From stodgy bigwigs like Jonathan Franzen to local writers like Cari Luna, literary fiction seems really into characters living in squats and talking about their Marxist politics right now. This is fine if it’s done well—which it is in one of those examples, and in Nell Zink’s new book, Nicotine, set in a New Jersey squat run by a collective of smokers’ rights advocates. The book opens on preteen Penny Baker smoking a cigarette in her father’s sweat lodge and then returning to a very naked house—and things gets weirder from there. After her father’s death, Penny runs away to the aforementioned squat (home to smokers only, so it’s called Nicotine), as disturbing information about her childhood begins to emerge almost casually. This includes the “confirmed weirdness” of finding out that her father, a self-styled white shaman, adopted her mother, a Colombian orphan, before he married her, in what’s gradually revealed to have been a very creepy, coercive Woody Allen-Soon Yi situation, only worse.
Nicotine is a well-plotted, funny, subtly horrifying read, and it makes me tremendously sad that I have to bring Jonathan Franzen into this, but I do. I’ve shouted loudly and often in these pages of my disdain for fiction’s most overrated writer, the author behind some of literary fiction’s most poorly written female characters, and the clear worst of the literary Jonathans (Lethem is best, if you’re wondering). But Zink REALLY LIKES J-Franz, and has even described him as something of a mentor.
I can see that in Nicotine, which shares some obvious themes with Franzen’s Purity, a book I still regret reading a year later. To be fair, there are differences that matter: Franzen writes with palpable contempt for his characters in Purity, while Zink thankfully approaches her occasionally wackadoodle lefties with the exasperated warmth of a slightly irritated parent who’s nonetheless paying for her child’s nose piercing. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t share Franzen’s obvious blind spot when it comes to writing anyone who isn’t a vaguely put-upon white dude.
But at times, Penny’s characterization acquires the flatness of Franzen’s constructions of women. This is a terrible shame, because the language in Nicotine is an outright joy to read. Where Franzen spews malcontented maximalism, Zink’s prose is stark and bone-dry, funny as a matter of course, not a showy move. It’s full of beautiful description of (what else) smoking, which is even more impressive coming from Zink, a lifelong nonsmoker. I appreciated its gentle indictment of avowed liberalism’s capacity to obscure insidious or even amoral behavior (e.g., the self-described male feminist who calls you “babe”). Nell Zink claims she’s learned from Jonathan Franzen. And I don’t know! Maybe she has. But it’s clear from reading Nicotine that Franzen’s the one who could stand to learn a thing or two.