The Wallcreeper came to my attention through this interview with the author, Nell Zink, in The Paris Review in December, based on an email exchange that the interviewer claims was “filled with some of the most riotous, pummelling insults I’ve ever absorbed.” I am in total admiration of those who wear their genuine and unadulterated eccentricity on their sleeve and Zink most certainly does not shy away from this. When asked about the release of this, her debut novel, and her path to this point Zink said:
“Probably everybody assumes I only started living the dream after I got what Publishers Marketplace calls “a good deal” for my novel Mislaid [which is coming out later in 2015] back in March, but my lifetime income from writing books still totals three hundred dollars (my advance for The Wallcreeper), and in any case the “dream” for me, given my typically German lack of financial desperation, would be if somebody invited me to one of those literary festivals where you sleep in a comfy hotel somewhere interesting and speak English with people who are predisposed to be friendly.”
The American expatriate lives in Germany, where she works predominately as a translator, making just enough to get by comfortably in a country with a cheap standard of living. Reading further, the Sunday Book Review explains here how Zink went from a recluse of sorts to a published author, with help from friend Jonathan Franzen:
“Zink, who wrote a post-punk fanzine in the 1990s, spent the last decade writing “impromtus” for friends—“long involved things like Viennese-style operettas and entire novels just to illustrate points in conversation.” Through her environmental activism she met and befriended Franzen, who chastised her for writing, always, to an audience of one. Zink responded with the first draft of this novel as an impromptu for him.”
The result is a debut that feels far more established than a first publication. The Wallcreeper often feels as if Miranda July has rewritten Jonathan Franzen - Zink is able to mix July’s offbeat humour and intelligence with a strong feminist kick, while littering the book with brilliant one-liners such as “When I awoke—I mean the next time I was allowed a cup of coffee…”. Zink’s prose is made all the more powerful by the speed in which it is delivered. The pace of the novel is unrelenting; whole elements of plot, geography and relationships change in an instant, and often within the same sentence. This can only come from a finely honed writer, and though it has taken some time for Zink’s work to become available to the public, it feels like a whirlwind. Raw, sharp and biting, The Wallcreeper feels like the start of a new force in literary fiction.
The Wallcreeper begins as it sets about to continue: with a sharp slap across the face: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.” Tiffany has just married Stephen and followed him from Philadelphia to Berne in Switzerland. The couple quickly move from strangers, to partners and bird watchers, while exploring other lovers and becoming activists. Tiffany moves from a serial consumer of food, shopping and sex, to a disenfranchised and more inward looking activist who ultimately commits an act of eco-terrorism. Stephen, a post-punk pharmaceutical researcher, DJ and activist, is an equally proprietorial and neglectful partner. Their marriage allows Zink to ruminate on the morality of contemporary relationships as well as an exploration of what makes a modern marriage.
The Wallcreeper contains underlying messages of feminism and environmentalism, but these are woven through the narrative and may not be immediately obvious to some readers. I would often realise after the fact that this was Zink’s intention, though some references are more obvious, such as this where Stephen is talking to Tiffany:
Saving one single wild thing was more than I could manage. But then I remember that you know how to look out for yourself and I feel better.
This references the wallcreeper bird that Stephen hits with his car in the first scene of the book, which the couple then collects to dispose of, before realising that the bird is still alive and subsequently keep as a pet. The familiar feminist trope of the bird in a cage is used to signify the power that Stephen holds over Tiffany, likened to the wallcreeper, which is characterised as a “small, beautiful and territorial bird found in Eurasia” - much the same as the untamed, wild, beautiful and cage-less Tiffany, and like his wife, is very much treated as a prize by Stephen.
The Wallcreeper manages to be an environmental novel without ever mentioning landscape. There are some fantastic depictions of the cities in which Tiffany and Stephen find themselves, many of which are painted as concrete jungles, beautiful yet oppressive:
Berne was beautiful. It had colonnades like Bologna and boutiques like New York. ... Everything in Berne had a delicious texture advertising a rich interior. Nothing was façade. It was clean all the way down forever and forever, like the earth in Whitman’s “This Compost.” I told Stephen I wanted to live there. He claimed in the old city you couldn’t have a washing machine because the plumbing was medieval.
Zink relies on the narration of activist activities in order to get her environmental messages across. Unfortunately these take the reader away from the more engaging elements of the story in which the consequences of these actions are explored. The passages in which the key actions are taken feel disconnected from the rest of the text, weighed down and without the lightness and humour of the majority of the book.
Elsewhere in The Wallcreeper however Zink is able to explore other messages without losing her distinctive narrative style, such as during some great explorations of home, particularly in the context of people who on the surface seem aimless and without a base. For example, when Tiffany and Stephen first arrive in Berlin:
Except for the space-needle-type TV towers, there was no place to look down at anything. You were always looking out and up until your gaze was arrested by the next moving car.
Every time we ate out we became mildly physically ill.
Accordingly, Stephen insisted we move there. He said Berlin was where he’d always wanted to live. Berne had just been a way of getting to Europe. He had met more interesting people in four weeks in Berlin than in three years in Berne.
Given that so far as I knew he liked nothing better than electronic dance music and shore birds, I had to believe him.
And this fantastic passage where Tiffany is talking to her sister about coming back to her small-town home in the United States:
There are terrible things that never get easier, and there are things even more terrible that get easier with time and repetition. Tukwila is one of the former, a staunch bulwark of defiance against the forces of rationalisation that would shred the fabric of the universe to lint.
The Wallcreeper somehow reads as equally effortless and difficult. While Tiffany and Stephen seem one-dimensional characters in the outset, as we follow their movements they become increasingly complex and tormented. Zink’s narration has a wonderful voyeuristic feel to it, as if she has been watching Tiffany and Stephen from an apartment across the street, or sitting at the table next to them while they drink coffee. The importance of humour in this book cannot be underestimated: without it the text has a tendency to feel too bogged down in hitting it’s messages, rather than letting the narration wash over the reader and the consequences sink in themselves. But at it’s height, The Wallcreeper is a fascinating piece in literary fiction. It somehow manages to retain Zink’s narrational intimacy as if she is still writing for an audience of one, despite being edited to be available to a broader audience. After hiding in the shadows, I’m thrilled Zink’s work has been brought into the light for the rest of us to enjoy.
Melbourne at the end of March feels particularly autumnal. Despite my grieving for long, warm summer days, I’m also grateful for cooler mornings and nights. It is the perfect weather for long, restorative sleep, with some days perfect for long walks without fear of sunburn, and some better suited to curling up and reading. I eat very much according to weather - on warm days I like cooler foods, cool days I balance out with warm, nourishing meals. These spice and honey poached pears have been a great staple over a week of changeable weather. On warm mornings I’ve served the pears on top of yoghurt with some walnuts, and on cool mornings they’ve sat on top of creamy porridge. Following the recipe I chose to reduce down the liquid after the pears had steeped overnight, and this made a beautiful sticky syrup, perfect for drizzling over yoghurt or ice cream when it’s warm, or instead of honey on porridge or pancakes if it’s cool. The warmth from the spices was perfectly balanced with the sweetness from the sugar and honey in the syrup - by reducing the syrup with the spices still in the liquid I was left with a strongly flavoured syrup with a heady Christmasy fragrance. The kind of comfort food that makes you feel like home, no matter what the weather or where you find yourself.
After reading The Wallcreeper where the central characters travel in a particularly open-ended way, and in thinking about my own travels ahead, I was particularly struck by this piece in The Guardian: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? It’s an interesting exploration of privilege when it comes to travel and migration - what makes some people immigrants when others in the same position are known as expats? How long do you live in a place before you consider yourself a migrant? If you become a citizen of your new home, are you still an expat? The Guardian piece stemmed from this great piece, In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway? in The Wall Street Journal’s Expat - a journal for expatriates around the world, but focussing on business hubs such as London, New York, Hong Kong and Sydney (essentially the privileged group referred to by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin). Both articles leave you thinking about your own identity and privilege, both at home and away, and are well worth reading.