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Nell Zink’s Nicotine is about advocating for smokers’ rights. It’s weird and brilliant.

Nell Zink, Nicotine Left: Fred Filkorn. Right: Ecco.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It takes Nell Zink only three weeks to write a novel. Have you ever heard of anything so infuriating?

Zink didn’t publish a word until she was 50, when she sent her pen pal Jonathan Franzen a manuscript and he encouraged her to try to publish it. (Zink and Franzen like to correspond about birds together.) The result was 2014’s The Wallcreeper, which won raves from the New York Times.

Since then, she’s published three more novels in the space of two years. Honestly, how dare she?

And all of them are really good, good enough to be longlisted for the National Book Award but so artfully weird and unconventional that none of them have made the respective shortlists — not because they’re not good enough, but in a way that suggests they’re all too ahead of their time for the National Book Award to fully appreciate.

As Josephine Livingstone writes for the New Republic, "Zink’s novels, while undeniably excellent, are so strange that it is hard to understand why anybody actually likes them." Livingstone goes on:

Zink satirizes average-to-privileged people in the manner of Jane Austen, but her books are too short to run to social commentary. She’s also wildly erudite, but straightforward, even plainspoken, in her vocabulary. American publishing today milks a reliably profitable herd of authors for bland, high-fat novels. Zink’s work is distinctly unpasteurized, and yet—here she is.

Enter Nicotine, Zink’s latest and most accessible book. If her other novels were loopy and aggressively esoteric — Private Novelist, for instance, contains Zink’s verbatim translation notes on a Hebrew novel — Nicotine has, for the most part, a pretty conventional structure. It’s a straightforward satire of contemporary bourgeois radicalism, with a simple, linear timeline. It still boasts Zink’s signature weirdness, but if you find her reputation intimidating, it’s a good entry point.



It’s also just good.

Nicotine’s greatest strength is the warmth with which it treats its characters

Even when Zink is being conventional, she’s exemplary. What makes her satire so exciting and so novel is the empathy of her writing: She really loves her characters, even when she laughs at them. She grasps how millennial activists — and baby boomer activists, and millennial entrepreneurs — think and act and speak, and when she mocks them, it’s not with condescension but with affection.

Nicotine concerns a young woman named Penny. She’s the daughter of a hippie activist shaman named Norm and his much younger wife, Amalia, whom Norm adopted when he found her wandering through a garbage pit as a 12-year-old runaway in Colombia and married once she turned 18. The first section of the book sees Penny, just graduated from college, tending to Norm as he lies on his deathbed. The book tracks his rapid descent through several brutal passages until, finally, "Norm stops dying," and Penny watches his soul fly out of a window.

After the funeral, there’s an accounting: Norm’s estate must be divided fairly between 43-year-old Amalia, Penny, and Penny’s two half-brothers (both, squeamishly, around Amalia’s age). The family agrees to send Penny off to the house that belonged to Norm’s parents in Jersey City. It’s now derelict, but Penny, they decide, can be the "gentrification shock troops" and fix up the house while she searches for a job with her freshly minted business degree.

But when Penny arrives, she finds the house already occupied by squatter activists. They’ve named the house Nicotine, because their cause is tobacco — namely, advocating for smokers’ rights:

"You know how smokers, in this society, we’re a step below meth-heads. I mean, say you shoot up heroin in the bathroom on an airplane. What happens to you?"

"Nothing?" Penny ventures.

"And if you smoke a cigarette?"

"Air marshals?"

"Summary execution!" Sorry says. "People walk around fucked-up on illegal drugs, on prescription drugs — on anything they want — and nobody cares. But smoke a cigarette, and you’re on everybody’s shit list."

Penny is impressed by their radical cred. She’s also badly crushing on Rob, the asexual house leader. It takes barely any convincing for her to scrap her plans of reclaiming the house for her family; instead, she opts to join the movement herself.

Throughout Nicotine, Zink’s prose is energetic and zingy, spiraling from thought to thought. In its exuberant force, it’s capable of handling the horror of Norm’s death and the comedy of the Nicotine crew’s activism with equal dexterity.

And if Penny and the activists’ cause is absurd and their methods shallow, the characters themselves are all warm-blooded and compelling. Written by a different author, they wouldn’t be: Penny, especially, is the kind of self-obsessed faux-bohemian who responds to a shockingly personal family letter with a casual request for money; she could easily come across as vapid with less careful treatment. But in Zink’s hands, Penny’s self-absorption and her pretension are alternately funny and tragic.

Her most important characteristic is one she shares with Zink: She is empathetic. When she stops thinking about herself, she is capable of understanding how the people around her feel — not only the activists at Nicotine but also her hippie father who married a child bride, her sociopathic half-brother who may have molested her mother, and her mother who cheerfully insists that she is in no way a victim. Penny’s struggles to reconcile those conflicting viewpoints into a single coherent truth form the novel’s most compelling scenes.

And that is about as conventional as Zink is willing to go. She’ll focus on a girl coming of age and slowly realizing that the world is more complex and ambiguous than she ever imagined, sure, and that’s a plot as old as novels themselves — but she’ll make sure the girl’s world is looping and bawdy and confusing and utterly surprising.

The fact that Nicotine — a book about nicotine-focused social activism, a book so weird that the incest plot is the D-plot and I haven’t even touched on the bloodstained virtual reality sex scene — is Zink’s most conventional work to date should tell you something about her bibliography.

It should also tell you how exciting and provocative Zink’s voice is. She’s a singular figure in the literary landscape, and Nicotine is a perfect introduction to her brilliant, off-kilter world.

The world that she constructs three weeks at a time. How dare she?

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