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Nell Zink Points and Jeers in 'Doxology'

It's deflating to find Nell Zink, a master of witty dialogue and pithy description, making so much space in Doxology for her inner cranky white liberal.

Nell Zink


August 2019


To borrow a construction from Virginia Woolf: On or about September 11, 2001, American character changed.

That's how you might summarize the premise of Nell Zink's Doxology, a novel that takes place in the decade-and-a-half before the events of 9/11 and in the decade-and-a-half after, hinging on that fateful day as it tries to take stock of what, exactly, changed in the American character. Its conclusion? Not much. But also, everything.

Zink's second novel since her breakout Mislaid (2015), Doxology is first and foremost a story about a family. We begin with Pam and Daniel, two kids from different parts of the country who move to New York City during the Reagan years to be part of the alt/punk scene. They meet, hook up, and have a baby, whom they raise in their rent-controlled Lower Manhattan loft with the help of their best friend, the unlikely rockstar Joe Harris (who could star in a novel all his own).

Doxology might have easily been a story about that time and that place, but the scope of Zink's work is ambitious. Mislaid was a multi-generational epic beautifully condensed to 200 pages; the follow up, Nicotine (2016), was a funny idea inflated to 300 pages. At 400 pages, Doxology insists on taking place in four different decades: the 1980s, '90s, 2000s, and '10s.

Fortunes change for the two generations that overlap in that timespan. Pam and Daniel's punk spirit wanes during the prosperous, end-of-history '90s, as they fulfill their Gen-X destiny to become yuppies. History, of course, kickstarts itself again on 9/11, and the family flees New York City. At this point the narrative hands the baton over to precocious daughter Flora. We watch her come of age in a new climate of political and economic precarity that is, if not worse, then certainly different than the one her parents knew in the '80s.

Doxology is very concerned with the evolving sociopolitical milieu of its characters, and at times, it reads like a greatest hits of national events since the end of the Cold War: we hear about Operation Desert Storm, the 2000 "nonelection" (whose outcome, Zink feels the need to remind us, was "decreed in mid-December by majority vote of the Supreme Court in favor of George W. Bush [...]" [126]), September 11, the Iraq war, the Great Recession, and a rather significant recent election. These historical beats set the rhythm for the plot a bit stringently.

While the main characters -- Pam, Daniel, Joe, and Flora -- are impeccably drawn, they can feel subservient to Zink's need to narrate this epoch, which she does as if she were a snarky left-of-center pundit on MSNBC, lining up the hypocrisies one by one and knocking them down. Of the months immediately following 9/11, she writes, "The principle of hating the sin and loving the sinner took hold of the nation. As evidence mounted that the attackers were Saudi subjects in thrall to Saudi aristocrats, the USA prepared to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. The sin of terrorism had to be fought wherever it appeared. If it was cut off at the root -- in the Fertile Crescent where God planted his orchard, the birthplace of cvilization -- there could be no more terrorism" (161). Saudi allegiances, misguided wars, the terrorism monomania of the Bush years -- haven't those of us in the outrage choir been preached this gospel before?

The second half of Doxology becomes a satire of the 2016 election, complete with the travesty of misleading polling data, misplaced confidence, and Democrat finger-pointing. Here, we follow Flora, a brilliant and awkward kid who seems modeled on climate activist Greta Thunberg. Through her devotion to the environment, Flora finds her way into politics at the worst possible time. She spends her post-college years eking out a living with menial campaign work.

The narrator lobs grenades at the demeaning job market that Flora has grown up into: "The desire -- so counterproductive under capitalism! -- to be paid for labor and even -- so naive, so blind! -- to equate it with income was a character glitch that ran in the family" (239). Never mind that both Flora's parents and grandparents are financially well-off.

It's deflating to find Zink, a master of witty dialogue and pithy description, making all this space for her inner cranky white liberal. She's so eager to point to problems and jeer that we start to miss the stuff that we might turn to literary fiction for: sustained engagement with a range of human responses that emerge amidst conflicts and difficult conditions. As in her other novels, Zink wants to hold up two generations side by side and, like divining rods, let them guide her to some truth.

In Doxology, the kids are certainly not alright, but by the end, Zink seems unsure how much blame Gen-X deserves for Millennials' misery. In a brutally on-the-nose development, she makes it clear that the older generation has certainly fucked the younger generation -- but maybe it's a good thing?

What links the generations is September 11, and Doxology is very much a 9/11 novel. It's almost customary in contemporary fiction that you not tell the story of a world event but that you tell the stories surrounding the event. This makes sense: 9/11, for example, so altered the course of American history that the day itself is really just a way to name its diffuse ripples. Thus, some writers have figured 9/11 as a kind of absence. So it is in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), in which one character looks out at the Manhattan skyline "to the empty space where the Twin Towers had been" and tells her companion, "There should be something, you know? [...] Like an echo. Or an outline."

In Doxology, 9/11 isn't a hole; it's a hinge on which the present moment revolves. We've gone from prosperity to decline, and we find ourselves now on a quickening global march to climate apocalypse. While Doxology redeems its characters, it's not optimistic at all about our shared future. This reality is what differentiates recent post-9/11 novels from, say, WWII novels: while we know we need to reckon with the horrors of the past, we also know that things are only going to get worse from here. Our present apocalyptic age is marked not only by the fresh certainty that the world will end, but also by the seeming inability of art or writing to drive a wedge into all of that.

Doxology is at its best when it's a portrait of a family in all of its cycles of growth and maturation. Characters come and go throughout, and intrigues flare and fizzle, much like in life. Or perhaps, much like in life in the last 30 years. It feels too hard to hold a grudge in this precarious world. Maybe that's the lesson we carry forward.


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