“Mislaid,” indeed. The title of Nell Zink’s new novel is just the first wry, indecorous joke in this zany-brainy story about a teenage lesbian who sleeps with a gay man. Zink writes with such faux innocence that her cracks about sexuality and race detonate only after she has riffed off to the next unlikely incident. If you’re easily offended or confused, mislay this book and go back to “All the Light We Cannot See.”
Few fiction writers break out in their 50s, but Zink, who was raised in Virginia and lives in Berlin, is making up for lost time. Just last year, her debut, “The Wallcreeper,” caught the attention of Jonathan Franzen, whose lavish endorsement lifted her from obscurity into All the Important Places. This time around, the literary pump is primed: Harper’s ran an excerpt of “Mislaid” in March; the Guardian and the New Yorker recently profiled her; Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides will interview her in Brooklyn next week; and her publisher compares “Mislaid” to Shakespeare — but, in a sign of admirable restraint, not to Chaucer or Aristophanes.
So one picks up this novel ready to be transformed by the afflatus of its hipnicity. And at first, the advance praise sounds wholly deserved. Not a drop of acid mars the surface of this deadpan satire as it darts along, mocking and skewering the racist, homophobic and generally dingbat ideals of its characters. “Mislaid” opens in 1965 on the genteel life of Peggy Vaillancourt, who thought she wanted to be a man even before a mean classmate called her a “thespian.” Peggy’s mother responds to her daughter’s budding thespianism by giving her a copy of the girlhood classic “Cress Delahanty” and telling her she absolutely cannot join the army. “Peggy’s debut was coming up,” she notes, “and, lesbian or no lesbian, you had to have a tea-length off-the-shoulder dress made of boiled cotton with a flower print and tulle underskirts.” Peggy’s father, meanwhile, “felt important all the time, because he was descended from a family that had sheltered John Wilkes Booth.”
Partially enlightened by her high school gym teacher, Peggy sets her heart on attending Stillwater College, a reconstituted plantation near Petersburg, Va., that has become “a mecca for lesbians.” The college sits on a stagnant, artificial lake, a symbol of the South’s fetid social climate in which forbidden activity sweats and mildews in the dark. (Periodically, the lake farts out a poison bubble of methane.) Peggy arrives freshman year understanding almost nothing about human biology or her own desires, but she knows what she wants.
Which brings us to the story’s bizarre premise: What Peggy decides she wants is Lee Fleming, the college’s most renowned faculty member, a poet as “queer as a three-dollar bill.” He’s a flamboyant snob and a fierce cynic, a cash-poor Southern aristocrat who carries on in the college’s blind spot. Even stranger, Fleming is equally drawn to 17-year-old Peggy. “She was androgynous like the boys he liked,” Zink writes, “but she made him wonder if he liked boys or just had been meeting the wrong kind of girl.” They begin a hot affair, stealing away to his Bengal tiger-skin rug or his bed “hung on brass chains from the ceiling.” If this strikes you as an odd relationship, you’re not alone: Fleming and Peggy feel the same way. “Each was mystified, but for very different reasons.”
Zink’s humor is rarely predictable, even when she goes after predictable subjects — such as academic sinecures and poets. (Early in the novel, she notes, “It was impossible to think of anything to say that might interest them, because they weren’t interested in conversations with topics.”) And the novel gets even stranger — and funnier — when Peggy runs away from Lee with their baby into the murky depths of a poor Virginia town. To avoid detection, she disguises herself and her daughter as African Americans. Alas, she knows no more about black people than she knows about “Indonesian shadow puppets.” With no connections and no money, she plans to support herself — and her “anemic black child” — by producing experimental lesbian plays. “She would write under a pseudonym as did the Brontës,” she thinks. “After the big money started coming in, she would move to New York.” I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that eventually a scene in her drama about Iranian lesbians casting off “their chadors to reveal rugby shirts was compared with the nude scene in Equus.”
Are you getting all this? “Mislaid” feels like a subversive minstrel show sprung from an encyclopedic mind drunk on the Mad Hatter’s tea. Zink is particularly sharp on the blinding effects of racism in a part of the country that’s been mixing races and denying it for centuries. And she saves her wickedest material for condescending Southern liberals determined to help their unfortunate neighbors. By the time she rips into the local school’s efforts “to pack as much blackness as possible into each ‘token black’, ” her satire has blood on its fangs, but she’s still smiling. Peggy’s “ghostlike, flaxen-haired black child” is the idol of all the white moms. “They hoped she would stay in the county and marry a light-skinned, blue-eyed man to found one of those conversation-piece dynasties.” The enlightened principal, “who had voted for George Wallace,” wants to help Peggy’s child. He even lets her skip a grade because that “would catch her up to the other smart black kid and save them from creating an extra independent study group later on.”
These are great moments, and there are others, such as Lee’s battle with undergraduate feminists who take over his literary magazine and insist that “gay culture is based on male bonding, which reinforces patriarchal structures.” But Zink’s satire is cavorting on a racial minefield navigated more affectingly earlier this year by T. Geronimo Johnson’s “Welcome to Braggsville.” Her comic sense is stronger than her narrative sense, which makes the book as a whole less satisfying than the outtakes and drive-by cultural hits. While the improvisational quality of her storytelling keeps “Mislaid” engagingly off-balance, it also creates thin stretches and dead ends as the plot lurches toward a romantic-comedy ending.
It’s tempting to hope that Zink’s unnerving humor might pry open a space for us to think more reflectively about racism, homophobia and sexism than our earnestness usually allows. But the audience for “Mislaid” is surely limited, not by its politics so much as by those spores of tedium that eventually germinate and spread across the pages. This is a slim novel that reads better in excerpts.
By Nell Zink
Ecco. 242 pp. $26.99.