With ‘Doxology,’ Nell Zink Delivers Her Most Ambitious and Expansive Novel Yet

It was a bit uncanny to read Nell Zink’s new novel, “Doxology,” in the wake of the suicide this month of David Berman, the beloved singer and songwriter best known for his work with Silver Jews, his indie-rock band.

A similar type of outside-the-box musician, named Joe Harris, dies too young (heroin) in “Doxology.” Berman and Harris are different in many ways. But they share a surreal sense of humor. Zink shows us Harris onstage at one point, “rocking out to his own conception of beauty, alone and weird.” Berman and Harris also share a restless sort of talent that can lead artists to become more influential dead than alive.

“Doxology” isn’t fundamentally a music novel. It has many other things on its mind, including a subversive history of American politics from Operation Desert Shield through the start of the Trump presidency, and it’s superb. In terms of its author’s ability to throw dart after dart after dart into the center of your media-warped mind and soul, it’s the novel of the summer and possibly the year. It’s a ragged chunk of ecstatic cerebral-satirical intellection. It’s bliss.

“Doxology” displays two generations of an American family. Pamela and Daniel are semi-clueless young people who move individually to New York City in the late 1980s. They might have dropped sideways, like bookmarks, out of a Jonathan Lethem novel. He is fleeing college life after graduation; she is just fleeing. They meet, marry, struggle financially and play in small anti-bands, sometimes with Harris before he becomes famous. Pamela’s musical motto is: “If you gotta suck, suck loud.”

They’re ’80s hipsters, in other words, a genus with which Zink is intimate. Here’s a sample of this writer’s sociological acumen — her ability, like Tom Wolfe by way of Lorrie Moore, to cram observation into a tight space:

“The ’80s hipster bore no resemblance to the bearded and effeminate cottage industrialist who came to prominence as the ‘hipster’ in the new century. He wasn’t a ’50s hipster either. He knew nothing of heroin or the willful appropriation of black culture,” she writes. “Having spent four years at the foot of the ivory tower, picking up crumbs of obsolete theory, he descended to face once again the world of open-wheel motor sports and Jell-O salads from whence he sprang.”

Zink adds, as a flourish: “An ’80s hipster couldn’t gentrify a neighborhood.” She writes: “His presence drove rents down.” Also: “The ’80s hipster could get served a beer in the Ozarks.”

If you care about this sort of thing, Zink writes about music as if she were a cluster of the best American rock critics (Ellen Willis, Ann Powers, Jessica Hopper and Amanda Petrusich, let’s say) crushed together under a single byline. This novel is replete with erudite signifiers that drop all over the place, like a toddler eating a pint of blueberries: Robert Christgau jokes, nods to the “Casio-core” sound, paeans to the righteous punk glory of Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi.

One band sounds “like lawn mowers ridden by nymphets playing banjos.” When Pamela plays guitar, “her fingers move like it’s freezing out and she lost her mittens.”

Pamela goes into a funny monologue about the weird confluence between Todd Rundgren (“Todd is God,” she says), John Lennon and Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s assassin. Daniel stares at her and thinks: “It was a kind of knowledge he didn’t expect a woman to have, much less care enough to say something post-sensitive about.”

Post-sensitive is not a bad description of Zink’s Weltanschauung. Her women tend to be the sort of people for whom, as the old joke has it, there was no Santa at 6, no stork at 9 and no God at 12.

Her previous novels include “The Wallcreeper,” “Mislaid” and “Nicotine,” and I’ve admired many aspects of each of them. “Doxology” puts her on a new level as a novelist, however. This book is more ambitious and expansive and sensitive than her earlier work. She lays her heart on the line in a way she hasn’t before.

Daniel’s day job is through a temp agency. Zink charts the nature of this sort of work through the tech revolution; she probes the inequities of outsourced labor. Pamela is a computer programmer. They live in an illegal apartment on the Lower East Side and, somewhat accidentally, have a daughter they name Flora.

The World Trade Center falls. Zink writes about Lower Manhattan as well as she does about everything else. About the wind down there, she says: “In a culture given to self-mythologizing, that wind would have had a name, like the Mistral or the Santa Ana. In the financial district, it was weather.”

With fear and asbestos in the air — Pamela and Daniel “behaved like two cats hit by separate cars” — Flora goes to live for a while with Pamela’s parents, who lead a very comfortable middle-class life in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, D.C. These are the same controlling parents that Pamela, a tough-stemmed flower, ran away from home to escape and did not speak to for many years. With time, everyone has mellowed.

Flora blossoms in D.C. All sides agree she should go on living there. It’s among this book’s mysteries why Pamela and Daniel let their daughter go so easily, but that’s a mystery we can chew on at another time. This book slowly becomes Flora’s.

She goes to college (George Washington), and becomes interested in climate change and soil erosion. Count on Zink’s acuity here, too. She pulls the moral mask from a good deal of save-the-planet posturing. Flora describes how certain people “made sustainability look like what it was (the nutrition label on selling out).”

Flora gets increasingly political and, with no other jobs on offer, joins the Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s 2016 presidential campaign and goes to battleground states. She’s aware that Stein is a joke, but doesn’t think her candidacy poses a threat to Hillary Clinton. Flora is just building her résumé.

She falls in love with an older Democratic campaign strategist, a handsome and cynical semi-hack, who sees earlier than anyone else the existential threat to American life posed by Trump. To say more about this novel’s plot would be wrong.

“Doxology” loses a bit of its sweep, if none of its intelligence, in its final half. Yet it has taken a running leap, regardless, at greatness.

Zink writes as if the political madness of the last four decades had been laid on for her benefit as a novelist. (As in John Updike’s Rabbit novels, the news is always licking up like flames in the background.) Like a mosquito, Zink vectors in on the neck of our contemporary paranoia. She has got a feral appetite for news of our species, good and ill. As dark as “Doxology” can be, it’s no wonder that its title means a hymn of praise.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

Doxology
By Nell Zink
402 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

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