Book of the Week: Mislaid – Nell Zink

Just one book to review this week, so get ready, I’m going long. Mislaid is a subversive, ultimately feel-good satire about big issues. The last book I read with this combination of bite and charm was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

 Zink grew up in rural Virginia and that experience seems to inform the sensibility of this hilarious look at marriage, race, class and gender in America. It’s a slight book that’s hard to sum up. The plot concerns a young lesbian who becomes pregnant by a flamboyant gay poet from a wealthy Southern family then runs away with their daughter after 10 years of marriage. While outrageous enough to engage, it’s merely the coat hanger for page after page of observations like this:

In exchange for leaving, she would have more options than she’d ever had before. Before, her options had been things like hot dog or hamburger, shouted through the screen while she stood in the kitchen cutting string beans. Now, behind the tone of concern, he was giving her real options: Find somebody to take you in, or spend an indeterminate amount of time behind bars enjoying tranquilizers and electroshocks.”

So many of Zink’s sentences and observations are like that: they turn on a dime, go down easy but with a dark twist that sneaks up on you. Ultimately, though, this is not a dark story. It’s about a family both fractured and ultimately reunited in an ending as full of fakes and feints as a Shakespearean comedy.

Jonathan Franzen is a champion of Zink and has commented that she is “writer of extraordinary talent and range. Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.” In many ways she covers the same territory that Franzen himself does–issues of family and identity in modern America—albeit with a style distinctly her own.

Zink’s first book, The Wallcreeper, received the rare starred, boxed review from PW (as does this one) and was named a PW Best Book of 2014. The New York Times called it “a very funny, very strange work of unhinged brilliance.”

The literary world seems to be laying out the welcome mat for this new voice. The New Yorker will run a profile of Zink in the 5/11/15 issue, she’ll be on NPR’s Weekend Edition that weekend, Harper’s is running a first serial and Mislaid is already slated for review in the New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune Minneapolis Star Tribune and Cosmopolitan. No surprise that this will also be an Indie Next Pick. The book tour kicks off at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn with a conversation between Zink and Jeffery Eugenides.

 In Zink’s second novel, a gay man and a gay woman meet at Virginia’s Stillwater College in the 1960s, marry and have children, and eventually separate—it’s a deceptively slim epic of family life that rivals a Greek tragedy in drama and wisdom….The novel deftly handles race, sexuality, and coming of age. Zink’s insight is beautifully braided into understated prose that never lets the tension subside; the narrator’s third-person voice is wry, and the dialogue is snappy…. [I]t all points to Zink’s masterly subtlety and depth.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred boxed review

 “Zink’s capacity for inventions is immense… [Mislaid] zips along with a giddy, lunatic momentum. Its perverse wackiness is irresistible; unlike just about everything engineered to make you laugh out loud, Zink’s novel actually does, over and over again….”
– Bookforum

Some novels are full of wacky incident, others polished diamonds of compressed wit. Zink’s second novel keeps both modes in perfect balance. During the ’60s, a lesbian student in a Virginia women’s college marries a gay male poet, with disastrous results. Peggy, both tough as nails and loose of screw, absconds with their daughter, squats in a country cabin, and passes them both off as black. The bracing disconnect between sly, low-affect prose and Gothic strangeness recalls Flannery O’Connor and Jean Stafford.”
— New York magazine’s online “Vulture” page

 “I gotta be straight with you: I have not felt this loud about a book in a long time. For this bookseller it’s a wonderful sign when a novel makes me feel good and bad – about myself, about this country, about sex, about race, about human nature. It’s a wonderful sign when I want to whip a book across the room when I am done with it, because I am angry that the author is so comedically astute and so freaking, brilliantly exuberant in the way she crafts a portrait of a family beyond dysfunctional. So far beyond dysfunction has this family fallen, in fact, that they somehow meander themselves around to becoming the very opposite. In her follow up to The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink paints a portrait of two sexually-confused lovers who should never have come together, let alone created two equally misguided children, against the backdrop of revolutionary 1960s and 70s America. Combine this inauspicious beginning with the fact that the young mother kidnaps her ‘white’ daughter and convinces an entirely new community to raise her as a ‘black’ child, and you just know that this farce is bound for certain disaster. You won’t be disappointed!”
– Katie Capaldi, Between the Covers, Harbor Springs, MI

 “Completely original and hysterically funny, Mislaid is a smart, humorous novel that really has to be read to be believed. Essentially, a fling between two misfits leads to a wildly dysfunctional Southern family saga. Zink never underestimates her readers, and the result is a fantastic comic novel that will make you think while you laugh. Mislaid reads like a cross between Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Art of Fielding. Very highly recommended!
– Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books & Music, Okemos, MI

 “When a lesbian and a gay man marry and conceive two children, the family is doomed to begin with. Yet, when they split, everyone seems better off, despite the radicalism of their relative positions in ‘polite society’. How the children cope with their changes (one even ‘becoming’ an African American!), leads up to a near-slapstick finale of mistaken identities of Shakespearean proportions! It’s a hoot, but it also has much to say about America, and it says it through humor and beautiful writing.”
–  Bill Carl, The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

Mislaid (9780062364777) by Nell Zink. $26.99 hardcover. 5/19/15 on sale.

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