Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Review: Nicotine by Nell Zink



Nell Zink is a perplexing anachronism to me.  She is a late-blooming novelist who, through a combination of quirky charm, prolificness, and popular acclaim, has achieved literary fame;  Zink is to literary fiction what Grandma Moses is to art. Think of her as "Grandma Moses: The Salad Days."

Prior to her latest novel, Nicotine, appearing as a Book of the Month Club selection in November,  neither of Zink's previous works (Wallcreeper, 2014; Mislaid, 2015) appealed to me.  However, Nicotine, caught my eye--there's a squat, there are anarchist collectives, it's BRIGHT GREEN-- and it  thusly became my November pick.  In retrospect, I wish I would have went with the new Zadie Smith novel because I hated-- HATED-- Nicotine.  This isn't to say that Nicotine isn't well written or that it isn't an easy read-- it's both of  those things-- it is just deeply problematic.



The novel is about a recent college graduate named Penny whose father, Norm, was the head of a shamanistic faith healing business (CULT).  When Norm dies, his estate is in shambles and Penny's family left to sort through their patriarchs complex finances.  With no job and no place to stay, Penny is tasked with evicting the squatters who have taken up residence in one of her father's properties-- the burned-out remains of his childhood home-- and prepare it for sale.  However, once she arrives at the property, Penny finds that it is occupied by a group of anarchistic squatters committed to smoker's rights.  Penny then befriends the squatters and finds herself at odds with her family.

As a premise, Nicotine sounds great, right? Well, the premise is one of the only great parts about this book.

One of my major gripes with Nicotine was its treatment of POC.  There are two central characters in the novel, Penny and Jazz, who are women of color; however, instead of approaching them with nuance and revealing these women to be multifaceted beings, they were underdeveloped and fetishized.  Both women are described in animalistic terms and their brown skin described in seductive terms; they exist to be desired, objectified, used, abused, and discarded.  It's a cliche, the white writer "getting it wrong" in their representation of non-white characters, but it's a cliche Zink descends into time and again.  If you want to read the work of a white woman who "does diversity well," read Carson McCuller instead.

While I also took issue with Zink's treatment of mental health issues--namely raising the issue and then never satisfactorily addressing these complexities, even when they are connected to major plot points!-- my major issue with Nicotine was its treatment of asexuality.  One of the novel's central characters identifies as asexual and briefly mentions being assaulted by women who didn't believe him.  However, later in the novel, he no longer identifies as asexual after giving up cigarettes and alcohol.  Asexuality isn't pathological, it's a sexual orientation in and of itself.  You don't "become" asexual because of what you do or do not consume: you either are or are not asexual.  There are a lot of misconceptions about asexuality already without a Zink muddying the waters.

At the end of the day, what galls me most about Nicotine is that it is a novel that tries to sell itself as being progressive (anarchists! squats! people of color! LGBTQIA+ characters!), but only manages to deliver the the same hackneyed tropes that we've read before.

You're better of reading McCullers again.  Trust me on this one.

Read.  Resist.  Repeat.




No comments: