Bran, the narrator of Nell Zink’s new novel, “Avalon,” wastes no time in announcing herself as something of an unreliable narrator. “I have trouble recounting my childhood in chronological order,” she confesses. “It appears in fragments, like a cored and sectioned apple. Put it back together, and the interior disappears.”
She comes by her sketchy memory honestly. Her childhood was marked by trauma: When she was in grade school, her mother died not long after moving to a Buddhist monastery, leaving Bran in the care of her “common-law stepfather,” Doug Henderson. Bran grew up in Doug’s family’s Torrance, Calif., plant nursery, which might not be what it seems: “Whether anything other than tropical plants ever arrives in those shipping containers bound to the port of Long Beach, and whether the Hendersons’ motorcycling friends have anything to do with distributing it, I do not know,” she reflects. “I was never considered a member of the family unless they wanted something from me.”
It’s a fairly miserable existence, but Bran survives with the help of Jay, a “pariah” at their school, a gay boy with a love for dance (despite the fact that he’s “supremely untalented” at it). In high school, the two fall in with the literary magazine kids; Bran spends most of her time with them when she’s not doing unpaid work at the nursery.
Bran’s friends have plans to attend college, but she knows she’ll never be able to afford it. She finds it difficult to imagine life outside the nursery, although she has no love for her stepfather’s family: “Instead of taking steps to preserve my mental integrity, I had let the Hendersons corner me. I had lain there squeaking like a blind kitten, waiting for help from some random onlooker.”
Bran’s life changes when she meets Peter, a UCLA schoolmate of Jay’s. Both Jay and Bran nurse instant crushes on the young man, a precocious Mainer with a love of literature and a penchant for making the kind of sweeping intellectual pronouncements that sound intelligent but are essentially bombastic nonsense. (Example: “Dancers should all be blind. Composers should be deaf, and writers should be illiterate.”)
Bran and Peter embark on a desultory pseudo-romance that’s threatened when Peter decides to leave UCLA and transfer to Harvard. But the two keep in touch, and at Peter’s encouragement, Bran finally leaves her stepfamily’s nursery and tries to strike out on her own, taking jobs housesitting and selling coffee.
The ending of the novel is Zink at her best: clever and biting, and refreshingly unforced. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only parts of the book that works well. The central conflict of the novel is the uneasy relationship between Bran and Peter, but while we get to know the former pretty well, the latter remains elusive throughout the book. He’s a hurried line sketch of a character, unshaded, so much so that it’s hard to understand Bran’s affection for him. “He had uprooted me, permanently, and I was resting on my way to being repotted,” Zink writes with uncharacteristic sentimentality. How he manages to do this, though, is never made clear. Love — especially young love — doesn’t need a reason, of course, but the romance between these characters feels especially half-baked.
Zink’s supporting cast of characters fare no better. The members of Bran and Jay’s literary magazine friend group aren’t given much to do; they essentially act as foils for the main characters. By contrast, Jay is portrayed carefully and completely, and Zink writes about his friendship with Bran with a kind of gentle, measured subtlety.
On the positive side, the writing in the novel is mostly excellent, which is no surprise; Zink has a gift for crafting elegant sentences that reward rereading. At one point, Bran describes herself as “an empty cargo plane in a holding pattern, waiting for signals from the tower.” It’s a lovely description that perfectly captures the experience of being young, unfulfilled, forever at loose ends.
Zink also brings her trademark humor to “Avalon,” though it’s a bit toned down here. In an early scene, Bran confesses to Jay that she’s attracted to him, Jay responds “with kindness, explaining that being gay involves failure to be straight.” In another section, Peter offers his catty assessment of Jay as “an artist trapped in the mind of a linebacker trapped in the body of a skater with the long legs of a eunuch who wanted to be trapped in the body of Lady Gaga.”
Strong passages aside, Zink seems to be operating at a remove here, examining young love like a scientist looking at a specimen, and the novel never really fully jells because of it. It’s a book that doesn’t seem to want to be known, like a neurotic cat that skitters away if you look at it too long — not a bad novel by any means, just not up to Zink’s usual high standards.
By Nell Zink
Knopf, 224 pages, $27
Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas. Follow him on Twitter @michaelschaub.