The most stunning achievement of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is the hummingbird-fast entrances and exits of hundreds of exotic birds. Rudi, a lightning-speed wallcreeper that becomes a pet, leads the leitmotif of bird sightings and near-sightings. Birds, environmental terrorism, and displacement are three disparate themes that give this novel its zing.
These motifs parallel the narrator’s tales of love and loss, which fly past as swiftly and less credibly, adding an ironic level to the human escapades that unfold. The opening quote by poet Ted Hughes—“I kill where I please because it is all mine.”—lets the reader know that the author is going to give us a few dead bodies, starting with a tiny fetus. Tiffany, or Tiff, is the sardonic narrator and trophy wife whose opening words are, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Spouse Stephen vacillates between concern for his wife’s condition as she vomits and bleeds and the bird that he crosses the road to rescue. The bird—a Tichodroma muraria, or wallcreeper—wins. “For me it’s a lifer,” Stephen exclaims as the bird with exceptional wings somehow springs to life.
Three weeks after Tiffany and Stephen’s accident, their backstory about meeting, marrying, and moving from Philadelphia to Berne, Switzerland has been told in two pages. They met at a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia where Tiff was a typist and Stephen was interviewing for a position in Berne. Tiff had been about to steal files on “that stuff they use to euthanize psychotics” from the company vault.
The wallcreeper’s name, Rudolf Durruti, shows the couple’s seemingly incompatible politics. Stephen names the bird after SS officer Rudolf Hess, claiming it has the coloration of the Nazi flag while Tiff chooses to add the name of anarcho-communist Buenaventura Durruti. Rudi is flying around the kitchen “like a giant butterfly, or a tiny bird of paradise, or a nylon propeller fluttering from a kite.” In addition to this name being an early clue that volatile politics is going to be part of the picture, the zeitgeist between control freak and anarchist types plays out in the couple’s behaviors. The rough anal sex that takes only one paragraph seems—based on other reviews—to allude to scenes from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) and from Kenzaburo Oe. [i] The described sex act seems impossible for young lovers to perform, especially since Stephen later claims he was a virgin when the two met. Tiff claims she was a passive lover here because she was still recovering from the miscarriage. Like the opening scene and like Rudi’s name, this sex act opens the door for much that follows.
The novel’s modus operandi is hinted in the words of a preacher, Gernot, who befriends Tiff and Stephen: “When I tell my congregation there’s more to life than food and sex, I’m just singing my song. From over their heads, like a bird in the pulpit, and people respond. No information changes hands, but it doesn’t matter. Preaching is really like birdsong. If you find the melody, the fiction soars upward and joins the invisible truth. People respond to the truth in the lie.” Gernot, the author’s stand-in here, captures the guts of fiction’s mission: to spin tales that will drive home the complex cross-purposes of real people with subversive agendas involving ecosystems, national and world cultures, and human relationships.
Every page engages the reader, and the literary references, from Kurt Vonnegut to The Education of Henry Adams, are succinct and sometimes a bit critical.
Throughout the novel, there are oblique and direct comparisons between human behaviors and those of birds whose species is endangered. Tiffany’s and Stephen’s lives at first revolve around following either birds or sexual attractions. As young newlyweds, their marriage seems full of problems, and the novel is a clear-eyed handling of gender issues, even though Tiff positions herself as feminine and sexy, although not consciously a feminist. At moments, she thinks they are a hot couple, yet she also indecisive, caught between wanting to be a good, though financially dependent, mate and her attraction to a Montenegrin newsboy named Elvis. One night the three even go out together, and then Tiff and Elvis spend the night together without Stephen. The couple’s sexual escapades are painted with light strokes and some conflicting details, so readers cannot determine whether or not Tiff’s sister, the bikini barista from Seattle, seduced Stephen when she first visited. Tiff’s easy attitude about affairs extends to her handling of the serious twists later in her narrative. After the couple relocates to Berlin, the sister moves there, at their invitation, and she plays a role later in the narrative.
Stephen, the ardent birdwatcher, began this hobby by studying ospreys with his scoutmaster, yet his view of birds as having a “breeding and feeding” lifestyle is not that sophisticated. Tiff’s perspective is that birds are fragile “seasonal orgiasts” … “having brief, nerdy sex and laying clutch after clutch of eggs for predators …” After Stephen frees Rudolf upon noting the bird’s urge to mate, he himself pushes Tiff to have a baby. This contradicts his earlier disregard (at the novel’s opening not long ago) for Tiff’s first pregnancy. One day on a car trip to birdwatch, Stephen tells Tiff about his past addiction to codeine and his career as a drummer—now he works for a company that helps alcoholic smokers. It seems unusual to this reader that he would not have previously mentioned being a musician, and it is even more incredulous that, on this trip, the couple, using binoculars, track Rudi (fitted with a GPS chip) and spy Rudi in the Alps just as a sparrow hawk eats Rudi’s heart. Rudi dies not when he is hit by Stephen’s car but due to a Darwinian act by a bigger bird. Like the big lie the preacher tells each Sunday, Zink has set us up for this and even more that follows. Tiff notes, “Stephen’s grief humanized him. I began to fall in love.” This climax foreshadows another death and the escalation of travel to different settings in Europe that frame intimate scenes between Tiff and her companions.
Midway through the novel, the focus shifts toward more environmental concerns after Stephen meets a “pretty girl with blonde dreadlocks” at Mancuso’s Loft, a rave music hangout. Tiff names her Miss Mangy Dread. In comparison, Tiff describes herself and Stephen as “shiny bright as if we had just come out of the autoclave.” Mangy, or Birke, and her boss George work at an advertising agency that is campaigning against hydroelectric power, claiming that the dams on the Rhine cause environmental damage and kill marine species. Stephen becomes involved with Birke, and George attempts to lure Tiff, but she’s not interested.
Related environmental issues are explored in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001), a novel by Dai Sijie set in the Three Gorges area of China where dams displaced about 1.3 million people, wiped out plant and animal habitats, and literally slowed the rotation of the earth. The art of Yun Fei-ji documents the same event in extraordinary detail in his Three Gorges Migration Series, (2009). Activism in Europe against projects that result in deforestation and other losses are in the news today.[ii] Ironically, these issues seem not to have been as strenuously questioned when dams have been built in the United States. Zink’s narrative raises great questions about the nature and credibility of people on all sides of environmental matters—and the ways that language may be used to cloud rather than to clarify core issues.
This novel has a great ending. Every page engages the reader, and the literary references, from Kurt Vonnegut to The Education of Henry Adams, are succinct and sometimes a bit critical. Zink’s bio includes that she attended the College of William and Mary and that (despite her youthful-looking photo) it was “rather late in life” when she got a doctorate in Media Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Zink lives in Bad Belzig, south of Berlin.
The Wallcreeper is The Dorothy Project’s tenth book. This St. Louis-based, two-woman publishing house is named for Dorothy Traver, the great-aunt of the director; Traver was a librarian and an art and animal lover. The website www.Dorothyproject.com offers a goal of publishing books that “draw upon different aesthetic traditions.” It’s probable that the Jonathan Franzen blurb on the book cover, The New York Times review, Zink’s public appearances, and the book’s inclusion in the Times’s “100 Notable books of 2014” all helped this book reach wider audiences than most first novels. HarperCollins published Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, in May 2015, with a full national advertising campaign and part of the same Franzen blurb on the cover—“A writer of extraordinary talent and range.”