Nell Zink’s book review Avalon

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“There’s no story without paranoia,” one character tells another in Nell Zink’s restless new novel, “Avalon.” Take the murder mysteries. Peter, an inveterate whistleblower, argues that in the real world, suspicious deaths are often ignored. In fiction, however, no murder is ever left unsolved. “The world is not coherent by itself,” he says. “It takes paranoia to connect the dots.”

Just as Bran, the novel’s unlucky teenage narrator, admits he got his point – that only crazy people can create art – Peter backtracks: “I could be wrong. It’s a ruthless critique, but it’s fictional insofar as I’m making it up.

So goes a typical conversation in “Avalon,” in which smart young people talk about each other, each other, and around them as they try to make sense of their lives in a society that’s more than willing to make the figure for them. Bran, Peter and their friends know that capitalism will disappoint them and that fascism aims to do much worse. Art is their weapon of choice – their Excalibur – and as “Avalon” is set in California in the first half of the 2010s, their imaginations have yet to be clouded by the threats of Trumpism and covid-19.

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Which isn’t to say they aren’t dark enough. This is a coming-of-age story in which the transition from adolescence to adulthood is like trading one hair shirt for another. “Who ever said being was supposed to be fun?” asks Bran, whose father fled to Australia when she was a baby and whose mother abandoned her for life (and death) in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Impossible to reach his sweet but grandparents broke in their community of over 55, Bran must live with his stepfather and his family in their tropical plant nursery, which is also home to a biker gang.

“Bran is no longer a kid and never was a kid,” observes a mean friend.

Bran, on the verge of tears, nods, “I’ve been looking for a clean break since I was five.”

“Avalon” is Zink’s sixth book. In a since-deleted tweet, Zink described the novel as “a utopian critique of the crypto-fascist aesthetic of commercial art.” Definitely, that’s it. It’s also an acidic take on friendship, family, and young love that, when it’s not clutching your heart, does its best to infuriate you.

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As she’s demonstrated since her 2014 debut with “The Wallcreeper,” a daring novel about American birdwatchers causing trouble in Europe, Zink is a fearless satirist. In the author’s second novel, “Mislaid,” a lesbian on the run from her marriage to a gay man steals the identity of a dead black child for his white daughter. For “Doxology,” from 2019, Zink trained his smirking look at punk rock, celebrity worship, and post-9/11 politics. Even when she has to stretch to do so, Zink connects with her targets.

The most elastic gag in “Avalon” involves the artistic pursuits of Bran’s Russian-born best friend Jay, who “was the kind of lightly built kid who should be carrying a skateboard for self-defense, not self-defense.” swinging two-inch slanted heels.” Jay’s “performative suffering” includes taking private flamenco lessons with a blind instructor and his “fatal interest” in eurythmy, a dance technique with rhythm-based movements. alphabet. The joke is not so much that Jay is, according to Bran, “a supremely untalented dancer”, but that mainstream artists are inherently more terrible. “Of course, you could make art that isn’t fascist,” Peter told Jay, “but you would like to be in the dark.”

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For his part, Bran seems to be fine with the dark. It is fate that worries him. Forced to work at her stepfather’s nursery, Bran considers herself an “ignorant child who knew no other life, the perfect employee, who learned to accept self-harm as an economic necessity”.

She doesn’t quite believe it. His thoughts often drift to the mythological site and Arthurian legend that gives the novel its title. Does an island paradise with magical healing properties await him?

Of course not. Yet despite the “pre-arranged madness” of his life, Bran believes escape is possible – eventually. “My curiosity for the days ahead crept shyly and unraveled, as if pushing a string,” she explains.

Life moves on whether a person likes it or not, and the mystery at work in “Avalon” is whether Bran is paranoid enough to realize it. Zink answers this question with his usual cunning, and it’s no spoiler to note that the last page of the novel will send readers back to the first.

When they get there, they might find themselves reading the book a second time, drawn in by the “wish-fulfillment endgame” of Bran’s story and trying to connect the dots.

Jake Cline is a Miami-based writer and editor.

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