On the Road, famously, was written in just one month, and secured Truman Capote yet another entry in the Oxford Companion of Bitchy Put-downs when he remarked, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing.’ Nell Zink, it seems, shares Kerouac’s metabolism, having turned out several of her previous novels inside four weeks. ‘No one expected Rembrandt to spend 10 years on a fucking painting. He could do it in a day and a half,’ Zink argues. Still, speed is a hazardous thing, and Doxology, her latest novel, has a seams-on-show, first-draft wildness about it.
We are introduced to Pam Bailey as a drug-taking teenage reprobate with a ‘radiation’ haircut (patchy) and a set list (patchier) designed to launch her onto the punk rock scene. She flees her oppressive Washington home life for New York with nothing more than the money she got from pawning her father’s VCR and an outsider’s amorphous optimism that the city is going to do something for her.
And so it happens. She meets Joe, ‘the goofiest man alive’, a songwriter with an undiagnosed case of high-functioning developmental disorder, possessed of a defenceless naivety and winning disinhibition that make him the kind of person who strikes up one-sided conversations with aspirant muggers and has a favourite pigeon. His songwriting, a daily ritual, appears unmediated by ambition, wholly in celebration of the surrounding world – in a previous age what might have been regarded as ‘for the glory of God’. Though, one suspects, slightly taken with Joe, Pam falls instead for his ‘pretend manager’ Daniel and becomes pregnant. Their shotgun wedding coincides with the firing of the starting pistol that propels Joe on his improbable rise to solo stardom. Caught in the wash of fame, the three, joined by Pam and Daniel’s daughter, Flora, form an unlikely family collective, with punk star Joe babysitting Flora throughout her childhood in the family’s ‘illegal’ apartment, the existence of which Daniel first ‘deduced through spatial reasoning’, above a Chinatown Video Hit.
The oddball domestic setup lends the scenario a whimsical sense of unreality, one viciously shaken on 11 September 2001, when Joe dies, not in the terrorist attacks but as a result of a heroin overdose. There is, of course, nothing controversial in regarding 9/11 – ‘the day that fucked the world’ – as an event of image-shattering consequence, responsible for a certain deformation in the American consciousness; Zink’s cleverness, however, is to evoke this alteration principally through the family’s loss of Joe and his spectral presence in their later lives.
The second part of the book, rather changed in tone, follows Flora as a young adult. In the present day, one in which pop music has exhausted its power to scandalise elders, mobilise vague political restlessness and convince people to dress terribly, Flora alights upon its nearest modern counterpart and joins the environmental movement. She works in the Green Party, then falls into a relationship with a grizzled Democrat fixer, distinguished by political ennui and greying sexual authority, a figure of faintly Rothian extraction (minus the humanising home-crowd sympathy) called – seriously – Bull Gooch.
Zink’s novel sprawls across thirty years of American history and results in something of a thematic buffet, embracing an array of topics that remain rather disconnected from one another: punk rock, the nuclear family, American domestic politics, conservationism. Episodes from the highlights reel of recent American history – the Gulf wars, the great recession, Bush versus Gore – intervene along the way, but to little purpose other, perhaps, than to give the surrounding narrative a sense of direction it otherwise lacks. Such diversions, especially in the second half, come with a faintly polemical temper, yet the insights they produce never really succeed in escaping a familiar rolling-news, two-bottles-in dinner-party level of analysis. There is one cringe-makingly preposterous scene in which Gooch, seemingly endowed with powers of political clairvoyance, foresees Wikileaks’ interference in the 2016 election campaign and pleads with the Clinton team to ‘offer Julian Assange a job in the administration’ – ‘the future of mankind depends on it’.
Zink’s idiosyncratic, intrusive presence and her taste for sudden reversals in tone and plot have won her praise as a flouter of convention and, the gold medal epithet, ‘distinctive’. It strikes me that distinctiveness is exactly what’s at stake. Every character remains trapped by the same fin de millénaire sense of cynical, ironic detachment, every voice ventriloquising the narrator’s own flippant, wisecracking tendency towards hyperbole and quirk, with the result that they appear distinctive without being very distinct. This is a significant shortcoming in a story in which the drama – concerned with separate personalities and their attempts to share the same space – is essentially domestic.
Zink’s style is certainly vivid and outlandish, morally adventurous and uncontained, but it is a hard one to sustain over four hundred pages. Perhaps more gravely, it causes her to use words like ‘betwixt’ and ‘beaucoup’ for no reason and without warning. Doxology reminds us that the most striking overall work is not necessarily that composed of the most striking individual elements.