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Nell Zink: The Wallcreeper - Stop following orders

"...Most things never get opened and just depreciate down to nothing before you even know what they were. Which means, life is a total write-down, as in pure profit, everything! Life has an infinite rate of return!" He looked at me earnestly as if expecting me to know what he was talking about."

I have read Nell Zinks „The Wallcreeper“ last week.
It has been a strange book, but in a beautiful way. Also in a funny way. I really smiled a lot, while reading it. I found perspectives on life, that fit me, though I had not known them before, not consciously at least. They were full of humour and a „don’t ever bullshit me“-attitude. I liked that so much about the book and had many „aha“-moments. I understood immediately, how smart the author must be.
I found, that she was my age, over 50, and that she had written all her life, without ever being published (another parallel! OMG!). She came from the US, even Virginia (did the parallels ever stop?) and she lives now, after several moves, very close to Berlin (HA!), in a small town in Brandenburg. She was basically discovered by Jonathan Franzen, though, it seems, she is really not the person, who needs being discovered. She rather wrote him, because they are both bird watchers. He had published an essay about the extinction of birds in the Mediterranean and she was really pissed, because he had left out the killing of birds in Bosnia. So she wrote him, with a lot of vigor. An email exchange between them started, in which course Franzen decided, that she is such a great writer, her stuff should definitely be read by more people. She then disclosed, that there were novels in her drawers, two maybe. He tried to find a publisher, unsuccessfully. She found a small publishing house in New York City, dorothyproject, which made a book with her. Maybe to show him, that she did not need him? Franzens agent took over and since then, her advances are like six figured. I mean, this is, what I read about her in a german magazine. I was instantly drawn to her. Of course, my favourite bookshopowners were also drawn to her, and sold me her book right away.

What is it about? Most people say, it is about marriage. "Marriage isn't a sacrament, its just a bunch of forms to fill out." Which is not entirely untrue, I mean both: it is a book about marriage and marriage is a bunch of forms to fill out.
A married couple, Stephen and Tiffany, move from Philadelphia to Berne/Switzerland. They just met each other. They married basically right away, a spontaneous decision. He works for an international corporation, sometimes he DJs, so, there is this wild side in him. She does, well, not much, after she met him at the very same corporation and married him. She follows him, or his money, around. You might call her a housewife. But not the typical one. You never meet her cleaning or cooking. She rather goes shopping, sleeps around with the gas station guy, Elvis, who might be Turkish, but also Albanian or most probably Montenegrin. We never know for sure. By the way, when Zink writes about sex, it is among the best, you can find about that subject, EVER!

First sentence: "I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage."
After they take in, by accident, the very accident, that caused the miscarriage in the first sentence, a wallcreeper, who actually caused the accident, because Stephen saw him and was distracted from the road, they both start to become interested in birds and nature. Stephen more so, by far. He even seems to be more interested in the wallcreeper than in the miscarriage, or Tiffany, or her feelings, for that matter. 
They spend a lot of time bird watching. Stephen more than Tiffany. Tiffany goes along, carrying his equipment, commenting everything, basically bored. It is obvious, that this is not her life, but also some sort of accident. So, this is, what the book is about for me: the very unique perspective of a woman, lost in all the possibilities, people have today, totally without orientation, retreating into her inner world and commenting the outer world from there, with the best one liners I have read in decades. The book moves fast. So in order to catch all her good sentences, and also the story, you have to concentrate. More then two thirds through the book, you never see Tiffany do anything by her own impulse. Most of her impulses being sexually anyway. She is always reacting, never acting. Which does not seem so negative. It is just one way to live that life, which overwhelms everybody anyway. There are so many options, in a way, they reduce each other to none.
So this book is about her. I think, she is not untypical for today. Her strategy is widely shared by many, men and women. It is a book against plundering, the environment, but also ourselves, emotionally. Withdraw until your life comes along
Stephen and she start to become environmental activists, via the birds. So, yeah, the book is also about the environment, and what we, as people, do to it (plunder!!) Stephen has an affair, which Tiffany finds fair, after all, she has affairs, but of course it bothers her nevertheless. They attend meetings of environmental organizations, mainly in Germany. They move to Berlin.  So, it is fantastic to see Germany and Berlin through the eyes of that funny and so very smart person Tiffany. On a sidenote, this book shows us, as Germans, how we look for foreigners. And its not all flatterering all the time. Always an interesting lesson, especially in times of nationalism growing.
Stephen quits his job and becomes a fulltime activist, travelling mostly the balkan area and counting birds. Tiffany stays somewhere in Brandenburg and destroys a river bank, an eco-terrorist act, which is not entirely her own impulse, but sort of. After a while, she follows him, for example to Albania. "Albania is the West Virginia of Europe."

The story does not exactly sound interesting, at least it did not to me and it is really not the kind of story, you can retell easily. But I thoroughly loved the book and I knew I would after reading about Nell Zink in that German magazine ZEIT 
The book is written in such a unique and wise voice and it asks so many questions, that are important nowadays, without pretending to have answers. Because, maybe there just is no answer. Nell Zink dares to stay in this empty space, with her heroine, and her book. She does not fill the gap. That is for me the most impressing part of her book, how long she dares staying in the gap, until Tiffany's true answer appears and she can take over her life. But it is only her answer. A very feminist one, too! That I like also. So among being a book about marriage, birds, environmental activism, eco terrorism, Americans in Switzerland and Germany, a woman and her thoughts, it is also a feminist book.
One of the most independent books I have read in a long while. Maybe the reason for this independence is, that Nell Zink has been writing for so long, and never thought about, what others might think about it. In the magazine, where I read about her, she said; „I never imagined writing would be such a pay off. I never had any expectations in being a writing person. I just did it. Art is my life center. A life without art would not be imaginable for me.“

(c) Susanne Becker


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