It shouldn’t have been surprising that Nell Zink’s follow-up to her critically claimed commercial debut, Mislaid, turned out to be zany, and borderline absurd. After all, Mislaid followed a white southern girl raised to think she was black by her lesbian mother and gay father. Yet, Nicotine is startling, even when compared to Ms. Zink’s bombastic debut.
At the outset of Nicotine (Ecco, October 4th), we are introduced to the Baker family. Our central character, Penny, is still a child. Besides a few bizarre scenes that set up some future conflicts, we don’t spend a significant portion of time at this juncture. Instead, Zink fast-forwards to when Penny is a young woman and her father, Norm, is battling a painful, almost undefinable, illness. It appears to be a typical loss-of-a-parent yarn, but after Norm’s death, the narrative blows wide open, breaking off into many interconnected arcs.
Penny has two much older half-brothers, both of whom are actually older than her mother. Zink’s persistence to include strange family dynamics is abundantly present here, and it gets even stranger as we learn more. Norm made his living practicing radical medicine on people with terrible illnesses. Basically, the goal was to rid the body of the ailment in the most stringent manner: a rapid eradication, like an amplified chemotherapy. He met Amelia, Penny’s mother, during his time spent around her Amazonian tribe, the Kogi. And thus, despite the wide age gap, they brought Penny into the world. They moved to the states and settled in New Jersey, where much of the novel takes place.
After Norm’s death, Penny, without a job or life direction, is advised by Amelia and her two half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, to go live in one of Norm’s abandoned residences. After his death, rent payment on her apartment was cutoff, and she desperately doesn’t want to move back in with her mother so she relents to this suggestion.
When Penny arrives at the dilapidated, sprawling home, it is occupied by a group of squatters who are purported activists for, yes, nicotine. They claim that, despite popular opinion, nicotine is good. In their opinion, it is what keeps them alive. Penny meets Rob, a self-described asexual who rips apart cigarettes and chews on the tobacco instead of “freebasing,” and Jazz, a promiscuous young woman who loves deeply and vastly, among others.
Penny, grieving and without a place to go, settles into the squatter life, which she learns is a vibrant underground community in the New York area. Each squatting residence has a defined form of activism, each of which is subject to debate on whether their intentions are true. The story, however, eventually starts to center on the preservation of the nicotine house and the people who are connected to it, either by habitual declaration or legal grounds.
Much of the major plot points come in the form of relationships, and specifically, sex. The characters that live in this curious version of the American dream are perpetually engaging in sex. Sometimes it’s out of lust, revenge, or the fleeting feeling that love could actually blossom. Very rarely does it seem as if any of these relationships will work out. Whether it be Penny and Rob, Penny and Jazz, Rob and Jazz, etc. Right there, the description of a love triangle has been made, but the plot of Nicotine is a lot more complicated than just that, especially when Matt becomes the greatest threat to the squatting life. When reading, it might be advised to make a chart which connects characters together and how they intersect. There is even a fair share of somewhat taboo escapades that don’t reveal themselves in their entirety until the background of the Baker family is fully revealed.
The most striking part about Nicotine is that the ensemble cast is both endearing and incredibly unlikable, sometimes in the span of a single conversation. Penny and Rob, who turn out to be the central consciousness, are the most satisfying of the characters. Whereas, Amelia, Matt, and Jazz become a trio that are simultaneously loathsome and consolable.
Zink doesn’t shy away from depicting the grotesque. Through the eyes and mouths of the main cast, she represents the anxieties of millennials in harrowing detail. Even though many of the actions taken by members of the Nicotine house are reprehensible and misguided, it’s hard not to root for them to find higher, more stable ground.
A large part of the effectiveness of this peculiar tale comes from the undeniable quality of Zink’s prose, and expert pacing. She writes in a conversational tone that can be enjoyed by casual readers, but with a deceptive depth that will gratify readers of “serious” literature. There are no chapters, but it is still compartmentalized into snappy scenes that only take a few minutes to read. Artfully, Zink has put together a page turner with a wide scope, that, like its title suggests, is a hard to put down.
For readers interested in dark comedies rife with indelible insights, Nicotine is a novel that shouldn’t be missed. Nell Zink is a writer that is difficult to categorize; her style is easily digestible, her themes are wide-ranging, and her introspection on the human condition is novel. Nicotine is unlike anything you will read this year, and Nell Zink is unlike any writer working today.