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Doxology by Nell Zink: Propelled into the mindset of Gen X

Review: The events of 9/11 form the fulcrum to Zink’s latest novel

Nell Zink: Doxology feels more substantial and solidly-wrought than the author’s prior work. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
Author: Nell Zink
ISBN-13: 978-0008323486
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

Nell Zink’s new novel summons a time when young people could run away from home to the big city without a trust-fund and make major life decisions inspired by Dionysian musical subcultures. That would be 1986. Discovered at 50 in 2014, Zink is Gen X’s gift to millennial letters, and Doxology announces itself like a squall of screeching Sonic Youth feedback trailing droll asides like an album review in a snarky 1990s zine.

In flight from beastly parents, her imagination inflamed by hardcore punk, 17-year-old high-school dropout Pam lands in the soiled milieu of junk bond-era New York where prostitutes wear “recently hit faces”. She finds work as a programmer and community among singer-songwriter Joe and fellow scenester Daniel with whom she also hooks up. Daniel, specimen of an earlier genus of hipster – less precious, more everyman, than today’s soft-bearded variant – is slacker-impresario of his own boutique record label. He improbably stewards Joe toward a major label deal and minor fame before Joe succumbs to a peril of cult status: an overdose. Zink’s description of drug death is chilling: “He stretched… and shivered, eyes and mouth wide, as if the shadow of a convulsion were passing over him.”

But decadence and self-destruction are side notes. This is a wholesome novel; about adult responsibility besides teen rebellion.

Pam and Daniel play music but otherwise raise daughter Flora and work. Pam reconciles with her parents. And, far from satyr, Joe is a musical savant who achieves posthumous superstardom when his nonsense-verse ballads become a balm to post-9/11 angst. He only did heroin to appease his addict girlfriend.


Gen X is now eclipsed in the wider culture. Staidly middle-aged, it’s aged out of prime consumer demography and been supplanted as think-piece fodder by millennials.

Amid the turn-of-the-millennium noontide, Zink alights on the sheer pre-miniaturization pre-virtualisation profusion of “things”. This, and the “grotesque…naivete” that the internet was “a gigantic library”.

‘Quite chivalrous’

The events of 9/11 form Doxology’s fulcrum. Pam and Daniel flee Manhattan with Flora for Pam’s parents’ pad in Washington DC. They subsequently return but leave Flora behind to attend private school. The narrative shifts thereafter to Flora. Still, the Gen X perspective pervades.

In her non-“binary” attitudes toward gender, Daniel reveres Flora as an “oracle”.

“By growing up in the present, she acquired the ability to transmit coded hints about the future. Apparently something about the present was warning the inheritors of the future not to take sides.”

Later, the big-shot Gen X-aged Democrat consultant Flora dates, appears antediluvian among the pointy-headed quants – “Everybody wanted chapter-and-verse explication of decisions he habitually based on surefootedness, delicacy, taste and long experience” – but he alone intuits the nature of the beast in 2016: “...his name is Beelzebub…The foul fiend…the weasel in the tube jammed up our asses. We need to kill the weasel…”

Post-election, as an adjunct professor, he smiles on his students’ wokeness: “Each was a node of expropriation, an intersection among vectors of domination they labelled in a kind of factor analysis-black, female, queer, of color – and they deferred to those more numerously impacted in a manner he found quite chivalrous.”


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: Flora becomes pregnant; opts to have the baby; vacillates between sugar-daddy and baby-daddy but might just go it alone.

This solidity throws a certain weightlessness in Zink’s fiction into sharper relief though. Revisit that post-9/11 plot-point for plausibility: loving two-income couple park their daughter with the grandparents for the balance of her childhood to be expensively educated at the grandparents’ expense.

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.