“The personal is not political”, says the narrator towards the end. The book seems to know this isn’t true and attempts to meld the political and personal. It is when the narrative throws its weight behind the political and historical at the expense of the personal that things falter (the middle section, which charts the presidential election, is the weakest part of Doxology). The very final section, on the other hand, which deals with Flora’s pregnancy and her baby’s contested paternity, is intensely personal and implicitly political. It is superbly done and here Nell Zink shows us how it all could have been. If only she had let those straight edges go a little wobbly.
Nell Zink’s new novel is a frustrating, or perhaps tantalising, experience. It dangles a fresh vision before the reader’s eyes and then, for reasons that never become wholly clear, replaces it with something, if not quite stale, then at the very least blandly familiar... Zink’s devotion to a chronological approach suggests a desire to hide her motives and hoodwink the reader, but the effort backfires, rendering the book on-the-hoof yet sluggish while reducing what had seemed the narrative and emotional centre to the status of bizarrely elaborate prologue.
Doxology covers five decades and a spacious 400 pages, with all the subplots and digressions you would expect of a baggy monster realist novel. It moves from the subculture of straight edge punk to the backrooms of political powerbroking, and surveys ground from East Harlem to rural Ethiopia. There are at least half a dozen characters who take command of the narration for a substantial chunk of the story, and many more whose consciousnesses we breeze through as cameos. Yet the overall feeling isn’t of plenty, but of precarity. From the opening sentence, it seems that time is always about to run out.
[Doxology] is a big, loping, digressive multi-generational novel, telling several stories, of the sort you don’t see all that much in literary fiction these days. Point of view scoots merrily from character to character, major or minor, as suits the narration. And Zink blithely ignores that silliest cliche of literary advice: show, don’t tell. She’s a teller, the book is full of information, and her pert authorial commentary is part of the fun... Sentence by sentence it is wry and very funny, generous in spirit and full of the quick of life. Its irony is warm. Like Joe, it sings - as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it - in praise of everything fickle, freckled, swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim. It’s a doxology, after all.
Doxology is invigorating and intermittently brilliant. Yet as the plot grows manic, the hardboiled sass of the prose turns perfunctory; and when, late on, an apocalyptic miasma leads to little but a riff on how Fox News decides the pollution cloud is less noteworthy than an item on the optimum thickness of spaghetti, there’s a sense that, for Zink, endings remain elusive.
Zink’s style is certainly vivid and outlandish, morally adventurous and uncontained, but it is a hard one to sustain over four hundred pages. Perhaps more gravely, it causes her to use words like ‘betwixt’ and ‘beaucoup’ for no reason and without warning. Doxology reminds us that the most striking overall work is not necessarily that composed of the most striking individual elements.
Doxology feels more substantial and solidly-wrought than Zink’s prior work. Most recently, Mislaid and Nicotine were unassuming yet arresting, but there was a performative feel: exuberant but jerry-built; their loose ends gathered up rather too neatly. Doxology leaves things untucked... Antigravity plotting contributed to Mislaid’s hectic whimsy, but it jars in an otherwise-grounded novel. Of a piece: a disembodied hamminess of speech – characters sounding like repartee-slinging aesthetes yucking it up over brandy and cigars. In a less virtuosic novel the reader might bog down. It’s testament to Doxology’s verve that you’re propelled through.
This is a typical Zink novel, in that it’s totally unpredictable. It begins with a deep and learned dive into the early 1990s New York punk scene, concludes sometime after the 2016 U.S. election, and features an interlude in rural Ethiopia where the central character, young activist Flora, is studying environmental degradation... But plot has never been a selling point with Zink, and, in any case, the random nature of life is one of Doxology’s themes. What this book is interested in is how we engage with that randomness, as well as with such intractable conundrums as social justice and climate change.
Fortunately, Zink injects all of this with her usual deadpan hilarity, while her cast of inimitable misfits are never in danger of being overshadowed by her larger concerns.
Doxology is part rambunctious group picaresque, part whip-smart sociological treatise. From the 1980s hipster — he “couldn’t gentrify a neighborhood. He wasn’t gentry. His presence drove rents down [ . . . ] the shortlived cap of spume on the dirty wave of working-class higher education” — to the millennial — “Older people might get excited about seeing their names in a magazine. [Flora] had grown up applying a cost-benefit analysis to the potential instantaneous worldwide accessibility of every word she said” — Zink speedily locates the pulse points of a generation.