In the opening sentences of The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, a young American woman living in Europe has a miscarriage when her husband swerves the car to avoid hitting a bird in the road, and crashes into a rock instead. He rushes outside to save the bird—a wallcreeper, a common gray thing with brilliant crimson wings, a “species of least concern”—and eventually they take it home and make it their pet. Not much is said about the miscarriage. Which gives you a sense of the priorities in Tiff and Stephen’s marriage, and a clue to Nell Zink’s writing: she’s always burying the lead.
Outside of the Babysitter’s Club, has there ever been a literary protagonist named Tiff? Not even Tiffany, but Tiff? It’s as if Zink is daring us to see Tiff as someone flighty and inconsequential. Which is true. Tiff doesn’t have a job. (At the start of the novel, Stephen earns enough for both of them as a medical engineer, building a “contraption” for hearts.) Tiff isn’t faithful. (The first of her European affairs is a working-class Albanian lothario named Elvis.) Tiff can’t focus on any productive enterprise whatsoever. (Unless it’s productive to sabotage a German river by slowly removing rocks from its banks.) But dear god, it’s fun to be inside her head. Tiff is piercingly intelligent, and she does this thing that certain intelligent, insecure people do, where they constantly put themselves down in clever, entertaining ways, in a sort of cry for help. Continue reading