Sacha Arnold reviews Nicotine, by Nell Zink

Nell Zink’s literary career to date has had a very enjoyable element of trolling incorporated into it. Her creative process produces entire novels on spec in mere weeks, excellent ones that simultaneously parody the conventions of commercial literary fiction and go along with them sufficiently to be publishable by a Big Five imprint.

Nicotine, her third book, shares with its precursors The Wallcreeper and Mislaid an ability to make genuine feeling out of farcical premises. Heroine Penny is the worldly daughter of a spiritual guru father who inherits his childhood home after his death. The house, however, is occupied by a group of squatters who she can’t bring herself to throw out. She becomes their comrade in activism, which loops her back into contact – and conflict – with her family.

That’s a nutshell version of the plot which elides all of the book’s glories of language and character. Zink’s ear for the argot of radical chic youth culture is uncanny, and the youths themselves are cartoonish but still endowed with all-too-human beliefs and desires. Their political actions might be parodies of parodies, but their hearts are pure.

Their minds are a dirtier story. The catalyst for Penny’s conversion to the cause of Nicotine House is her semi-requited lust for its bike repair guru Rob. House sex goddess Jazz is entangled with multiple characters. And don’t even ask about the kinds of arrangements that go on in Penny’s family.

Despite all the anarchist content, Nicotine is a family saga too. The first third in particular reads like a sendup of Zink’s friend Jonathan Franzen. You can feel the comic potential being unleashed once that part concludes and Penny’s mother and brothers become free to collide with her new friends. That collision is the book.