After a while, I decided he might be on to something. I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow. In between wallpapering, I wrote The Wallcreeper. Then I started on the floors. Then I took up playing the piano.
So begins the final paragraph of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, positioning the work as another of those novels that finds its protagonist and narrator “in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth” and finally “justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis.” Zink’s narrator has good reason to plunge into crisis: in an unforgettable opening line, she recalls riding shotgun in a car with her husband and “looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Despite the depth of her trauma, however, she is much more acerbic and irreverent, much less leaden and melancholy, than Julius, Adam, Faye, and their ilk.
Persistently and unambiguously the most intelligent person in any room she might walk into, Tiffany is alert to the idiosyncrasies of others and ruthless in using them to cut her enemies down to size. She zeroes in on their quirks and foibles with an exacting attention to detail that transforms them into caricatures of real people, undermining any claim they might make to any sort of sincerity of conduct. After the lonely wife of a male friend confesses that she wants to sleep with Tiffany’s husband, for instance, Tiffany notes that “[h]er hands were pressed against her heart and she was taking the feeling of emptiness there very, very seriously — a hole in her heart only Stephen’s dick could fill.” Yet even as that sharp and wicked line proves stylistically pretty typical of The Wallcreeper, there is also a deep vein of despair that runs throughout the novel and surfaces not in any one of its lines but only in their totality.
Tiffany is a woman who endures a whole succession of traumatic events: a loss of self to an egotistical husband in a torturously loveless marriage, followed by infidelity, psychological abuse, joblessness, cultural dislocation, a sense of general purposelessness, and worse. Rather than resisting these events or ameliorating their effects, however, Tiffany simply submits herself to them and then, as she says above, sits down to recount her experience of them. If in the retelling of things — in the act of writing The Wallcreeper — she had taken a characteristically acerbic and unsympathetic view of one of these events, or even two or three, the result would be far more mannered, the pacing of the emotional highs and lows more carefully modulated. But Tiffany’s piercing tone never wavers, her abrasive approach to events never falters, even as the traumas of her life accumulate and intensify. The whip-smart wit that saturates every sentence of the novel therefore comes to seem less like an ingrained aspect of her character than an affect, a stance, a determination of her will, and therefore a strange sort of stylistic coping strategy.
The engine that powers The Wallcreeper is the tension between, on the one hand, Tiffany’s need to revisit her experiences with enough sincerity and serious intent to painstakingly distill them all into a book and, on the other hand, Tiffany’s aversion to treating much of anything with sincerity or seriousness. She cannot not write about the events of The Wallcreeper, embarking on the composition of a work that demands lengthy concentration on past experiences in order to reconstruct them vividly on the page, and yet, sentence by sentence, the demand is met in a way that is basically, hilariously, and gratingly flippant, diminishing the scale of significant events simply for the sake of a quip. Note the last two sentences of the paragraph above, in which the emotionally and psychologically taxing activity of writing The Wallcreeper recedes in importance until the prose style imbues it with a value comparable to that of “start[ing] on the floors” and “playing the piano.” What the aggregation of sentences like these produces is, finally, a haunting thing, a thing very difficult to swallow, as, with each wisecrack, Tiffany dodges a direct encounter with the sheer turmoil of her life and therefore indirectly conveys a sense of its immensity.