By the time I turned to the first page of The Wallcreeper, I was (unfairly) already primed to be pretty defensive. Nell Zink, an American expatriate in Berlin and protégé of Jonathan Franzen, has been hailed as being a kind of post-punk, zeitgeist genius. People are saying she’s a modern Kafka. She emailed The Guardian a naked picture of herself to accompany a recent interview. For me, an essentially square Englishwoman, it all felt a bit melodramatic; a little constructed. And I have to say, the opening line of, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage” didn’t do much to set my mind at ease. There’s a kind of jarring baldness to some of the early phrases (and some fairly graphic sex) which made me crunch my teeth: “It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain)” or “Objectifying my body saved him from objectifying my mind.” I wondered if reading the novel was going to feel like walking into a hyper-academic college bar and over-hearing earnest conversations about Nietzsche or Post-Structuralism – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely not my frequency.
I was still intrigued, though – there’s something strange and compelling about The Wallcreeper from the very beginning, and it moves at such a lick that you’re soon being pulled into Tiff’s weird, off-beat train of thought. It didn’t take me too long to put my prejudices back in their box either, and realize that the narrator isn’t contrived – she’s incredibly smart and also very lazy, which is in part what makes it all feel so off-kilter. When Stephen swerves the car and occasions Tiff’s miscarriage, he is doing it to avoid hitting a wallcreeper. The bird comes back to live with them, which not only kick-starts Tiff’s apathetic involvement with environmentalism, but also seems to account for the pace of her recollection; like a wallcreeper flitting from nook to cranny, Tiff hops across the story – with short sentences, snatches of stilted dialogue, and nuggets of contradiction. In amongst that, though, are vivid descriptions and flashes of intellectual brilliance – I loved the image of Stephen’s “awkward hands” pawing at her like “the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake”; of a failed affair feeling like “generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death”; of grumbling geese sounding like couples squabbling over blankets; and the moment where she stands in the dark “as though rooted to the ground, or rather as though connected to everything around me by guy-wires in three dimensions.” Tiff may be lazy, and a complete freeloader for much of the novel, but she’s pretty sparkling when she wants to be.
The story whizzes past you in a half-realized haze. Stephen and Tiff married after a very short courtship, knowing almost nothing about one another. Tiff immediately quits work and slouches around, sometimes pregnant, sometimes not, avoiding any kind of work other than her extra-marital affairs. Stephen starts out working in R&D, before deciding to pursue his passion for birds and music with bursts of frenetic energy. He has affairs, too, and may or may not be taking significant quantities of drugs. Their lovers guide them towards environmental activism, and Stephen starts working for the Global Rivers Alliance, whilst Tiff decides to free the Elbe and flood the struggling tree reservation nearby by sabotaging the river’s man-made banks. This is all relayed in disjointed snap-shots until entirely unexpectedly, a traditional novel emerges out of the final few pages – when there is suddenly a crisis, signs of self-improvement and intelligent resolution. By the end Tiff has shed her work-shy passivism to become an independent trail-blazer, and her environmentalism suddenly seems real, and coherent. It is brilliant.
It’s also very shrewd about the importance of environmental activism, and the way NGOs hamstring themselves. Without being even vaguely preachy, Tiff morphs from being both a classic consumerist nightmare and a representation of the plundered planet – “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow” – into a force for real good. It must be one of the only novels with a genuinely potent political message which includes a line like, “I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.” I love the passage where Stephen, as a representative of the Global Rivers Alliance, slips into a pointless social media wormhole – “His task now was to strike a jaunty pose from which to launch scathing witticisms about the energy industry. Instead of preaching to the converted, he would sit on the couch with them watching the news and make snide remarks. But they still wanted clever new aphorisms every day.”
This is a novel which really shocks you out of apathy. It isn’t easy and isn’t always likeable, but it is seriously clever, and wears its smarts easily. There’s also a feeling of stealth tenderness – Stephen and Tiff don’t treat one another kindly and she almost clinically avoids sentimentality, but the absence of naturally expressed feeling doesn’t prevent it from rippling through the story. I’m sure I’ve missed things and misinterpreted others – it definitely encourages more than one reading – but it is wonderfully different, and certainly fascinating.