Posts Tagged ‘Nell Zink’

‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink – An Over-The-Top Gross-Out Novel


‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink   (2016) – 288 pages


e7e56acf-15b3-4e0b-9263-6ffb8841489aimg400I did not like ‘Nicotine’ very much.  That is unusual because I had been on a roll lately with my reading.  It seemed every book I had recently read, I have really enjoyed.  They all got grades of B+, A-, A.  I thought maybe I had reached the point where my selection process was so well-tuned I only picked books that were just right for me.  But today I see I was only fooling myself.  After so many wonderful books, I picked one, ‘Nicotine’, which I did not appreciate very much at all after reading it.  I am actually quite happy about that, because my reading ship has finally righted itself after nearly tipping over from all the great novels.

I can tell that Nell Zink really doesn’t care whether or not I liked her novel.  Otherwise she would not have called it ‘Nicotine’.

What did I not like about ‘Nicotine’?  Let me count the ways.

  1. In the first few pages I was subjected to a quasi-incest scene that served no purpose in the plot of the novel other than to establish that this was going to be a wild and crazy ride.
  2. Then we get the deathbed scene of the father Ned. I know that there are horrible things involving blood, snot, and infection that occur on the deathbed, but I don’t need to be subjected to many pages of graphic gruesome detail.   I suppose this passes for gross-out humor in this ostensibly comic novel.  Later there is a shit storm in an apartment house.  Ha, Ha.
  3. The father Ned is a shaman who has a large group of hippie-like people who come to dance at his funeral. The career path of shaman does not interest me at all.
  4. There is a lot of sex in this novel. The sex in ‘Nicotine’ is less than interesting and more than dismal.
  5. The author Nell Zink has taken to heart the literary advice ‘Show, Not Tell’, and thus nearly everything is shown, not described or explained. Thus the characters are under-developed.
  6. ‘Nicotine’ contains some of the worst dialogue I have ever come across in the sense that it is inelegant and boring. In good dialogue the characters are so well differentiated that we can tell who is talking just by their words.  Here everyone speaks in the same clumsy manner so it is difficult to know or care who is speaking at any given time.
  7. By making them out to be weird inconsequential spoiled idiots and anarchist squatters, Zink discredits those who believe in social justice. Although it pretends not to be, ‘Nicotine’ is a very right-wing novel, a story for Trump supporters.
  8. The characters in ‘Nicotine’ are so sophisticated, so jaded, so disgusting, this farm boy could not identify with them at all. It was like they were from a different planet from the one I inhabit.  These people mostly seem to all be looking for a way to get out of their manic-depressive disorder by getting transgender surgery.

Nell Zink claims it only takes her three weeks to write a whole novel.  I am surprised it took her that long to write ‘Nicotine’.


Grade:   D+



‘Mislaid’ by Nell Zink – An Outlandish Virginia Family at Stillwater Lake

‘Mislaid’ by Nell Zink   (2015) – 241 pages


‘Mislaid’ is a story about a family but not like any family you or I have ever encountered.

Thus we have our lesbian student Peggy getting pregnant by Stillwater College’s homosexual poet in residence, Lee Fleming.  They marry, have two kids, and stay together for 10 years.  We can only assume they were temporarily attracted to each other, but later the poet goes back to guys, Peggy drives his car into Stillwater Lake, and she leaves with her daughter but not her son.  This all happens in the early pages, and things only get wilder from there.

Nell Zink’s style of writing is quite evocative and suggestive, and her riffs on just about anything are a lot of fun.  Here is part of her take on Stillwater College:

“In the 1960s it was a mecca for lesbians, with girls in shorts standing in the reeds to smoke, popping little black leeches with their fingers, risking expulsion for cigarettes and going in the lake.”  

Most of these short riffs in ‘Mislaid’ are wild and wonderful.  Here is Zink’s take on Lee Fleming, the poet father:

“His parents were wealthy.  But he had expectations and an allowance, not money.  His father suggested he move to a secluded place,  Queer as a three-dollar bill doesn’t matter on posted property.  Lee’s father was a pessimist.  He imagined muscle-bound teaboys doing bad things to Lee, and he didn’t want passersby to hear the screaming.   He offered him the house on the opposite side of Stillwater Lake from the college.”

The first part of ‘Mislaid’ is a riff on how this Lee guy who is attracted only to men wound up as a father. Later Zink explains how the daughter of Lee and a white lesbian student at the college becomes a Negro.  This is Virginia after all where if a person has even one drop of Negro blood, they are a Negro.

What better place to look for a phrase which describes a particular novel than within that novel itself?  For the novel ‘Mislaid’ I found that appropriate phrase toward the end in “weirdly fascinating”.

I liked the novel much more on the paragraph level than I did at the full plot level.   Part of the fun of this book is that it goes all over the place.  Part of the problem is that it goes all over the place and could use more coherence.   The pace is fast and frenetic and never stops to explain characters’ motivations.  This is especially a problem when we get into trippy drug scenes later in the novel.  In drug taking there already is a lack of coherence and logic, so I would suggest Zink avoid drug scenes in her future work.

However, I found the wild suggestive style of Nell Zink fun, original and entertaining.


Grade:   B+

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