The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Paperback, 200 pages
Publisher: 4th Estate (October 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Tank

Nell Zink’s1 dazzling debut novel, The Wallcreeper, defies easy categorisation. It tells the story of Tiffany, a woman who marries her co-worker Stephen after a three-week acquaintance, and follows their symbiotic, totally unsuitable relationship. But it is also a treatise on eco-activism and conservation, hidden under a seductive mask of sex, drugs and dubstep, in which Zink treats all of humanity as a habitat,with nature always maintained in a delicate balance.

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On weekends I was always home by one o’clock. Stephen would stay out until whenever and then sleep, sleep, sleep. He took a break from birding. I didn’t mind. There’s something nice about keeping quiet so as not to wake a fluffy man dozing in a fluffy bed. I read fewer novels and more bird books, learning something new every day. Always simple stuff that afterwards I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t known.

Like birds nesting on the ground. How was I to know they’re so dumb they would build a nest on the ground under a tree, instead of up in the tree? So that when the foxes come, the baby birds are doomed. It gave the concept of the Easter egg hunt a sinister new meaning. Hungry little kids out wandering around after a long winter indoors, scanning the ground.

I learned that power lines fry birds. Poof! They’re gone. Every time I saw an electric fence on a walk, I imagined little birds sitting on it and poofing into nothingness. That was before Stephen advised me to hold on to an electric fence for a while. It tingles once a second. It might kill a spider, assuming the spider was grounded. I was hard put to imagine why it would slow down a cow.

I learned that kinglets are the smallest birds in central Europe, with eggs no larger than a pea.

Once Stephen was awake, it became hard to concentrate. He had exploited the occasion of our move to hook up his monitors. Sometimes his music sounded like a container ship that had grounded on a shoal and was slowly falling over. Sometimes it sounded like a war movie equalised for projection on the moon. Notions of volume in the post-reggae world put grindcore to shame. Loose sheets of paper on his desk would rise and fall with the bass. If the house had been newer, the roof tiles would have rattled. But it was soft, with fungi and moss as integral elements in the construction, so nothing really rattled much except the glass aftershave bottles on the ceramic shelf over the sink.

We didn’t take a birding vacation that year. Without asking me, Stephen rented an apartment in Berlin for the month of June. He wanted to get serious about his music.

We took the slow train, a boxy Swiss IC where you could sprawl out and eat muffins. The German high-speed trains are cylindrical, like airplane fuselages, and you can’t open the windows.

In Berne you could always tell yourself, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Berlin was huge and flat, repetitive to the point of bleakness. People were too rich or too poor, and there was nothing to buy. Tawdry crap for teenagers from the sticks, flagship stores, boutiques for Russians, espresso and fast food. Families shivering in the dark shade of beer gardens, letting their kids run around to warm up.

I rode a heavy bicycle from our rental to the old Tempelhof airport almost every day to see the skylarks fight off the crows with their weapon of song. The crows walked spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other, but I never saw one eat a baby skylark. Or maybe I always lowered my binoculars in time.

There were lakes with swimmers, boaters, mallards and coots. Out of town the lakes had grebes and divers, supposedly, but we never got around to leaving town. Stephen slept in. He almost never went to bed before noon. He was occasionally awake early enough to get down to Hard Wax and hear some new dubplate before it closed.

Exactly once, he convinced me to meet him at the Berghain at six o’clock on a Sunday morning. I didn’t get in. He had told me to dress for dancing, and I had sneakers on. The other girls in line (I was amazed that there was a line) were bouncing on their toes to keep from teetering on their heels, wearing dresses that would have showed the sweat if they hadn’t been so dehydrated their eyes looked like chalk. I hugged myself in my hoodie and shivered, obediently going home on request.

No one was sleek or fluffy in Berlin, not even me. In four weeks I didn’t see a single good-looking person on the street. Once in an upscale beer garden in a park I saw young moms and dads who seemed to have gotten some sleep. But everyone else was ashen, and too warmly dressed. It would be in the sixties, and the girls would be wearing army surplus overcoats and ski caps with pompoms, skin all wintry and sallow as if they had consumed nothing but nicotine and pasta for the last six months and lived in dungeons. The boys appeared even on chilly days in T-shirts, their faces flushed with beer. People routinely wore clothes that didn’t fit at all, with wrists and belly buttons hanging out.

Except for the space-needle-type TV towers, there was no place to look down at anything. You were always looking out and up until your gaze was arrested by the next moving car.

Every time we ate out we became mildly physically ill.

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[1] Nell Zink has existed as something of a cipher in literary circles; known mostly for a handful of beautifully-structured essays for n+1 and being Jonathan Franzen’s good friend and short-term literary client (having written the first part of The Wallcreeper in four days for Franzen), she is now on the cusp of literary ubiquity.

  • The Wallcreeper