Nell Zink’s debut, The Wallcreeper, splashed onto the literary scene eight years ago, a slim volume about a woman trying to find her place in the world despite the patriarchy. Since then, Zink has published four more novels. In her newest, Avalon, she returns to themes found in her debut.
The protagonist and narrator, Brandy—she goes by Bran—has had a tough life. Her mother skipped town to work at a Buddhist temple, only to die of cancer soon after. Bran’s biological grandparents live in an age-restricted community preventing them from taking her in, sealing her fate as a resident, employee, and step-daughter of the Henderson family farm. Bran’s common law step-father operates a nursery and farm where Bran earns her room and board trimming topiary. She’s naturally gifted as a topiary artist, but never sees a dime from her work.
In high school, Bran meets a collection of aspiring creatives, primarily several interchangeable boys. Their clique takes on the responsibility of operating the school’s literary magazine left to lay fallow but nevertheless collecting funding. They dole out positions like an old patronage mill to pad their transcripts. Bran has no expectation of attending a university, though she does aspire to become a screenwriter.
Jay, Bran’s childhood friend, and Peter, her romantic interest, depart for college while Bran continues cutting hedges. Jay eventually drafts Bran into helping him with his own filmmaking, including his schoolwork. He benefits from her labor, she benefits from his connections. Peter, who wants an academic career, acquires a fiancée, Yasira, who is wealthy and promises to be the ideal professor’s wife. Yasira’s presence complicates the mutual romantic affection Peter and Bran share.
The novel is reminiscent of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, another slim, feminist volume. Like Pontellier’s constant badgering of Edna about her responsibilities as a wife and mother, the Henderson’s harass Bran into domestic service caring for Grandpa Larry after his stroke. However, Avalon has a more modern conclusion in that Bran has an awakening without wandering into the sea.
Avalon rekindles much of what made The Wallcreeper a standout. Zink is consciously critiquing patriarchal society. The story is succinct and fast paced. The wry narrative voice is clear and enjoyable to read. Avalon is much more compact than some of the more sprawling narratives Zink has written in recent years. The novel finds a rhythm in that quick pacing, and in the structure balances on a fine line between hitting predictable beats and offering up unexpected plot points.
Peter’s announcement of a fiancée is one such surprising twist. How he coldly announces her existence, informing Bran their intimacy must come to an end while making out with her is unexpected but also character defining. He is a pragmatic actor, and Yasira fulfills an essential need, the practical duties of a wife and a mother to a future child. The help her father provides his career is simply an added bonus. The stunted emotional response towards Bran is symptomatic of his broader flaws as a person. He convinces himself his marriage can succeed without love.
The men in Bran’s life control and manipulate her. Doug, her common-law step-father, relies on her labor, both in his business and his home. And Jay drafts Bran into his film projects. He even convinces her to do his homework, handing in her screenplay as his own work.
Bran spends most of the novel capitulating to the bidding of men. As she observes, “you can’t show liberation without showing the oppressor. You have to show fascism.” For Bran to achieve self-actualization, we must also see her as exploited.
The novel is filled with mediocre men, often indistinguishable from each other and certainly easily substituted. In some instances, the quality is quite literal. The laborers at the Henderson Farm come and go, often within a matter of weeks, but they always have the same name, with Eric “replaced with an Eric and each Roger with a Roger, so that the nursery was consistently staffed with one of each.” But the same is true of Peter and Jay who are generic enough to be easily confused, and Doug and Axel might as well be one in the same person too.
But the men’s interchangeability is largely the point. Patriarchal exploitation is not a singular person, but a whole superstructure of male privilege. When Peter insists Bran join him at the house party hosted by the esteemed Drew Miller, “a creative writing teacher with a cult following,” Bran agrees to attend because she will meet many “high-powered writers.” Yet Bran is reduced to servant when Miller tells her to grab him a beer from the refrigerator. And the farm run by Doug and Axel relies on wage theft with “the key to the enterprise’s viability is unpaid labor by women, children, and recent immigrants.”
Parallel to the conflict between Bran and the patriarchy is an examination of creativity and the pursuit of the production of art. Jay and Peter have the privilege of attending university where they embark on their filmmaking and the study of literary theory. Bran never expects to go to college, and even though she has a vague desire to become a screenwriter, she has no concept of how to go about that. She ends up laboring for free to benefit Jay in the pursuit of that creation.
When the friends take up the literary journal at school, they find “every quarter, like clockwork, students with academic or literary aspirations submitted earnest poems and stories modeled on those in the Common Core.” These students aspire to create art, but end up merely end up producing mechanical copies of previous works.
Zink is exploring the idea of who is allowed to even make art. The privileged few are afforded the time and space to do it and the masses are unable to produce anything but regurgitate material. Bran, who eventually writes a script expected to be optioned, suffers for her art in a way Peter and Jay never do.
In Avalon, Zink has composed another successful foray into a critique of the patriarchy relying on her distinctive voice and style to carry the novel.
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.