You don’t read Nell Zink so much as step into the ring with her. Every sentence is a jab or feint, rigged for surprise. Every word feels like a verb. The plot leaps will give you vertigo.
Her debut novel, “The Wallcreeper,” is a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance — rude sex comedy meets environmental tract. Tiffany, our narrator, a creature of almost profound indolence, marries Stephen, her senior colleague at a pharmaceutical company, within three weeks of meeting him. Imagining marriage as a kind of early retirement plan, Tiffany hopes only for a protracted break from work that would allow her to pursue a nebulous course in self-actualization — as well as discreet sexual adventures. She follows Stephen as he is transferred from Philadelphia to Bern to Berlin; they start to get to know each other but quickly think better of it. Soon they’re into birds, Berlin’s radical activist scene and sleeping with other people. Stephen dabbles in drugs, Tiffany in eco-terrorism. They are magnificently ill suited, and they cannot be parted.
“The Wallcreeper” has the lineaments of a familiar story — young Americans go abroad and come apart — but it also has Tiffany, who sounds like no one else in American fiction. She has a voice that announces itself immediately, in the book’s indelible first line: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.”
The rest of the opening scene unfurls like something out of “Fawlty Towers.” Bleeding profusely from the head, Tiffany collapses on the ground (“not in the vomit but near it”) while Stephen ministers to the bird he hit, a wallcreeper. (The species is a bird with a secret: When it opens its wings, it looks like a butterfly.) It’s “a lifer,” Stephen says, a major sighting that will go on his lifetime bird-watching list. He swaddles the bird in a bread bag while his wife rests her head on the loaf of bread and retches to stay awake.
It’s an antic episode, a fine introduction to the universe of this book, its off-kilter charm. And it allows Ms. Zink to toy with us a bit, which she likes to do. Having taught us to expect flippancy, she now slays us with the full measure of Tiffany’s grief: “I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed. I clenched my hands into claws and cried like a drift log in heavy surf. Stephen put his hands on my ears. Much later he told me he thought if I couldn’t hear myself I might stop. He said it reminded him of feedback mounting in an amplifier.”
She is especially crafty when it comes to sex. “My down there plays a minor role in several scenes to come,” Tiffany tells us, and these scenes are coarse, warm, unprintable. “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate,” Tiffany says about Stephen after a particularly clumsy encounter. “Can I get more orifices?” She goes on: “Not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage.”
Ms. Zink brings the same frankness and astringency to writing about nature. There are moments of unapologetic advocacy in the book — about the ecological costs of dams, say — but the best moments are the quietest: how geese passing overhead made “so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.” Or how crows, patrolling a field, “spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other.”
For all the sweetness of these scenes, Ms. Zink remains ruthlessly pragmatic. Birds, Tiffany tells us, are “ludicrously tragic animals, always fleeing at the slightest hint of bad weather in a panic, yelling for months on end to defend territories the size of a handball court, having brief, nerdy sex and laying clutch after clutch of eggs for predators.”
Of course, Ms. Zink may be referring to the other specimen under consideration in this book: the domesticated human adult female. Having found a marriage to hide in, Tiffany regards her lassitude with bemusement. She makes jokes about being on a “breeding and feeding” schedule like the birds, and about her incapacity. “I had narrow little hands like a lemur,” she says. “Even my opposable thumbs were a work in progress.” She realizes, with some alarm, that her passivity is interpreted as unfeminist by the people she meets: “I’d done all kinds of things, all of them with the aim of staying close to a man. It hadn’t occurred to me to be ashamed of myself. I’d thought love was a socially acceptable motivation. But to right-thinking Germans, I was a mindless whore.”
So we see her mind begin to roam, to move like a writer’s mind. There are passing references to an idiosyncratic list of books — Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children,” Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,” “The Education of Henry Adams.” We see her churning up aphorisms, metaphors: Bern is “a tumor with blood vessels to supply everything it needed: capital, expats, immigrants, stone,” she thinks. “No, not a tumor. A flower with roots stretching to the horizon, sucking in nutrients.” She’s endlessly revising, reseeing, her observations becoming the book we are reading. She totters toward self-knowledge and toward the book’s conclusion, which echoes “Candide” with its injunctions to find meaningful work, to till one’s own soil.
Ms. Zink wrote this book under playful circumstances — as a lark to entertain her pen pal and fellow birder Jonathan Franzen. “I killed four days making fun of the male gaze as embodied in ‘Freedom’s thirdhand anal sex scenes,” she said in an interview, referring to a Franzen novel. “I think he got them from Kenzaburo Oe.”
(Mr. Franzen was entertained and even acted briefly as her literary agent.) The book hasn’t lost this playfulness — it’s still an instrument of delight, an offering of kinship. Like its namesake, “The Wallcreeper” is fleet, stealthy and beautiful. It’s a lifer indeed.