Do you ever read something and you know you like it but you’re not sure if it’s actually good? Or is that just a problem isolated to those trying to find a place in the literary world? It’s tricky to worry about what you “should” think is good. I tend to buy more into the idea that you can like whatever you want, as long as you back it up (enter the critical essay). Overall, if you like weird and funny and feeling things you aren’t sure of, you should read this book! But if you’re going to read it, you shouldn’t read this essay that tells you what happens. What exactly am I trying to accomplish here then, you may ask? Beats me.
Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is kitschy and quick and political and sexy all at once. It’s also annoying, at times overwrought in description and other times vague. The reader can take these as they will, but it’s hard to deny that this book is to be devoured. The main character is Tiffany. Her first-person narration reads almost as an out of body experience. In action, she is passive. In observation, she its critical. Cruel. It clashes nicely with Stephen. Tiffany describes him best when she says, “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate,” (15). The plot is driven primarily by his impulses and Tiffany’s bitter response to them. The rest of the cast is made up mostly of the various sexual partners of the two (arguably a few too many, as they get hard to distinguish). Their dynamic is frustrating, but hard to look away from. Zink’s style is based on smart conversations, but the dialogue sometimes borderlines a monologue. It seems a bit self-indulgent, at times. However, the consistently quick pace gets the reader through those longwinded parts quickly.
The startlingly blunt first sentence, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage,” sets one of the main underlying tension of their indecision about having a child (1). Stephen’s lack of concern for his wife’s wellbeing is immediately obvious. Within fourteen pages, the reader is introduced to the new marriage and Tiffany decides she is no longer in love. The plot points that follow (multiple infidelities, pregnancies, abortions, acts of eco-terrorism) all seem to stem from the couples inability to fill a void in their marriage. Rudolph, the Wallcreeper they injure and bring into captivity, becomes a symbol of this void. When they release him to nature only to watch him get killed, they are forced to address said void.
Up until that point, Zink’s use of plot tools to propel the meandering story feels very controlled. The middle chunk of the book is thick with political rants and lots of organizations and other things to be Googled. The pacing that worked well in the beginning becomes a bit too quick and the setting, cast of characters, and even the direction gets a little lost. This is where the unusual structure starts to be a sort of detriment to the flow of the book. Perhaps some chapter breaks or indication of time passing and setting changing would make the middle less disorienting.
The only part that didn’t seem to work was the ending. After a plot that avoided the typical narrative structure, the resolution feels out of place. All of a sudden, Stephen is dead and Tiffany gets it together. She makes huge, uncharacteristic life changes and first-person claims to writing the novel itself and successful environmental changes. More happens in the last fifteen pages than all the pages prior. Many of these elements could be applied, in moderation, to give a sharper take on less convoluted plots—for example, quiet tensions, loud observation. Loud tensions, louder observation, loudest dialogue—not so much. As a whole, though, all these things work. The speed balances the density. The voice balances the inactions. The result is maddening, but smart and enjoyable (which is, probably, the point).