In Avalon, Nell Zink’s Characters — and Her Readers — Have Nowhere to Hide

In novelist Nell Zink’s new book, Avalon, we might not recognize her characters’ circumstances, but we might recognize ourselves in their near-feral stupidity.

Nell Zink at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 2, 2015, in Cheltenham, England. (David Levenson / Getty Images)

Over the course of eight years and six novels, Nell Zink has undertaken a thorough exploration of escape routes. In her first novel, The Wallcreeper, the protagonist Tiffany, bored with her life, buys a one-way ticket out by marrying a pharmaceutical researcher named Stephen, paying for it with her autonomy. She doesn’t seem to mind. They end up moving to Switzerland, where Tiffany occupies her time with homemaking tedium and half-hearted affairs.

Tiffany is unhappy but not oblivious. At one point, she calls sex with a paramour

loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake. I mean, you just ignore the hamsters and look at the big picture.

The line is so absurd in both its imagery and its sentiment that I get the sense, first, that Zink is having a lot of fun, even as and maybe especially because her characters are veering into tragedy. Then, the absurdity of the sentiment surfaces another feeling: that the person delivering the line is self-aware almost to the point of farce, a participant in her own life almost as if by accident, as if she could just as easily step out of it and participate in someone else’s. The tragedy of her character comes from the fact that though Tiffany can stand at enough of a distance from her life to make such an observation, adopting the attitude of someone who would just as soon walk out the front door of her life and through the back door of another, she ultimately can’t escape herself.

Many of Zink’s women — and her protagonists have so far all been women — share this quality. They find themselves hemmed in and in trouble. Sometimes they stay and wait for circumstances to change around them. Sometimes they run away. When they do, every escape route they identify leaves them just as stranded as the last.

In Zink’s 2015 Mislaid, Peggy flees from her stuffy 1960s Virginia upbringing by going off to college, discovering she’s a lesbian, and then having an affair with her gay, male professor, Lee. When he gets her pregnant, Peggy flees once again. She changes her name to Meg, procures the death certificate of a black child named Karen, and raises her daughter under a new identity in a rural settlement inhabited primarily by black and native people. Free from the pressures of her straight-and-narrow family, she has now found a considerably wavier path. But she can only stay on it by spinning lie after lie. She’s climbed out of one trap directly into another, this time one of her own making.

While in each of Zink’s novels the fleeing takes on different details, each time it is prompted by a character’s conviction that something out there is going to save them. In 2016’s Nicotine, a twenty-something named Penny avoids dealing with the grief of her father’s death and her guilt at having grown up rich by adopting the lifestyle-anarchist politics of the pseudo-communards squatting in one of her dad’s buildings. In 2019’s Doxology, a young would-be radical named Flora encounters the potential weight of revolutionary responsibilities and decides instead to fall backward into the arms of a Democratic political consultant.

Zink creates universes that are just strange enough to keep readers at a distance and populates them with characters who make familiarly ridiculous decisions. We might not recognize their circumstances, but we recognize ourselves, maybe, in their near-feral stupidity. Zink intervenes, then, with the wisdom that humans aren’t animals. They’re smart enough to know the cage is going to fall down over their heads. Maybe they just wanted the lure.

In her latest novel, Avalon, Zink asks what happens when the permanent cage of the trap is no longer worth the temporary joy of the lure.

They Just Are

Avalon is narrated by Bran, short for Brandy, a teenaged girl when the novel starts, in her early twenties by the end. Bran, we learn within the book’s first few pages, was raised, in the loosest sense of the word, by her stepfather Doug and his parents in Southern California after her mother ran away to a “Buddhist center in the Sierras and became a nun.”

The Hendersons, as she calls her illegally adoptive family, run a tropical plants nursery called Bourdon Farms where Bran works, as her mother did, in exchange for room and board. “The Hendersons were happy to keep me on,” she says. “A ten-year-old stepchild represented circa eight years of unpaid labor and a potential twenty thousand dollars in earned income tax credits, if the IRS played along.”

For Bran, these financial considerations are neither good nor bad — they just are. I get the sense that Zink views them, and the world from which they stem, similarly. The Hendersons were trying to make a living however they could, even if that included indentured child labor.

One night, sort of by accident, Bran runs away. She doesn’t mean to. She doesn’t even really know she’s been trapped in the first place.

“I was the one person tied to Bourdon Farms by class,” she later realizes. “The ignorant child who knew no other life, the perfect employee, taught to accept self-harm as an economic necessity.” She ends up getting taken in by a couple named Susan and Mark, the parents of her high-school friend Will.

Any reader would be forgiven for thinking at this point that Bran’s story will now become one of comeuppance and triumph. She might have not known she was trapped before, we might think, but she does now, and armed with this knowledge she will now go out into the world and make of her life what she wishes. Zink, however, is too savvy an analyst of the world — politics and all, though she doesn’t always make it explicit — to lead us down such a fanciful road. She gives Bran practical limits — her financial circumstances, her working-class upbringing — that foreclose any possibility of fairy-tale delusions.

When Mark and Susan help her find a job at a coffee shop, Bran first falls for a kind of lure, born out of her naivete — “I had thought it was going to make me middle class, as do-nothing jobs were supposed to do” — but quickly realizes that she’s in yet another cage: “I was being compensated for sacrificing life, not labor; the job consumed nothing but my time and a mess of carbon, like a traffic jam.”

Where Tiffany and Peggy might have spent years trying to outrun their fate and falling into traps, Zink convincingly posits that Bran has started the race from too far behind to let herself believe there might be a quick fix. She’s too precarious to begin with; she has no safety nets to help her entertain any potential escape fantasies. Not even the storied promise of romantic love, in the form of a love affair with an engaged man, gives Bran anything close to the illusion that salvation might come from anywhere but inside herself. With Tiffany and Peggy (and Flora and Penny, for that matter), we spotted the traps long before they did. Bran, instead, sometimes seems to be up on an overlook, pointing them out. In Avalon, Zink has created a protagonist that’s smarter than the reader.

Toward the end of the novel, Bran and her best friend enroll in a film program at UCLA and spend boatloads of time working on short films whose main theme is the representation of fascism. They both are talented, but neither seriously entertains the idea that their talent might propel them to wealth or stability. Zink arms Avalon’s characters with a ruthless realism, no doubt a product of the last few years of ratcheted-up inequality and declining political optimism, in which no one can help seeing the injustice at the center of our world. Whether or not they’d want to do anything about it is a different question.

In the novel’s most politically revealing passage, Bran drives up the coast and parks her car near a beach where she spots a bunch of elephant seals:

Elephant seals are very much themselves, at one with their essential natures. It would be depressing to imagine them any other way. Imagine not wanting to eat raw squid until you weigh a ton, not wanting to live in a harem and get raped, but having no choice, because your identity (basic elephant seal) determines you. One must assume they are happy beings, like rocks and fires. But what if they hate it? Who ever said being was supposed to be fun?

Zink leaves it there, intelligently refraining from belaboring the metaphor. I’ll do it for her. Avalon’s characters, like the seals, accept their lot in the world, happily or unhappily, grudgingly or not. Bran and Jay make films about fascism, accepting that the most they can do through their medium is represent the thing they hate. Bran begins work on a utopian screenplay titled Avalon — her only escape is literally a fantasy.

They harbor no illusions. They spot the lure and recognize it for what it is. They are not tragic; they are awake to reality. With them, Zink has produced a novel that speaks to a near-universal condition: no matter how bad things get, most of us have nowhere to run away to.