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With ‘Avalon,’ Nell Zink proves again that she’s a fearless satirist

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“There are no stories without paranoia,” one character tells another in Nell Zink’s restless new novel, “Avalon.” Take murder mysteries. Peter, an inveterate mansplainer, argues that, in the real world, suspicious deaths often are ignored. In fiction, however, no killing is ever left unsolved. “The world doesn’t cohere on its own,” he says. “It takes paranoia to connect the dots.”

Just as Bran, the novel’s hard-luck teenage narrator, admits to seeing his point — that only the insane can create art — Peter backpedals: “I could be wrong. It’s a merciless critique, but it’s fictitious to the extent that I’m making it up.”

So goes a typical conversation in “Avalon,” in which intelligent young people talk at, about and around one another as they attempt to figure out their lives in a society that is more than ready to do the figuring for them. Bran, Peter and their friends know that capitalism will disappoint them and that fascism aims to do far worse. Art is their weapon of choice — their Excalibur — and because the California-set “Avalon” takes place in the first half of the 2010s, their imaginations have yet to be darkened by the threats of Trumpism and covid-19.

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Which is not to say they aren’t plenty dark. This is a coming-of-age story in which the transition from adolescence to adulthood is akin to swapping one hair shirt for another. “Who ever said being was supposed to be fun?” asks Bran, whose father ran off to Australia when she was a baby and whose mother abandoned her for life (and death) in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Unable to join her sweet but broke grandparents in their 55-plus community, Bran is left to live with her common-law stepfather and his family at their tropical-plant nursery, which also provides home to a biker gang.

“Bran is not now and has never been a child,” an unkind friend observes.

Bran, on the verge of tears, agrees: “I’ve been looking for a clean break since I was five.”

“Avalon” is Zink’s sixth book. In a since-deleted tweet, Zink described the novel as “a utopian critique of the crypto-fascist aesthetics of commercial art.” For sure, it’s that. It’s also an acid take on friendship, family and young love that, when it isn’t squeezing your heart, is doing its best to enrage you.

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As she has demonstrated since debuting in 2014 with “The Wallcreeper,” an audacious novel about American birdwatchers causing trouble in Europe, Zink is a fearless satirist. In the author’s second novel, “Mislaid,” a lesbian on the run from her marriage to a gay man steals the identity of a dead Black child for her White daughter. For “Doxology,” from 2019, Zink trained her smirking gaze on punk rock, celebrity worship and post-9/11 politics. Even when she has to stretch to do so, Zink connects with her targets.

The most elastic gag in “Avalon” involves the artistic pursuits of Jay, Bran’s Russian-born best friend who “was the kind of slightly-built kid who should carry a skateboard for self-defense, not be rocking two-inch slanted heels.” Jay’s “performative suffering” includes taking private flamenco lessons from a blind instructor and becoming “fatally interested” in eurythmy, a dance technique with movements based on the alphabet. The joke is not so much that Jay is, according to Bran, “a supremely untalented dancer,” but that mainstream artists are inherently more terrible. “Sure, you could do art that’s not fascist,” Peter tells Jay, “but you’d be dooming yourself to obscurity.”

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For her part, Bran seems fine with obscurity. It’s the doom that has her worried. Forced to work at her stepfather’s nursery, Bran dismisses herself as an “ignorant child who knew no other life, the perfect employee, taught to accept self-harm as an economic necessity.”

She doesn’t entirely believe that. Her thoughts often drift to the mythological site and Arthurian legend that give the novel its title. Is an island paradise with magical healing properties waiting out there for her?

Of course not. Still, despite the “preordained lunacy” of her life, Bran believes escape is possible — eventually. “My curiosity about days to come wormed its way forward tentatively and frayed apart, as if I were pushing a rope,” she explains.

Life steams ahead whether a person wants it to or not, and the mystery at work in “Avalon” is whether Bran is paranoid enough to realize that. Zink answers that question with her usual cunning, and it’s no spoiler to note that the final page of the novel will send readers scrambling back to its first.

When they get there, they just may find themselves reading the book a second time, drawn back in by the “wish-fulfillment endgame” of Bran’s story and trying to connect the dots.

Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.

Avalon

By Nell Zink

Knopf. 224 pp. $27

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