The Wisdom of Nell Zink

• Mar 23, 2016 • Tags: , ,

International Women’s Day has been and gone, but our WOM4N theme will be running until the end of the month. And what could be more befitting than exploring female sexuality through the sharp, and often hilarious, words of Nell Zink. Warning: these passages contain sexually explicit language, read on at your own peril/delight…


In The Wallcreeper – a portrait of marriage, complete with all the highs and lows – Nell Zink depicts, early on in the story, a particular low through married couple Tiff and Stephen’s first sexual experience after Tiff has suffered a miscarriage. Unimpeded by the uncomfortable, and not for the faint-hearted, Nell Zink addresses the traumatic event with pain and sadness but also the undeniable humour that permeates both her novels:

‘After Stephen saw the curtains and screwed the pegboard to the wall, he wanted to have sex standing up in the kitchen. It had been three weeks.

We kissed, but my whatever had not healed. It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain.) I just stood there in a state of mournful passivity while he knelt down and licked me, touching my asshole rhythmically with one finger and petting my thigh in counterpoint. I felt sad. His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake. But I knew after we started to have actual sex I would feel better. However, that was before he entered my butt with the rest of his hand followed by his penis and the metaphoric auto-da-fe became a thick one-to-one description of taking a dump […]

“Was I bad?” he asked.

“You were super-bad,” I said. He knelt across my chest and eventually sort of fucked my mouth. He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate. I felt like the Empress Theodora. Can I get more orifices? I thought. Is that was she meant in the Historia Arcana – not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage?’ The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

The Wallcreeper, unsurprisingly, has a take on a woman’s infidelity that is equally as amusing:

‘The first time I invited Elvis to our apartment, I realized that even the hottest hot sex with Stephen had all been in my head. I had hypnotized myself because Stephen had a job that could support us both and secretarial work bored me. I saw that I had followed the chief guiding principle of the petty bourgeoisie in modernity and made a virtue of necessity in telling myself my husband was a good lover. Elvis raised my consciousness. But there are reasons they call it necessity, so I decided Stephen’s stability was good for me.’ The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink


In Mislaid more hilarity ensues as a young girl confuses being a lesbian for a thespian in a moment of rejection that could be portrayed all too seriously, but once again demonstrates her talent for journeying through female sexuality with wit:

‘Realizing that her girlhood was a mistaken didn’t change her life immediately. She could still ride, play tennis, go camping with the scouts, fish for crappie, and shoot turtles with a BB gun. Around age fourteen, it got more complicated. She informed her best friend, Debbie, that she intended to join the army out of high school. She knew Debbie from Girl Scout camp. Debbie was from Richmond, a large and diverse city. “You’re a thespian,” Peggy heard her say. “Get away from me.” […]

She began paying more attention to the thespians at school. They were fat girls and nice boys with scarves around their necks under their shirts. She auditioned for a part in Our Town and didn’t get it. Afterwards the drama club went to the drugstore for milkshakes, and the director, a senior, explained to her about lesbians. Everybody else laughed so loud that Peggy felt inconspicuous, despite the topic.’ Mislaid, Nell Zink

The evolution of Peggy’s sexuality unfolds, albeit in this particular passage through the lens of a man, within the politics of a feminist takeover of a literary magazine:

‘This girl’s lesbianism didn’t mean she slept with women. Quite the opposite. She believed men were necessary sex objects, while whatever drove her to manipulate girls into banding together to do her will was a higher, sacred form of libido. She regarded the token male Lee as a dull-witted, penile one-trick pony (to her, consistency was evidence of a mind standing erect), while women were polymath geniuses until proven otherwise.’ Mislaid, Nell Zink

We also get a wonderfully scathing yet comical rant against labelling sexuality as binary from Meg, another character in Mislaid:

‘”It’s like people used to just get it on, but modern science started sorting us into categories. So you get assigned this identity, like ‘straight woman,’ meaning woman who likes men. Except ninety-nine guys out of a hundred, if they touched you, you’d scream. And the hippies and the male chauvinists say the same thing, that sex is a form of play and you should relax. But what makes sex great is that it’s exciting! Sex isn’t relaxing! Relax and free your mind is what you have to do when somebody’s raping you! But that’s all men ever think about, getting you to relax so they can rape you and go to sleep.”

She surveyed the room to see how her audience was reacting. They were aghast.

Unable to backpedal, she decided to sum up. “So, the theory is basically that they had to define sexuality as a one-way street to orgasm so they could market it as a therapy that’s not predicated on attraction to a certain individual.” She concluded with a “Whew!” to show she was done. There was silence. Meg put her hand on her purse and glanced at the door, thinking that it was time to leave.

“I think I know what you mean,” a woman ventured. “You’re in love with the wrong person, so you tell yourself you have needs and your husband can satisfy you.”

“It’s more like what society tells you,” Meg answered her. “It’s a way of labelling you. You fall in love with one man, so they tell you you’re into men, which is a joke. Nobody likes men. I mean, come on. Most of them are disgusting.”

An especially cute woman leaned forward and said quietly, “My husband makes me play that I’m a whore who’d do it with anybody or anything. I think he’s in love with my niece. My marriage is a joke, and his idea of a solution is to role-play that he’s a motorcycle cop. In the garage. He makes me keep my seat belt on. God, I hate that fucker. I fucking hate him.”

“That’s exactly it!” Meg said, inexpressibly delighted, yet worried, because everyone was taking her seriously and she had said way too much.’ Mislaid, Nell Zink

On that note, Happy International Women’s Day, while we can still get away with it (ish).

The Wallcreeper and Mislaid by Nell Zink are out now in paperback.

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