Neither a young careerist nor a long-suffering aspirant, Nell Zink has found her way to the literary middle by a path as refreshingly eccentric as her fiction. An American who settled in Germany at the start of this century, Zink has pursued diverse vocations and avocations: technical writing, bricklaying and editing Animal Review, a '90s fanzine my very hippest friends seem to remember fondly.
Meanwhile, she wrote novels and stories for private pleasure and a few pen pals, perhaps in possession of that rare, Emily Dickinson-like indifference to public recognition. She finally sought to bring her fiction to print after being encouraged and championed by Jonathan Franzen, with whom she established a correspondence through their mutual interest in ornithology.
Zink's arch, capriciously structured debut novel, "The Wallcreeper," was published last year to notable acclaim by Dorothy, a small press out of St. Louis. Her new novel, "Mislaid," comes from Ecco, which paid handsomely. So, once in a while, a windfall for a weirdo.
The new book is narrated in a droll third-person that fuses, let's say, Carson McCullers (Southern bohemia) and Kafka (bizarre social critique). We access the thoughts of major and minor characters, many of whom share, when convenient, a casual erudition that puts us in mind mostly of the author. The plot is antic, sensational and restless. In the mid-1960s we meet Peggy, a free-speaking freshman at a mosquito-infested women's college in Virginia. Pent-up from "weeks of unrequited lesbianism," she forms a breakaway sexual alliance with Lee, the school's well-born, historically gay poetry prof. Pregnancy and a slapdash marriage of propriety follow.
After several swiftly summarized years, Peggy leaves the polyamorously unfaithful Lee, scooping up her daughter, Mireille, but failing to coax away her son, Byrdie. From there, the satire becomes still more devil-may-care. To stay hidden, Peggy and Mireille, with help from a photocopied birth certificate of a dead African-American toddler, become Meg and Karen and are generally accepted as black folks who don't look it. ("Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people.")
They grow destitute but not disheartened; in reference to a particularly straitened Christmas, we're told that "Karen had written to Santa asking for a banana split." Later, Karen and Byrdie are reunited at the University of Virginia, where she's on a minority scholarship and he's on drugs.
Contemporary novels for which publishing houses pay handsomely are too often dutiful about their dramatic arcs, their restricted points of view, their rounded protagonists, their soulful introspection. Here, then, is an antidote, a book of madcap intelligence that seems improvised more than composed, a book about the plasticity of identity and perception whose seriousness might be proven by its refusal to be serious.
But Zink overrates her powers of digression. The book is very clever, but one starts to resent its ungoverned chain of riffs, its proliferating and often indistinct characters, its endless means of steering us off course. For that matter, the course itself is rather too aloof to be involving. I smiled often over the book, though most broadly when I could close it for good.
Dylan Hicks is a writer and musician. His second novel, "Amateurs," will be released in 2016.