Nell Zink’s California

Unsettling Tensions

Nell Zink’s California.


Around college application time, an academic counselor at West High School in Torrance, Calif., asks Bran—the narrator of Nell Zink’s new novel, Avalon—what she plans to do after graduation. Bran tells the counselor that she’s going to move to Australia to live with her biological father. It’s a plausible plan of action, but the truth is, she’s not actually sure he still lives in Australia—or whether he even moved there in the first place. In reality, Bran hasn’t planned things out beyond the next few weeks.

As readers soon find out, Bran doesn’t have the luxury for that. She’s too busy hustling through life’s physical and emotional labor. Her father’s departure was one of many traumatic disturbances in her youth: When she was 10, her mother fled to a Buddhist monastery in the Sierras to explore her spirituality, leaving Bran to live and work at a topiary nursery with her “common-law stepfather,” Doug Henderson, as well as his father, Larry; his son, Axel; and a rotating crew of migrant workers whom the family calls “Eric” or “Roger,” depending on the day.

Bran’s high school classmates are all headed to universities like UCLA, UCSD, Cal Poly, and Yale, while Bran appears destined for a life that is not all that different from the one she is currently living: working on the farm, manicuring plants with a pair of gas-powered hedge clippers, and accruing sooty calluses. Bran doesn’t quite know how she will avoid this fate, but for the rest of the book, we follow her attempts to do everything in her power to escape it. Bran moves in with a friend’s parents, falls in love with an aspiring Rhodes scholar, and ultimately does what a lot of people in Los Angeles end up doing: She tries her hand at screenwriting.

Avalon is Zink’s sixth novel, and it could be described as something of a Trojan horse: Its exterior has the appearance of a classic bildungsroman, but it contains a wry and biting critique of social mobility, labor exploitation, and creative work in Southern California. This last type of work, the novel suggests, has been sucked of its inherent value by the profit-making machine of Hollywood and also by the Internet, which we increasingly turn to in order to make sense of what kinds of art and creativity are valued and valuable. Avalon is not an inherently political book, but it has a political message nonetheless. As we accompany Bran on her journey, we are constantly presented with a big, gaping question: How does a young person become an artist in a world that caters mostly to the rich?

The elite of Southern California might not be Wall Street wealthy, but in Zink’s view, they are something perhaps even worse: They use their capital to advance themselves in cultural domains as well as economic ones. The denizens of Zink’s California use their money to pursue art, and they use that art to make more money. There is Hollywood, there are lights, but only the rich are allowed to enjoy them.

Avalon is Zink’s first novel set in California, but it is not the first time she has examined the ways in which the American economy inhibits young, creative people from living comfortably or successfully within it. The book joins a compendium of novels and short stories by Zink whose artist characters find it difficult to make ends meet. In “Marmalade Sky,” a short story adapted from her 2019 novel Doxology, we meet a group of poor, grungy musicians who have decided to start a band in 1980s New York City. Mostly, these musical hopefuls end up working predatory contract jobs or night shifts to pay the bills and never really achieve much on the musical front, as life and a lack of professional connections get in their way. In another of Zink’s stories, “Bonebreaker,” a journalist couple flee Detroit for Europe because they’re months behind on their rent and credit card payments and owe upwards of $90,000 for their student loans. Getting by, let alone becoming an artist, is a tall task in a society that rewards the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Zink’s second and perhaps most famous novel, Mislaid, picks up on similar themes, this time through the lens of Peggy, a college-age girl living in 1960s Virginia. Peggy, the lesbian daughter of a well-off Episcopal priest, ends up having children with a gay poetry professor after a love-at-first-sight dalliance. When their relationship crumbles, Peggy runs away. She wants to live as a playwright in New York but never gets there. Instead, she moves to the South, where she changes her identity, fails to finish writing her plays, and ends up selling roadkill and nude magazines for cash.

In Avalon, Zink keeps the plot focused on her protagonist’s uphill struggle to become an artist, though this time the setting is her native West Coast in the 2010s. Zink’s California has some resonances with Joan Didion’s, chock-full of unsettling tensions that are difficult to unravel. But the contradictions in Zink’s rendering of the state are more economic than cultural. In Avalon, businesses in Torrance, the city where Bran and her family’s topiary farm are based, survive off migrant day laborers who work for nearly nothing. Meanwhile, just up the 405, Bran’s best friend Jay is taking expensive private flamenco lessons with a blind dancing coach named Loretta.

Bran’s challenges are in front of her every day, and she navigates them with grit and inventiveness, offering us a tour of the Southern Californian economy along the way. Saving enough money to buy a cheap car, she eventually vacates the topiary farm after Larry Henderson —“Grandpa Larry”—tells her to take her shirt off at a barbecue. She ends up living in the guest room at the home of her friend Will’s parents, a wealthy lawyer and doctor who are more than happy to fill their empty nest. But Bran has bigger ambitions than just escaping her stepfather’s farm. Once she moves in, her friend Peter and a John Gregory Dunne book inspire her to embrace a new goal: She will become a screenwriter in Hollywood.

To break out on her own, Bran gets a job at a coffee shop in a strip mall and picks up some house-sitting and yard work gigs. She also falls in with an artsy and literary set at nearby UCLA. Jay, her friend from high school who studies dance and later film there, becomes one means of entry into this exciting new world of art and ideas. Jay’s brainy, New England–raised friend Peter proves even more formative. Bran quickly falls for him, reading what he recommends and finding herself endlessly debating ideas with him: postmodernism, fascism, and the work of Milton Erickson.

Peter is equal parts condescending and manipulative. He’s the kind of guy who sits beside a pool shading his eyes with an unread issue of The New York Review of Books as he mansplains the concept of tragedy. After he applies to transfer to Harvard, he gets engaged to a wealthy girl named Yasira while continuing a long-distance flirtation with Bran. Peter admits at times that he feels blasé about his partnership with Yasira, but he believes her family will provide him with prestigious professional connections, and so, he tells Bran, she makes for obvious marriage material. Bran often has moments of clarity in which she recognizes that “I was being fucked with.” But as anyone who has once been young knows, this doesn’t necessarily make her crush any less urgent.

As Bran grows closer to Jay and Peter’s intellectual and artsy circle, a distinction becomes clear to the reader: Her friends all strike heady poses, but they are also tireless in their pursuit of lucrative jobs. Jay wants to produce films in Hollywood; Peter wants to sell a book while also doing something that will send him to high-profile conferences; Will wants to use technology to unlock the potential of South American bugs; and most of their other friends are interested in vague careers that will offer the opportunity to “meet rich people.” For them, technological innovation—social media included—is one more way for them to get ahead, amplifying the specter of limitless self-optimization. As Peter mentions one day, complimenting Bran for being different, most of their peers are “cyborgs training themselves to be bots,” who must deal with “the agony of reconciling algorithmic packaging with the living body.”

Bran also wants to succeed, but without much more than a hand-me-down cellphone, she must focus on becoming a writer the hard way, working on honing the right story arcs and “meditating over paragraphs like mantras” instead of tweets and Instagram posts. She isn’t expecting much monetary reward for her creations, or even much success, but she’s invested nonetheless. Perhaps for this reason, she actually makes some headway on her writing projects. Yet her screenwriting “career,” we discover, mostly involves anonymously collaborating on a series of scripts with Jay, who was born into a world that gives him the kind of access that Bran does not have.

The pair write a screenplay about an alien apocalypse that Jay submits in one of his classes and earns praise from his professor. This leads Jay and Bran to collaborate on another screenplay and then another—one of which helps Jay get accepted to a graduate school focused on films about “social change.” The last project we hear of is a screenplay based on an old project of hers and Jay’s that she writes for Jay while he’s on vacation with his parents in Wyoming.

Bran may have become a screenwriter of sorts, but not one who gets paid or even garners that much attention. By the end of the book, she has driven up the coast to meet Peter at a literary party in Santa Cruz. He has assured her that it will be an opportunity to meet important writers and improve her career prospects. What the two of them find there is not exactly the professional buoy they were hoping for, but they do gain a new entry point into their romance. We are left hoping that Bran finds her way out in the real world, but a little unclear as to whether this hope will be redeemed.

Avalon is in some ways a work of historical fiction, re-creating the immediate past of the 2010s for Bran and her cohort of friends. But at times Zink has some lapses. Having myself graduated from high school in the 2010s—in Southern California, to boot—it seems that in some places Zink doesn’t quite get the history right, washing together a series of years marked by distinct cultural developments. In 2012, for example, 19- and 20-year-olds with Internet access weren’t worried about, or even yet aware of, how the algorithms of social media were remaking their lives. People were still on Facebook; recreational Twitter was for sharing inside jokes with friends, and Instagram was still in its youth, not yet hawking us advertisements for the coffee maker we were just thinking about. Social media was certainly consuming us, but we enjoyed it more for its entertainment and connection value than its capacity to help us get ahead.

But these days, social media does serve as a funnel for careerism, which is part of why Bran tries to avoid it, and also what makes Avalon more of a parable about the artist in a capitalist society struggling to make art and enjoy life despite a lack of financial, institutional, and supportive resources. In this sense, Zink may not get the 2010s right, but she does paint a rather authentic image of Southern California, one that elucidates how—not only there, but particularly there—financial and cultural capital have become so intertwined that someone without the former can’t reasonably have access to the latter.

The incisiveness of Zink’s portrait of Southern California is perhaps also the result of her own proximity to it and to the kind of life that Bran leads. Growing up in a zip code an hour or two east of Torrance, Zink has had a life, like Bran’s, full of itinerancy and economic insecurity. After moving out of California at age 8, she moved to Virginia, and after graduating, she became homeless in her college town, storing her belongings in different people’s houses for as long as she could. Throughout her life, Zink has worked at a string of odd jobs to get by, including bricklaying, waitressing, secretarial work, technical writing, and translating. She’s moved around the world, living in Tel Aviv and then moving to Germany in 2000, where she lives now, an hour outside Berlin.

Zink’s work has been critically acclaimed, but she’s never been part of the Ivy League or MFA circles typical for contemporary novelists, and she has mostly tiptoed around the rim of the literary world. The tensions between meritocracy and art-making, and capitalism and culture, have been central preoccupations in her life as well as her fiction. “There’s never a market for true art,” she once told The Paris Review. “So my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.”

Since Avalon’s release, Zink has acknowledged that the novel is autobiographical, while also noting that her life has not exactly been the same as “poor little Bran’s.” Perhaps the best way to understand the book, then, is not as a portrait of the artist, but as a playbook for how to be one. Like many artists, Bran is forced to struggle to make her way in a society where financial resources, family connections, and institutional credentials seem to matter more than how well you make the damn thing. If Didion offered us a view of California that was often critical of its bohemian milieus, Zink presents us with one that is far more sympathetic: For her, California is a place in which the economic stratifications that Didion was mostly unconcerned with have not only hardened but now dictate the cultural spheres, too. For Zink, there is such a thing as an artist in Southern California—just not a very good or genuine one. Real art can persist, but only at the margins.

This might justify the way in which Zink understands her place in the world vis-à-vis writers who struggled less to find their way into fiction writing. But Zink also appears to be making an argument about why one might pursue a life as an artist: not to have a career at all, but simply to create something of artistic value. This is a carefree way of thinking—one that, while perhaps too illusory and utopian to adopt in practice, is also too idealistic and beautiful not to imagine for oneself.

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