SEPTEMBER 15, 2019
FLORA SVOBODA, the latent protagonist of Nell Zink’s Doxology, is described as a “political person.” Immediately thereafter, Zink launches into one of the novel’s most lucid aperçus:
The personal is not political. It can become political when abstracted and generalized, stripped of identifying markers. The political subject is a depersonalized subject: This could be you. This could be you being lied to, spied on, shot at, searched without warrant, convicted without trial, executed without appeal. Could be, but isn’t.
What constitutes politics, personal or otherwise, is an exigent question for Zink, who for the last five years has ruminated on what a profile in The New Yorker defined as “the big stuff”: sex, race, religion, political activism, and ecology, all orbiting around Zink’s central preoccupation, the family unit under late capitalism. Published in 2014, The Wallcreeper was Zink’s debut novel, a retort to Jonathan Franzen’s suggestion that she reject her quietude and write fiction for a larger audience. As the apocryphal story goes, she finished the draft in three weeks. Her next novel, Mislaid (2015), was in Zink’s own words “agent bait,” and was followed by Private Novelist (2016), a collection of two novellas written in correspondence with the Israeli postmodern writer Avner Shats, and the novel Nicotine, also published in 2016. These novels are representative of Zink’s disregard for success as measured by her literary peers, and collectively they track an obsession with identifying how political subjects, depersonalized and deluded as they may be, find ways to traverse the moral gulf that separates them from both their predecessors and their progeny.
In Doxology, Zink has upcycled the plot points of her earlier novels — affairs between college students and their professors, unplanned pregnancies, environmental activism — onto new characters, adroitly parsing the generational conflicts and collusions between millennials and Gen X. Flora is of the former camp, graduating in 2014 from George Washington University with a degree in soil science. Her parents, Pam and Daniel, are rock musicians turned tech entrepreneurs in New York City. They sent Flora to live with her grandparents in the tony cul-de-sacs of DC’s Cleveland Park, wishing for their daughter a safer, more comfortable environment in the aftermath of 9/11. Daniel succinctly describes their generational conflict: “We grew up in a dialectical world. Everything was binary. Race, gender, the global order, class warfare, the whole nine yards.” In true Gen-X form, Pam posts his observation to Facebook: “She had garnered dozens of likes for a claim that everything’s binary when you’re on the spectrum.”
These sui generis flourishes enliven a novel that gains narrative traction midway through its course. Its placid first half is a slow stage-setting, tracking Pam and Daniel’s exploits in the 1990s New York music scene, where they experience success mostly vicariously through their bandmate, Joe Harris, who quickly supersedes the two as a solo act. Good-natured and prone to vice, Joe overdoses on heroin. His death comes into relief during a collective tragedy, as the planes crash into the Twin Towers: “Everyone was emotional and reaching out. Everyone was vulnerable and wounded. Everyone expected, and got, tremendous generosity and tolerance.” Zink tends to operate on a register of pastiche, and in Doxology, she reassembles the stylistic and narrative elements of the “post-9/11” novel by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Jonathan Safran Foer, excising from them their more sentimental purviews and inserting instead a measure of dry appraisal.
With plot thus expedited via national disaster, Zink neatly transforms the rest of the novel into a bildungsroman of Flora’s political and sexual awakening. The shift in narrative focus from Gen X to millennials coincides with a return to ecological themes that run through Zink’s past works, as well as some of the novel’s more memorable descriptions. Zink fills this latter half with canny observations on topics such as sustainability (“the nutrition label on selling out”), marriage (“a de-escalation ritual so weird that a person would need years of decompression to date anyone else”), and social media (where “billions of peons tithe their innermost data to billionaires”). Flora is a vessel through which the anxieties of millennials — professional success in an ethical fashion, an awareness of and sympathy to global causes, validation from one’s peers — are sublimated. At 17 years old, Flora is hell-bent on getting into a top college so that she may acquire a job that provides both financial security and emotional fulfillment. She lacks street smarts or maturity, but has “prejudices, which seemed like enough, since they were shared by the people she hoped would hire her someday.” She sleeps with her TA, and then her professor. She does not pause to distinguish between a mentor and a lover, or sexual fulfillment and professional ambition — not because they are mutually exclusive, but because Flora revels in “being turned on, in all states of matter, on all frequencies.” When her first job out of college — an entry-level admin position at the Sierra Club — fails to be adequately stimulating, she sets her sights on a higher goal: ending economic growth.
What seems to be a personal problem turns out to be, as in many of Zink’s plots, hereditary, a move that grants Zink leverage to ravel her characters in predicaments that are comically banal, mostly because of her characters’ struggles to separate family trauma from personal failures. Flora’s fretting over her career is a mere extension of Pam’s own self-determination, a steely reserve that has allowed her to ascend the ranks of a software company as its sole female software engineer: “The desire — so counterproductive under capitalism! — to be paid for labor and even — so naïve, so blind — to equate it with income was a character glitch that ran in the family.” Pam, once a punk and now prosperous from her start-up earnings in the post-dot-com bubble, begs Flora to do more with her life than (aptly) “vegetate,” to which Flora responds: “I’m not vegetating. I’m learning how power is distributed in our society. It takes time.”
Her plight will be familiar to readers of Nicotine, in which Penny, a similarly middle-class protagonist with a BS in business, fails to find employment and instead falls in fast company with a group of anarchist squatters occupying a Jersey City house that Penny stands to inherit. Forgoing the rights to her estate, Penny becomes enamored by the group dynamic, a feeling of conviviality enabled by a shared cause (smokers’ rights). But by the novel’s end, having failed to secure love, or find a political cause worth investing in, she instead gets a job as a “global commodities market analyst trainee in the investment banking division” of the bank where her mother works in Human Resources.
Through Penny and Flora, Zink’s generational observations reach their parodic zenith; Pam and Daniel, in contrast, are rendered too deliberately balanced (perhaps an unconscious bias). Zink tends to stuff her protagonists with enough narrative batting to constitute a backstory, minimally stage-directing their feelings only to step back and let them muddle their lives and principles in convoluted plots. Emotions are tacked on to characters to induce action; action induces relations. This is in service to satire, but Zink’s scope is not unsympathetic; if anything, her characters’ ambiguous motivations and desires stem from Zink’s shrewd sensitivity to their plights. Her characters share a propensity to locate their relative positions in complex systems, delivered in Zink’s deadpan observations that keenly assess — and softly skewer — contemporary political consciousness. Penny’s brother, Matt, designs garbage trucks and describes his occupation thusly: “I am literally saving people’s lives, increasing landfill capacity so we don’t have to burn that shit and fill the air with dioxins until everybody gets terminal cancer.” Flora, disenchanted with her first job, realizes that she “wasn’t a cog in the workings of advocacy. She was grease. She told herself she kept on not because she was spineless or indestructible, but because she was in the process of figuring out what to do with her life.” Recognizing their locations in social schema is the first step in a process of self-reflection, but Zink’s characters tend to be stuck in holding patterns, unable to make progress in defining what their politics might be, and in turn, readers are left to ponder their own principles from a distant remove.
Determined to break out of her professional rut, Flora runs to the embrace of the Green Party (where, “like church, or a twelve-step program,” there are no rejects) as a staffer for the Jill Stein presidential campaign, and subsequently into the arms of Bull Gooch, a boomer Democratic strategist with a fondness for “legit local girls.” They begin a courtship in which Flora takes up the role of the idealistic ingénue, or at least grows accustomed to the comforts of dating a man who has wine preferences. Bull and Flora have sex without condoms, with each other and, secretly, with separate Clinton campaign staffers, allowing Zink to invoke a recurring theme of her oeuvre: sex — awkward, stilted, and uncomfortable more often than not — is a way of traversing any number of divides, be they generational, racial, or ideological.
In Zink’s novels, sex is not unlike a political cause or ethical purview, instrumentalized by her characters as a kind of currency whose value is contingent, transferable, and, often, spiritually unfulfilling. Her characters reserve assessing the impacts of their political and sexual acts for retrospection. Usually, they resolve that the feeling in the moment is what matters; whether that feeling is real or true is of secondary concern. This translates less to acting on instinct than acting on the first form of external validation available. When Tiffany, the protagonist of The Wallcreeper, cheats on her husband Stephen with a man named Elvis, she rationalizes her adultery as a means of comfort: “Now, this guy was not what you’d call hot. […] I instantly got a huge crush on him. I didn’t even care what he looked like. I wanted him to hold me in his arms, pat me on the head, and say, ‘There, there.’” Tiffany is emblematic of Zink’s protagonists because her desires are simple and discrete. Her analogue in Doxology is Joe Harris, “impulsive and vulnerable,” managing to “live in a world charged with meaning, everything appearing as its hyperbolic essence.”
What is it like to live like this? Is it any better or worse than living in another way, any other way? Zink exaggerates the misgivings and motivations of her characters to flatten the moral grounds on which we all presume to stand. In a world where everything is charged with meaning, individual decisions take on a new import because their ramifications are felt collectively: when at the novel’s end Flora finds herself pregnant, she is tasked with the decision to raise a child in a world where she must make sense of her values against increasingly dire climatic and political turmoil. (She also doesn’t know the identity of the father, and gamely uses the phrase “chosen family,” though she is heterosexual.) That this novel also incorporates the disaster-artistry of the Trump regime without dissolving into clumsy Resistance directives owes to Zink’s bastardization of the 19th-century social realist novel, which Karl Marx praised for its ability to issue to the world “more political and social truths than all the professional politicians, publicists, and moralists put together.” Zink’s novels function not necessarily in the didactic transmission of truths, but in outlining the malleable borders that surround them, elucidating how in their genesis and dissemination, social and political truths become something more nebulous and more difficult to pin down.
In an essay for n+1, Zink writes admiringly of Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook and its influence on her writing, noting in particular Lessing’s ability to explicitly depict how people think, and how that thinking influences their actions. The influence of Lessing on Doxology is palpable in the relationships between the characters, their desires, and ultimately, their ambitions. Irving Howe remarked in his review of The Golden Notebook that Lessing and her characters in the novel are engrossed in “personal relations,” that perpetual impediment to collective action. Zink’s writing, and Doxology in particular, is perhaps best understood as an extended rebuttal of this reading — a long argument against solipsism articulated through an exaggeration of its effects. The personal isn’t political, but neither is the converse of this statement quite true. Could be, but isn’t. “When it turns personal,” Zink writes, “it’s too late.”