Where There is Smoke, There is Family
By Catherine SteindlerNovember 10, 2016
Nicotine by Nell Zink
Nicotine’s protagonist, Penny Baker, is the daughter of Norm Baker (shaman-in-chief of a healing center for the terminally ill) and Amalia (picked by a middle-aged Norm out of a Cartagenan garbage dump, in which she was subsisting at the age of 13, and now an HR executive at a Manhattan bank). Penny has just graduated college and has no plans. Her father dies, and her mother’s quick change of marital status on Facebook alerts the landlord of the family’s rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. Penny is served with an eviction notice. Without a place to stay, she has no reason to resist the plan that her half-brother Matt has hatched: in order to assert the family’s property rights, Matt dispatches Penny to live with squatters who are occupying their ancestral Jersey City house, in which Norm’s parents died by smoking in bed.
Penny soon discovers that the homestead has been dubbed “Nicotine” by its inhabitants, activists for smokers’ rights, and Zink delights in such pat ironies. Nicotine belongs to a network of squatters’ houses, each with its own activist cause — “environmental stuff, disarmament, different health issues, like AIDS and TB and whatever,” a Nicotine resident explains. Zink’s Jersey City is like a college campus, stuffed with themed houses but minus all the pesky costs and restrictions. All Jersey City could be an enclave of happy squatters and their nemesis landlord if not for a single unremarked-upon flourish of violence. Matt spray-paints the face of a neighbor’s dog, and the dog loses an eye, but never mind; Matt gets nary a drop of paint on his Audi. The novel treats this shocking act of cruelty as a non-event, as if any beings outside the novel’s central community are non-entities. So strenuously is the larger world blocked from the novel that its inhabitants figure as amusing talking points rather than as people, like in this statement from Penny:
I wish I was from one of those cultures. You know? Where you can be a feminist badass by riding your bike or playing soccer or whatever. I’d be like the Sudanese girl with cleats and a ponytail who speaks at the UN and people would be like, wow, let’s give her NGO lots of money.
Zink’s characters have a lot of data about the world, but they refuse to use that data to understand others.
In this way, Zink’s squatter-activists are less in the business of changing the world than they are in the business of evading it. One resident of the indigenous peoples’ rights house earnestly explains, “My parents wanted me to finish high school and I was like fuck you. It’s indoctrination. So I ran away. That’s part of why I’m committed to indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Nobody should have their way of life dictated to them.” Where activism is about attitude and, above all, about self, smokers’ rights fit in. So what does being an activist for smokers entail? Smoking a lot. Whiling away the hours musing about how unjustly smokers are demonized. One resident complains,
Same baby who’s sucking on a nipple full of phthalates, eating antibiotic chicken, breathing PCBs, playing in dirt made of tetraethyl lead and drinking straight vodka while it rides a fucking skateboard — when the baby dies at age eighty-six, instead of ninety, it’s going to be because you lit a cigarette in a public park.
A smokers’ rights activist goes every now and then to various progressive rallies but misses them while hanging out in the designated smoker’s area located at some distance from the action. A smokers’ rights activist does little other than be “cool,” which requires self-awareness. “Our ambitions really are trivial as all get-out,” a resident admits: “Live one day at a time, and try to afford cigarettes by living in New Jersey.”
Nicotine presents as a satire of spoiled Americans, of a nation of cosseted forever-in-college kids who need not try and need not take decisive action for everything to be pretty peachy in the end and perfectly tolerable along the way. However, on the subject of Nicotine’s floundering activists, Zink recently told the Guardian, “I don’t think of it as satire because I like those people. […] They’re my favourite people.” It might be naïve to take Zink’s assessment at face value, and yet Nicotine lacks a certain conviction, some trace of an attitude that stands at a distance from its characters, that would make the novel’s social observations more incisive. The novel is as aimless and good-natured in its witty little jabs of social critique as its characters are in their hapless, ineffective attempts at activism.
One thing Zink is serious about is that she will have no truck with tragedy. Penny’s journey is set in motion by the death of her father, an ostensibly traumatic experience, which not only casts her from her rent-controlled cocoon but also unmoors her emotionally, thrusting her into her Forest of Arden, Jersey City. Zink’s portrayal of Penny’s grief is unconvincing; “[s]he thinks of Norm’s death for two solid hours before she falls asleep” one night, and the next she “is haunted by Norm’s last days for three solid hours before falling asleep.” The language of measurement Zink employs here does little more to make Penny’s grief tangible than does her own complaint, “now I have PTSD complete with flashbacks.” No voice in this novel is any more compelling on the subject. Jazz, Nicotine’s resident pansexual, an alluringly damaged cutter and an ex-PKK sex goddess, makes a suggestion as to how Penny can deal with her grief: “Maybe music would drown it out. Or you could masturbate.”
Nonetheless, some dim consciousness of actual risk and suffering percolates in the margins of the novel. For instance, when Amalia offers Penny a pseudo-mystic platitude — “No one is ever ‘homeless.’ There is room on this earth for everyone” — Penny “feels vague dissatisfaction. Something tells her that the earth is not held in common — that some people really are homeless,” but she says nothing. Zink treats the squatters’ precariousness much as the sitcom Friends treats Phoebe’s former homelessness — as a funny quirk, on par with Monica’s neatness. This treatment is only possible when the foregone conclusion is that everyone will always be safe. In one scene, however, Penny glimpses actual homelessness. She drops by a shelter where her love-interest, Rob, is volunteering for the day. She observes him cutting a homeless man’s toenails and overhears someone in the women’s showers comment to a fellow bather, “maggots in your armpits.” For a brief moment, the suffering body intrudes on Penny’s clueless idyll. Or not: Penny’s takeaway from the scene is that “Rob is amazing. Not merely cute. Truly awesome as a human being.”
Zink raises the specter of all the tough stuff — grief, rape, incest, suicide. Nicotine begins with two preludes, both disquieting in their suggestion of sexual interaction between adult men and pubescent girls. In the first, Norm invites the dirt-, urine-, and blood-stained little girl who will become his wife to “ven conmigo.” This scene is one of rescue, but its uncomfortable potential to be a scene of sexual predation is extended by the second prelude, in which the novel introduces their 12-year-old daughter Penny. She is naked in her father’s smoke lodge when he, his friends, and her half-brothers find her. Her father sends her back to the house, but that image of four adult men looming over a naked adolescent girl is not without impact. A few minutes later, Penny walks in on Matt having sex with his girlfriend. Furious, he leaps out of bed and “his penis at that moment is like nothing she has ever seen. His anger, likewise. She senses a connection between the two.” He carries her back to her bed:
A silent tussle follows, typical for siblings, but not quite right. More like a father tickling his child, but still not right: a naked man in his midthirties using force to hold an adolescent down in bed. She raises her foot to kick him in the stomach and accidentally brushes his penis with her calf. She shrieks in the shrill, spontaneous monotone of a child ten years younger, so close to Matt that it reverberates in his ears like tinnitus.
Reflexively placing one hand over her mouth and nose […] he becomes aware that his penis, still tacky from sex, is tugging on the skin of her thigh, stuck to it. He releases her, with a certain dramatic self-awareness, both his arms flying upward, as though a latch had been sprung.
These twin preludes are the most compelling scenes of the novel. They introduce the possibility of real menace lodged in the murky sexual ambiguities of family, but the novel keeps these themes in view just long enough to defuse them, insisting that there is nothing to see here, folks. For example, Norm, Penny learns, made Amalia, a self-described “horny like a worm” adolescent, wait until she was 18 to marry him, which conveniently allows Penny and Amalia to maintain an image of Norm as a pure saint. By throwing in that magic number, 18, Zink points to the arbitrary nature of the traditions and laws we use to palliate our anxieties in order to keep going.
Penny’s other half-brother, Patrick, informs her that the sexual abuser of the family was in fact Matt, who gave his adopted sister/future stepmother M&Ms in exchange for sex. When the supremely unreliable and self-serving Amalia denies that Penny might be Matt’s child, Penny takes her at her word and thinks no more about it. Patrick attributes his and Matt’s mother’s disappearance to her revulsion at Amalia’s and Matt’s sex play. She ran away and was never heard from again, which Patrick says has been “HELL” for him. “The HELL part, [Penny] tries to imagine and can’t.” Zink could be speaking for her novel, which, by not imagining hell, deals with trauma through evasion.
However avoidant, the novel teems with pain’s disordering effect. Amalia, whom Peggy gleans was repeatedly raped and beaten before Norm found her, is the most chaotic thinker of the novel:
“The past is gone,” Amalia says. “[…] [A]ll is one. […] Even the facts are interconnected. There is conservation of energy. When they beat you and rape you, they become bad and you become good. As long as there is life, the balance will not change. […] Life is like water […] flowing to the ocean and up to the clouds to rain upon the hills. It can only consume itself. A river eats water. If it gets enough water, the river is a true river. Then it can carry many heavy things without pain.”
Amalia’s jumbled, trauma-victim logic reads as a parallel to the logic that underlies the novel, in which so many structures are scrambled. After receiving a skilled blowjob from a stranger, for example, Matt notes that “[s]ervicing men is her art form, the challenge she has set herself in life — as a feminist, most likely.” Economic relations are utterly beside the point: when the squatters find out that Penny is not a fellow seeker, but a landlord, none of them seem to mind. Their lack of attachment to who they thought Penny was, their total disinterest in how their friend fits into an economic structure in relation to them, is sweet, almost utopian.
The Baker family itself is the most muddled structure in the novel: not only does Norm neglect to write a will, he leaves behind neither adoption papers nor marriage papers. Amalia, Matt’s mother-sister, may be neither of those things. She may only be his ex-lover. Matt, Penny’s brother, may actually be her father, but Penny “puts truth with all its mystifying uncertainties out of her mind.” The novel suggests that trauma and tragedy are best relegated to the past, and the more impermeable the wall erected between past and present, the better. The things you think matter, the things that happened to you before today, don’t matter. Accordingly, Nicotine is written entirely in the present tense, admitting neither past nor future.
Nicotine’s nothing-sticks attitude requires an absence of what E. M. Forster called “round characters.” Penny notes that “[h]er family is a train wreck. The runaway train of devotion and commitment, reduced to a pile of scrap. No casualties, because no passengers. They bailed on the train long ago.” Zink’s novel thus is populated not so much by people but by the forms of people through which funny dialogue can flow, shapes that can be moved through the multitude of plot conventions that the novel has on offer: an inheritance plot, a coupling plot (three to be exact), a family-secret plot, and a coming-of-age plot. Zink uses these Victorian plot structures, which pull in interesting ways against her decidedly 21st-century voice, with a kind of zealous abandon. She ditches her plots as easily as she picks them up, exhibiting a kind of contempt for those very mechanisms she employs. Zink does more than show off her facility. She is also emphasizing that the satisfaction of a coherent plot is an act of writerly benevolence, for which there is no corollary in life.
Take, for instance, the inheritance plot. Zink tires of it quickly. All the major characters get a place to live and someone to canoodle with in the end, so who cares what happens to Norm’s real estate? Zink ventures into the buried-truth family novel tradition in order to reject the notion that the past matters. Narrative tension, such as it is in this novel, has something to do with Penny’s desultory attempts to find out what really happened to Matt and Patrick’s mother. Zink mocks the very family-secret narrative structure she utilizes when, at the end of the novel, an old friend of Norm’s shows up and, with barely any prompting, fills in Penny, who is so stoned she doesn’t seem to care.
As for the coming-of-age plot, Penny starts out single, soon to be “homeless,” unemployed, and, in the name of independence, refusing her mother’s offer to get her a job. At the novel’s conclusion, Penny has a boyfriend, a secure room at one of the squatter houses, and a position at her mother’s bank. She has come into a life of her own, not through effort — she endures no ordeals, slays no dragons — but through hanging around, smoking cigarettes, letting some stuff happen, and taking what was always coming her way. Zink doesn’t seem to be satirizing this approach to life, so much as enjoying it, even extolling it, while shifting all responsibility for moving the narrative forward to Matt, the vile capitalist. Matt’s sexual aggression is grotesque: he says to a friend, about the woman he loves, “If I catch up she will be so raped” and, when finally in her presence thinks “he could grab her right now and fuck a baby into her.” Amalia insists that Matt is just a regular guy. “You think he’s bad for fucking stupid sluts from the Internet?’” she asks Penny. “Does he kidnap and torture them? Does he kill their families? No. He’s not a bad man. He is normal. He cannot love anyone, and that is normal.” Matt is certainly a necessary part of Zink’s narrative, and by implication of society. Without Matt in the novel, nothing would happen — he sends Penny to Jersey City, and later he sends the squatters fleeing across country. Matt is even the driver of social progress in the novel: he cleans up Nicotine and turns it into a community center for all of Jersey City’s squatters to enjoy (for entirely selfish reasons, of course). His profession is to design garbage compactors — he does this for profit, not social welfare, but someone’s got to dispose of garbage and certainly the squatter’s dumpster diving isn’t going to do the job. As a man of action, Matt frees up everyone else to do no harm by doing nothing; he and his aggression become a necessary, indeed “normal,” part of the social ecosystem. This stance is nicely inclusive, but by equating activity with aggression Zink not only normalizes Matt’s brand of aggression but forecloses the possibility of an effective non-predatory person.
It is an odd experience to read Nicotine in 2016. Although references to the Trump campaign place the novel in this year, its defiant no-stakes attitude seems out of whack with the present. It certainly captures the cockamamie lunacy of the 2016 election cycle, and the novel embodies the contemporary worry that our emotions are becoming as shallow as the media we increasingly use to share them. When Penny sees Rob for the first time, “[s]he thinks a series of hastily jotted firecrackers and red heart shapes, mentally texting friends about her discovery.” Much of the novel takes place in the emotional register of an emoticon. Yet for all its zeitgesty patter, in a post-9/11, post-Bush, post-Ferguson, Trump-Clinton climate, a novel in which everyone is safe and nothing ever really hurts seems more avoidant than trenchant.
Catherine Steindler’s work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University.
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