The novels of the US writer Nell Zink tend to be thrillingly unhinged, apparently written on the fly – within a month or even a week – and buzzing with witty dialogue and zany plots. In Mislaid, written before the Rachel Dolezal affair, a white woman identifies as black to leave her gay husband; the main character of Nicotine inherits her childhood home only to end up in a three-way fling with anarchist squatters, one asexual, the other a nymphomaniac.
If the wider points could sometimes go astray amid the quirkiness, Zink’s new novel looks like a bid for greater heft, targeting state-of-the-nation terrain through her regular prism of an unusual domestic setup. Running from 80s New York to Trump-era Washington DC, and framed by a pair of accidental pregnancies some 20 years apart, Doxology contrasts America then and now, to the latter’s disadvantage.
The 80s section introduces us to the wannabe post-punk three-piece at the novel’s heart: Pam, a coder, and Daniel, a proofreader, who, after the unplanned arrival of a daughter, Flora, score an unlikely top 10 single fronted by their friend Joe, who juggles the hard-partying duties of stardom with babysitting Flora when her parents are out at work.
There’s true tenderness in Zink’s portrait of their mutual affection. Here’s what a family looks like, she seems to say. Yet a third of the way into the book, Daniel, desperate to get his wife and daughter out of New York on 9/11, loses contact with Joe, who is later found dead. Not in the circumstances you might expect: although that’s just what Pam and Daniel guiltily let Flora grow up believing, sowing discord in a book partly about the making and breaking of illusions.
Doxology rings true with detail both glamorous and mundane, from record label talks to an A&E dash when Flora falls off a changing table. Our sense of the book’s authenticity sags only when we see Flora in her ecologically conscious 20s, studying soil erosion in Ethiopia and cutting her political teeth in the run-up to the 2016 election. Zink once played in an underground band and edited an indie-rock zine; whether she’s ever been to Addis Ababa or sat in on a Democrat strategy meeting, I don’t know – it’s irrelevant – but either way, the book’s second half doesn’t hit the high notes of the first.
Ultimately, Flora’s idealistic quest “to end economic growth” in order to save the planet is upstaged by a more traditional plot when, on the campaign trail, she ends up two-timing a pair of Democrat strategists, one middle-aged, the other in his 20s. When the outcome – expectant motherhood in uncertain circumstances – prompts comparisons with how an equivalent scenario played out for her parents, it’s hard not to suspect Zink (born in 1964) feels that twentysomethings in her own generation had their heads screwed on as well as screwed up.
Doxology is invigorating and intermittently brilliant. Yet as the plot grows manic, the hardboiled sass of the prose turns perfunctory; and when, late on, an apocalyptic miasma leads to little but a riff on how Fox News decides the pollution cloud is less noteworthy than an item on the optimum thickness of spaghetti, there’s a sense that, for Zink, endings remain elusive.
This review is from the Observer
• Doxology by Nell Zink is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99