored for purposes of segregation was the one-drop rule: if one of your ancestors was black — ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham — so were you.
Mislaid’s central conceit is an inversion of the traditional passing narrative, as laid out by a variety of 20th-century texts like Nella Larsen’s Passing, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, or The Human Stain by Philip Roth. These books raise questions about race as a social construct; they explore the humiliations routinely inflicted on American blacks who dare to defy the laws of segregation; they interrogate performance, authenticity, and the justice of legal categorization. The act of passing in these texts is a source of conflict, disaster, and often tragedy. Not so in Mislaid. Meg and Karen Brown do not suffer much from their passing, and it certainly isn’t a fateful or disastrous decision for them. While enrolling her blonde daughter in a newly integrated Virginia public school, Meg declares, “We’re black and proud.” Indeed, registering as black allows the girl to qualify for affirmative action and a “free hot lunch.”
Meg claims her new African-American identity as confidently as only a liberal white woman can. (This is evidenced by the recent example of Rachel Dolezal. Zink’s prediction of what would happen were a white person to decide to pass for black is eerily prescient.) Obviously, Meg is unlike the other black people in her town, in that she has not been forced to live her whole life as a black person in an intensely racist, segregated society. Indeed, she acknowledges that she knows very little about black people. Fittingly, she seems unaware of what adopting this identity publicly might mean. At town meetings, she speaks up against public housing and takes a stand on funding for public schools in the region. Meg is the most vocal “black” woman, not for lack of other smart and articulate black men and women in town. It is rather that growing up white has granted her advantages, speaking privileges being one of them. Her manner of speaking and her looks, which both read as white, are also obvious assets. The PTA mothers are visibly relieved to deal with such a white “black” person, and they deem her “a natural ambassador of the newly ascendant educated black middle class.”
Here, Zink has found a premise that allows her to explore the issues around race by turning one trope after another inside out. This is also a way in which Mislaid engages with American fiction’s long tradition of looking at race through satire. The novel almost recalls a classic text like Black No More by George S. Schuyler or the more contemporary I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett. Here is a white woman satirizing her own ridiculous species.
It should be pointed out here that neither Meg nor Lee is a particularly likable person. Aside from stealing the birth certificate of a deceased child and lying to nearly everyone she meets, Meg also happens to be a drug dealer and a kidnapper. And yet, nothing really goes wrong for her or for any of these characters. In part, they are protected by their own hardened shells of wit and WASP impenetrability. It becomes difficult to really feel anything for them, other than curiosity and sheer bemusement. They are almost cartoonish in their inviolability — falling off cliffs, passing around bombs, only to get up and stagger away again.
This difficulty to feel for the characters can be frustrating but I think the lack of affective engagement is intentional. It speaks further to Nell Zink’s interest in power and privilege, which permeates both of her published novels. The Flemings are a little less self-aware than The Wallcreeper’s Tiff, who explicitly acknowledges her privilege. Lee, Peggy and both of their children seem to wander deliberately into the most dangerous crevices of American prejudice and yet all escape relatively unharmed. When Meg is most in danger of being found out, she receives a sign that she interprets as “cosmic reassurance that she would always survive.” Racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty are each confronted in turn, sometimes simultaneously, and yet no one is permanently effected. Peggy and Mireille eventually drop their black identities and emerge out of the swamp of the racist South relatively unscathed. Their troubles are temporary. They are after all, not actually black and they are not actually poor — no matter how much they play at it. These characters are proof that some of us, simply by birth in this country, are protected creatures, no matter how far into the fringes they position themselves.
Mislaid is not just a backwards route to examining oppression, it is a straightforward route to an examination of shelter, in the literal and the metaphorical sense. At one point in the book Temple (himself named after a potential shelter or sanctuary), a young black literary genius, thinks about the “sheltering sky” in order to avoid having an erection at a particularly bad time. He imagines himself ascending to the sky, realizing that it is “sheltering” not because it is a form of protection but because it is a “way out.” He begins to think of the sky as “a sanctuary, a place you can go when things get out of control […] There’s no need to run away. You can ascend to the region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” I read this passage as an indirect acknowledgement of the author’s own presence. Zink can be cruel and punishing to all her characters, but she always grants them a way out.
Mislaid is also always conscious of itself as a text and the influence other texts have on it. Temple finds guidance not only in the sky as a place, but also The Sheltering Sky, as in the novel by Paul Bowles. In time of need or crisis, the characters in Mislaid often turn to literature, since literature itself serves as a kind of shelter for them. At the same time, the novel constantly raises questions about the sheltering value of literature, especially as it wanders farther into political territory. At one point, Temple brushes up on his “black studies” and begins to wonder “if black people might not be owed a hearty collective thank-you, perhaps in the form of trillions of dollars.” He eventually decides to adapt Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a one-act play. Meanwhile, his father Ike, who is illiterate, thinks “if Temple were a little smarter he would notice not only that his people were victims of prejudice, but that his family had been run off their property and was living in a housing project.” Literature may be useful in some ways but it is not often capable of making the patent injustices of this country legible.
Literature’s practical uselessness becomes more obvious in one of the book’s more startling episodes. At the end, with a happy family reunion almost nigh, Temple runs after and hugs Peggy in a fit of joy. A policeman assumes Temple is attacking her and confronts him, his hand already on his revolver. Temple is instructed to empty out his pockets; he takes out a battered paperback of The Confessions of St. Augustine and a prerecorded Herbie Hancock cassette. It’s impossible to think of two less-threatening objects, and yet, they do nothing to deter the cop, who only backs off when a pedestrian pauses to watch. What good is the well-read paperback in this context? Even if it is the autobiography of a saint? What good is reading and culture to a young black man when he is facing a cop, who has just called him “boy” and has his hand on a gun? Temple is ultimately safe because Peggy, a white woman, is there to intervene, which is lucky; a pedestrian is curious, which is luckier. He himself has no other “way out,” no route of escape. Ascent, in this case, actually means death. He is, in this instance, completely unsheltered — unlike Peggy, whose protection is, once again, cosmically assured.
It is difficult to read this scene without thinking about recent events around the country where black men, were not, in fact, granted such a lucky escape. Compared to the light-hearted absurdity of the rest of the novel, the apparent reality of the situation is as disruptive as it is disturbing. But it is, ironically, useful both affectively and within the larger issues that the book grapples with. At this point, the reader is nervous. Temple’s stand-off with the cop is a moment of actual feeling in the book; it’s an emotional response to the insufficiency of culture as a source of protection or even, betterment. This confrontation is also very brief, as are most of the confrontations in this book; Zink prefers to makes her points quickly and move on.
What, then, is literature good for? It sometimes feels as if Zink wants to have it both ways. The book toys with the idea that literature can engage with the difficulties of the world in a useful way, while acknowledging that ultimately, it may not be more than a source of fun and pleasure. Writing and reading, text and thinking about texts, is obviously enjoyable for Zink (presumably that’s why she wrote fiction privately for her friends) and that feeling can be infectious. This book delights in the possibilities of fiction and the pleasures of playing with words, one-liners and genres. Is that enough? In the final pages, Zink hits at something more: The joy of reading may provide a foundation for real connection. Lee and his estranged daughter Karen/Mireille ultimately bond by talking about a text. It is through Karen’s interest in a certain book that Lee recognizes the “divine spark” that makes them family.
Mislaid isn’t a perfect novel, but that is partly because it isn’t really a novel. In an interview, Zink said that she structured it according to a “Viennese operetta.” This makes sense — the book is episodic, dialogue-heavy, and its ending recalls Elizabethan comedies (Alexandra Schwartz had a similar reading in Bookforum). It is also, frankly, a little bit exhausting keeping up with the constant jokes and the density of the text. It’s sharp and fun but it’s also demanding. It can be similar to the exhaustion of spending time with a very smart and very funny friend, who is often one step ahead of you. You’re a little confused, a little disoriented but the experience, overall, can be exhilarating. It’s also a little stressful. How are you ever going to keep this person only to yourself?
Medaya Ocher is the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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