Theater of Cruelty: The Strange American Reception of Nell Zink’s ‘Mislaid’


Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, announces her as one of a handful of the best novelists on the American scene. More satirical, willfully magisterial, and, yes, even earnest than The Wallcreeper — a debut that was far more earnest than even its admirers admit — Mislaid draws its immense humor and literary ingenuity from the postwar American South, that weird, melodramatic dispositif of class, race, and gender lines that strains to confine our lives even today. By the end of Mislaid, the satire dissolves into parody, or vice versa, leaving a cast of characters — of human animals in a habitat — who have rearranged their limitations, in a way that may offend many readers, in order to pursue better, shared lives.

Yet if Nell Zink is strange — and she is — the American reception of her second book has been stranger. Whereas most critics accepted The Wallcreeper as fleet and concise and irrevocably new — a peck in the eye of American fiction — Mislaid has baffled them and led to a misnomer or two about its author’s biography. Why? I think know why. It has a lot to do with its author’s idea of what awakens the human animal.

Nell Zink has a thing, or a non-thing, or an anti-thing for Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty.” Take, for example, her new novel. On the 30th page, Peggy Fleming (née Vaillaincourt) — a lesbian who has made love to, married, and been cheated on (twice) by a gay man — attempts to drown herself (and her children) in a fit of jealous mania. Then she admits to a campus security guard, who has witnessed the scene, that the drowning was not an accident:

The officer sighed and said, “Mrs. Fleming, are you saying that was not an accident?” “Nope. That was theater of cruelty.”

Now, this is of course a relatively straightforward literary allusion in a book with no shortage of oblique ones (like the James Merrill seance allusion!), so it’s probably safe to say that Zink is shooting for bigger game here. But I’d like to point out that New York Times critic Dwight Garner, whose kiss-and-slap review of Mislaid was more slap than kiss, seems to have missed the point of this scene (almost entirely). He notes it as an example of Zink’s “salted” dialogue — certainly it is, but this reference to Artaud also ensnares the reader. The theater of cruelty, if anyone bothered to remember, is simply a practice that tries to awaken the viewer’s (or reader’s) “organism” by way of various shocks and awes. (And organism, as we shall see, is the key word.) Strong novels, it is sometimes said, teach you how to read them as they move along. This is an example of that. The drowning is meant to work on the nervous systems of both the characters and the reader, and it does. Within a few pages, the names and race of Peggy and her daughter have changed — in a way that clearly bothers Garner and is meant to, and in a way that suggests two human organisms adapting to trauma.

Zink has made other references to Artaud. Last week at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore, Zink, who was in New York to promote Mislaid, mentioned Artaud in more ways than one. First indirectly, as an act of theater:

“Today, I pulled the pants off a Nazi. He was in Union Square being a Nazi. So I unbuckled his belt, and pulled his pants down. And he just kept being a Nazi.”

Later, directly:

“I always thought the theater of cruelty was normal, and maybe I’d just snapped.”

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure what Zink was referring to here — it seems to be a way of addressing realism as a kind of cruelty — but I do have some thoughts about what her novels are doing, viz. Artaud, and it’s basically what you think: their reputed “zaniness,” which is really just a way of describing incisive jokes (about race, sex, death) made at great speed, is meant, again, to shock the reader’s organism. And one way of understanding a shock, of course, is as a form of punishment. So let’s look at the peculiar difference in two opinions on how punishing Zink can be.

Here’s Alexandra Schwartz, writing for Bookforum:

The strangest part of Mislaid is Zink’s abandonment, even punishment, of her initially vivid characters.

Now, Kathryn Schulz, writing for The New Yorker, reaches the exact opposite conclusion:

That is a kind of realism—in life, too, perpetrators go unpunished all the time—and Zink often excels at exploring such truths through comedy. But the ratio of buoyancy to ballast ultimately goes awry in “Mislaid,” and I missed the moments in “The Wallcreeper,” few but sufficient, when the bill came due.

So both critics thought the second half of Mislaid sagged, but for opposite reasons. For Schwartz, Zink was too punishing. For Schulz, she wasn’t punishing enough.

The speed of the novel seems to have led to another problem. Here again is Schulz in her profile of Zink:

By then, Zink herself had sent “The Wallcreeper” to Dorothy, so she sat down and drafted, again in three weeks, a new novel. She saw it, at the time, as a kind of loss leader for her other work—as, in her words, “agent bait.” The agents bit. Last year, shortly after Dorothy published “The Wallcreeper,” Ecco shelled out six figures for the book that became “Mislaid.”

Nell Zink’s Mislaid is 242 pages long. It is far more robust, complete, and complex than her debut, The Wallcreeper (which she is said to have written in a matter of days). There is no way, in other words, that she wrote this book in three weeks. At the Park Slope reading, Zink was clear enough:

Mislaid was written over a period of years. You can’t believe everything you read in The New Yorker.”

Later she clarified that it took two years to write the novel.

I can only surmise that the “cruel” pacing of Zink’s novels has shocked the nervous system of her critics and profilers so severely that they can no longer read her properly. Or it may have had something, again, to do with punishment. Schulz admits that Zink slighted her when they met in Germany:

“Don’t be so pathetically American,” [Zink] snapped, not kidding, and delivered a short lecture on income stagnation: a bird ridiculing its fellow-bird for stupidity. I didn’t take it personally, but I did take it as telling. “Pathetic” is a decent synopsis of Zink’s overall attitude toward America.

But Schulz’s profile does have one benefit, even if you have to read between the lines to redeem it. The upshot of Zink’s attempt to shock the human organism, if you also consider her deep-seated environmentalist tendencies, is that she — without question — understands humans as homo sapiens, as animals delimited by language, in an environment. Here’s a sampling of some other quips from her reading in Park Slope:

“a perverse longstanding acquaintance with life on earth”; “everyone reproduces like you wouldn’t believe…”; “one drop of semen on you, and you were gay…”; “I don’t know if anyone here has ever been seduced? Raise your hands…”; “That’s what human beings do when they have a sex drive…they fall in love…”; “If you want to write a book about homo sapiens…”

More proof? Even Zink’s infamous zine (in which she wrote stories about animals) from the 1990s was called The Animal Review. Even her old band was called F.E.R.R.E.T.

But in the final estimation, it seems to me that Zink does see this theater of cruelty as a default mode of American realism, or reality, and not, necessarily, a moral high ground. Whether this makes Mislaid satire or parody is difficult to say. My gut tells me Zink understands the novel as satire, but that the South’s self-mediating tendencies will make it forever read as parody. In any case, Mislaid is a biting take on an America where “fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history,” as Nathanael West — another satirist-parodist invoked by Zink — once explained. And I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but West’s next line, too, is fitting: “Leave the slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.”