Nell Zink is a quirky American writer whose novels are inhabited by people with quirky domestic arrangements, described with deadpan humour delivered in crackling declarative sentences that sometimes need to be read twice. In her widely praised first novel The Wallcreeper (2014), a woman in a combative, openish marriage miscarries after her husband swerves their car to avoid hitting a bird. They adopt the bird. Last year’s Mislaid, longlisted for the National Book Awards, is about a gay man, his lesbian wife and their children. The males in the family identify as white, the females black, though none of them have African-American ancestry.
Her new novel, Nicotine, also features an unusual contemporary household: an anarchist squat in a rundown section of Jersey City, in the state of New Jersey, close to New York. For the purposes of the story, Jersey City hosts an anarchist movement whose members occupy abandoned homes according to the flavour of their activism: a squat advocating for the rights of indigenous people, a feminist squat, etc. One of the houses is called “Nicotine”, after its occupants’ militant devotion to tobacco products. Even among Jersey City radicals, this is an ideology too much in violation of present-day liberal mores. Smokers are relegated to the sidelines of the anti-globalisation protests.
The novel’s plot meanders down some byways that are less interesting than others, and some of Zink’s characters aren’t really credible. The appeal of Nicotine mostly lies in its good-naturedly humorous depiction of the way some of us live now, particularly within a certain subset of young people who are politically engaged — a hipsterish, tattooed, gender-fluid, digitally connected, marginally employed, semi-privileged, disaffected cohort. As the novel develops into an unconventional love story, Zink draws most of our attention toward four principal characters, two of them Nicotine residents.
This rambling, four-storey house once belonged to a self-described shaman who dies early on in the novel. When his youngest child, 23-year-old Penny, learns that her family owns property in Jersey City, she goes to investigate. Surprised to find the structure inhabited, she is immediately smitten with the squatting lifestyle and the squatters themselves, especially a hunky guy named Rob who conducts his activism by chewing tobacco. Penny takes up residency in another squat close to her new friends. She puts off revealing that her family owns their home.
The romance with Rob doesn’t begin auspiciously. He’s super cute and there’s some cuddling and actual sleeping together, but he won’t make love to her. Under pressure, Rob finally declares that he’s a member of a stigmatised sexual minority: he’s asexual. Penny realises that she still wants to sleep with him, however chastely, however much sexual frustration it brings. She’s still grieving over her father’s death. She needs the comfort of being with someone she cares for, even if it’s only to “sleep poorly, because his presence is like an alarm clock that never stops ringing”.
Across the hall from Rob is a tenant with a condition at the other end of the carnal spectrum: voracious sexual hunger. Kurdish-American Jazz (for Jasmine) is a poet who’s scarred both within and without, and fierce in her erotomania. She was once in the PKK but she’s fully western when it comes to rejecting assigned gender roles. Asked why her time with the peshmerga didn’t work out, she says, “‘The food.’ ‘I thought Kurds had great food.’ ‘Because the women spend twelve hours a day on it.’”
Jazz finds her counterpart in concupiscence, wilfulness and risk-taking when Penny’s half-brother Matt also comes to Jersey City to check out the family property. A ruthless businessman who sells eco-friendly garbage trucks, Matt is resolved to get rid of the squatters — even after he has sex with Jazz. The squat will eventually prove to be a kind of sexual refuge, or sinkhole, for nearly all of Penny’s family.
Much of the novel’s arch humour emerges from the dissonances generated by radical life in a relatively affluent and liberal society. For example, the American-born residents in the indigenous-rights house ensnare themselves in a logical tangle when they argue about what kind of indigenousness is worth protecting. At another house, that of the feminists, a gathering is dominated by stylish, high-heeled, well coiffed transsexuals. Penny regrets that she’s arrived in casual party clothes that make “her feel like an interloper — like some rude woman-born-woman intent on boycotting femininity because she can take it for granted”.
Zink is not quite lampooning the radicals. Despite these ironies, her sympathy for her characters dissuades us from reading her novel as political satire. She’s more committed to exploiting the squatters’ ideological contradictions, their little hypocrisies and their personal weaknesses as elements of the human condition as it presents itself at this moment in history. When she hits her targets, which is often, Nicotine can be quite funny. Our quest for freedom is taking us in some very interesting directions.
Nicotine, by Nell Zink, Fourth Estate RRP£14.99 / Ecco RRP$26.99, 304 pages
Ken Kalfus is author of ‘Coup de Foudre’ (Bloomsbury)
Illustration by Adam Hancher