Book Review: ‘Avalon,’ by Nell Zink

By Nell Zink
207 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.

In descending order of importance, Avalon as it appears in Nell Zink’s sixth novel is: a mythical island in Arthurian legend, the name of a town on Santa Catalina Island that offers tourist activities such as snorkeling and glass-bottom boat trips, the title of a Roxy Music album and the name of a Toyota model that follows the automaker’s tradition of naming cars after (says Wikipedia, beautifully) “things associated with royalty.”

Zink’s life is often characterized in profiles and reviews as wildly unconventional. It is true that she has had a range of jobs — bricklayer, secretary, translator — and lived in different places, but these details only become an improbable first act or a fascinating “back story” if you start publishing acclaimed novels in your early 50s, as she did.

With “Avalon,” it’s as though Zink glanced at the mundane little formula that recurs throughout her press clippings and filched it for a plot. The novel is about a girl with a weird job in a weird place whose writing talent is overlooked because of her circumstances, but who will eventually (probably) triumph, demonstrating that you can’t judge a person by her credentials.

The girl is Bran, short for Brandy, of Southern California. She describes herself as looking like Audrey Hepburn but with a rectangular body, poor grooming, calloused hands and no erotic charisma. Bran’s mom, in classic West Coast boomer fashion, runs off to become a Buddhist nun. The monastery is a former motel with a lobby in the shape of a wigwam, where Bran’s mother meditates and vacuums and rapidly dies of ovarian cancer, which means Bran never gets to ask whether the call of the nunnery was worth abandoning a daughter.

Bran is left with her common-law stepfather, who runs a nursery specializing in exotic imports. A nursery is a unique business, in that it mingles common ingredients of misery (labor, manure, other people) with at least one component of paradise (plants). For Bran, these qualities neutralize the place into a purgatorial zone. Her stepfather is happy to keep her around, since she represents “circa eight years of unpaid labor and a potential $20,000 in earned-income tax credits, if the I.R.S. played along.”

During the day, she shapes topiary and rinses fungicide residue from palmettos so they can be passed off as organic. At night she sleeps in an unheated lean-to. Her stepfather is erratic, her grandfather creepy, her stepbrother the fictional equivalent of an NPC. As Bran develops secondary sexual characteristics, an atmosphere of menace descends upon the nursery.

But there is hope. When her best friend starts college at U.C.L.A., Bran meets the person who will become her object of obsession: Peter, a Maine import who is fluent in Kafka and Schönberg. Bran and her best friend both have crushes on Peter, who in turn has a crush on someone named Yasira. (Not a love triangle; a love slingshot.)

Nell Zink, whose new novel is “Avalon.”Credit…Francesca Torricelli

The relationship between Bran and Peter is a bit like that of Selin and Ivan in Elif Batuman’s novel “The Idiot.” Both Ivan and Peter are elusive targets with ideologies and significant hair and desires that strike the female narrators as demonically opaque. They are kings of monologuing, princes of negging. A large portion of each book concerns a young woman wrestling with the eternal question of: “What is this guy’s deal?”

At first it seems that Peter will be the story’s villain. He is always explaining to Bran that she doesn’t understand stuff, assigning her homework and orating on the topic of her limitations. When she admits to being in love with him, he replies, “I’m well aware of that.” On the other hand, he engineers a pretty good bootleg college education for Bran, with high expectations and strong book recommendations.

On the other other hand, he returns from a school break engaged to the woman named Yasira, who, he tells Bran, has a heavenly butt and no ambitions beyond caring for Peter’s future children and doing housework. This aligns with his own ambitions of evading child care and housework. “She’s simple,” is how he characterizes Yasira’s appeal. Oh, to be simple and have a heavenly butt.

There is a music video of the Roxy Music song “Avalon” in which Bryan Ferry wears a white tuxedo and dances sorrowfully around a castle. At one point a falcon alights on his gloved wrist, and both the bird and Ferry turn to the camera at exactly the same moment — a feat of directing, or possibly of luck. Later, there’s a scene where the same falcon is clearly meant to step on a rose, but the bird hesitates and misses. Even a trained rental falcon resists control, the video seems to say. Much like love itself. Despite Peter’s wishes for an obedient wife and life, he loves Bran back.

Most of the novel takes place in the early to mid 2010s, though it floats outside its time period. Bran carries a prepaid burner phone instead of an iPhone. There’s no President Obama, no Sandy Hook, no Boston Marathon bombing, no Justin Bieber. One character accidentally goes viral and is attacked by trolls for an act of dance-related cultural appropriation, but Bran isn’t on Twitter or Instagram. Nowhere does the word “selfie” appear.

If a character’s light is unjustly hidden by a bushel in the first act of a novel or movie, you can expect what follows to be of the “I’ll show you” revenge genre. But Bran doesn’t desire revenge against her stepfamily. They are losers. The concept of victimhood is to Bran as the concept of a glacier is to a jungle-dwelling amphibian. She wants to write screenplays and win Peter’s love. Where is the time for whining? Or retribution?

Near the end of the book, the possibility of a terrible plot twist arises — the kind that rests on a preposterous coincidence. Zink dangles the twist long enough to make a reader squirm and then — made you look! — darts in another direction. There’s no fudging the rules in “Avalon,” which is the effulgent and clever sort of novel that replicates the experience of learning a new game: You enter its world voluntarily and add your reading effort to Zink’s writing effort with the idea that the sum of these energies will create a zone of mirth and meaning. What fun.