Review: Archly Funny and Observant, Lazy Heroine Novel Somehow, You Know, Pushes Along

Nell Zink is the author of “Avalon”. Photo: Francesca Torricelli

If you love the pedantic daydreams of early English majors and the stammering inertia of young people emerging from sad, loveless childhoods, you might like Nell Zink’s new novel, ‘Avalon’.

It’s a bildungsroman (that’s the kind of word Zink might like) featuring our overly passive protagonist Brandy, whose mother left her in the care of her “de facto stepfather” to become a Buddhist nun. . Brandy, or Bran as he is called in the book, grows up as a source of free labor, dressed in his “spouse” brother’s old flannels and sleeping in a lean-to next to the kitchen of a sketchy creche-cum-biker-meeting place in Torrance (Los Angeles County).

When she meets her equally ostracized but wealthy best friend Jay in middle school, her world begins to expand a bit, first to the high school literary magazine they edit with a growing group of luckier friends, then at UCLA, where Jay is going to study “critical dance studies” and Brandy is going to visit.

“Avalon” by Nell Zink. Photo: Knopf

Zink is a brilliant creator of character, setting and, for lack of a better word, mood, and there’s a lot of fun to be found in how she gets so much done so precisely in this novel, from the hippie- outlaw-libertarianism from Brandy’s ersatz motorcycle gang family to the artistic aspirations of film school students who label almost everything “fascist.” It’s well observed, extremely funny and, unfortunately, a bit bland overall. As Brandy says while reading a book given to her by her relentless academic lover, Peter, “I’ve never read such a rigorous and banal book.”

While Zink has a lot to say about class, art, aesthetics, and growth, the story is almost non-existent. There’s the desperate young love between Brandy and Peter that will never be, and the often frustrating attempts by Brandy, and everyone who knows her, to extricate her from the impoverished and exploitative “home life” of the nursery. But it’s hard to see what Brandy likes about Peter, an ineffectual scholar engaged to another woman, and it’s unsatisfying to see the very low expectations she has for herself. At one point, his plan to escape his past involves sleeping in his car at a local park while hustling for landscaping work. She’s a young woman with friends in posh colleges and rich people willing to help her.

Eventually, based on suggestions from Peter and Jay, she decides to become a screenwriter, although she has shown no previous interest in writing (except the high school literary journal) or movies. She writes well-received scripts for Jay’s student films and dystopian spec scripts, and then, well, we don’t really know what happens because the novel ends. It hints at possible romantic and artistic fulfillment, but it might be too predictable for these characters, too fascist a concept for this batch of self-proclaimed arbiters of authenticity. But we can hope.

By Nell Zink
(Knopf; 224 pages; $27)

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