:: Article

“breeding and feeding”

By Patrick Disselhorst.

Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper (Dorothy, 2014)

In Elif Batuman’s essay, “Short Story and Novel,” she writes about the tendency of many American novelists to open a sentence with a barrage of details. This is an “in-your-face in medias res,” Batuman asserts, “a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions.” Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper, while similar cosmetically to what Batuman outlines above, offers a counterpoint to sentences of this style, its unbridled language occurring in a decisive moment—the impetus for the novel’s creation. It begins: “I was looking at a map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Zink’s narrator, Tiffany, recounts an event that propels the novel into its being: as if, without the car crash, a baby would have been born and not the book itself.

After a brief honeymoon, the newly-wedded Tiffany, or Tiff, and her husband Stephen have emigrated, first to Switzerland and then to Germany. Stephen has taken a new job in research and development at a pharmaceutical company in Berne, a city with “colonnades like Bologna and boutiques like New York” and surrounded by a river that “enfolds the city like a uterine wall.” The two attempt to settle, but a feeling of uncertainty sets in for Tiff: a seriously traumatic event caps off a series of senseless ones (accidental pregnancy, only slightly less accidental marriage with a man she hardly knows). For Tiffany, “cause and effect had no relation at all.”

Physical space becomes disorienting—there is a lack of connection between origins and destinations. After the car accident, Tiff notices that “the fir trees next to [her] had their roots at the bottom of the cliff.” Though she understands that they account for the trees she observes, she cannot see the roots. Her senses do not account for their origins. During time spent in Berlin, Tiff finds that “except for the space-needle-type TV towers, there was no place to look down at anything. You were always looking out and up until your gaze was arrested by the next moving car.” This lack of viewing distance means she cannot see the entirety of the city, all of its moving parts at once. Her sight is dislodged from the whole.

Simultaneously with the car crash that “occasioned” her miscarriage, Stephen injures a wallcreeper. The couple decides to take the bird in, naming him Rudi and nursing him back to health. This decision sets off a string of events that leads Stephen, to initially pursue birdwatching and then, consequently, environmental activism. Stephen’s early excursions into birdwatching provide Tiff with material on which to pontificate:

The birds were Stephen’s intimate sphere. He didn’t have to be cool or funny or even appetizing about them. “Breeding and feeding,” Stephen called their lifestyle, making them sound like sex-obsessed gluttons (that is, human beings) instead of the light-as-air seasonal orgiasts they were in reality—ludicrously tragic animals always fleeing the slightest hint of bad weather in a panic, yelling for months on end to defend territories the size of a handball court, having brief, nerdy sex and laying clutch after clutch of eggs for predators, taking helpless wrong turns that led them to freeze to death, drown, starve, or be cornered by hunters on frozen lakes, too tired to move.

Tiff removes anything romantic from this hobby, revealing this relationship with nature to be, oftentimes, a projection of something strange inside the self. Stephen’s affections are slightly misguided, or at least undercooked, revealing more about his desires than the experience itself. Tiff finds Stephen’s terminology, “breeding and feeding,” which he uses to make obvious the birds’ simplicity, to be a misnomer; this leads Tiff to unpack Stephen’s ostensible hypocrisy, uncovering a hideous description of lives led in “nature.” Because even though hunting was “way below what it used to be…down to almost nothing in Switzerland,” the sight of a hunter disturbs Stephen greatly:

“It’s a crime against nature!’ Stephen said, frowning.

I pointed out that the trend in recent jurisprudence has been to broaden the scope of so-called crimes against humanity and subsume all other offenses under them. He didn’t listen.

Stephen is reductive, favoring simplistic readings. Even while attempting take up the mantle of a cause, his inability to think through complexity stokes a dismissive worldview.

Tiffany views her role as a wife, devoid of a career, as a parallel to Stephen’s term for the ornithological lifestyle. She “breeds and feeds” now, after entering her thirties with a useless liberal arts degrees and a series of menial jobs. Marriage offers Tiff the promise of financial stability, above anything else. “Breeding and feeding” may not be such a pejorative. For Tiff, aside from economic freedom and the ability to read, think, and observe, her married life is comprised almost solely of unwanted sexual attention from an inexperienced and selfish sexual partner (the first of several in the novel): “‘Was I bad?’ [Stephen] 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.” Sexual freedom, in theory, could allow Tiff to resolve some of the stigma of being a jobless wife.

Even within the boundaries of a marriage, Tiff tries to reassert her agency over her body. But again, sex is inadequate, failing to deliver anything truly “meaningful.” The reality of Tiff’s body (and its relationship with other bodies) is contrasted with her ability, as the novel’s narrator, to craft language that undercuts and does not assuage. She shapes events, or at least the reader’s perceptions, in comic and often poignant ways.  As simply as the phrase “breeding and feeding” sounds, the reality of married life is much more complicated, much more tense, and much more unfulfilling than such terms can wholly encompass.

Married life juxtaposes and extends the realm of the natural; its haphazard construction, and Tiff and Stephen’s unconventional understanding of it, butts against their experiences while birdwatching. Though it is never as awe-inspiring or redemptive as it should be, Tiff claims that the two of them “loved nature more than ever after we’d decided to ignore its effect in our own lives. We chose to love it instead of bending under its weight.” The “nature” being ignored here is rooted firmly in the connotations of Stephen’s prhase “breeding and feeding,” double entendres includes. For Tiff, their lack of success in the reproductive field is better left ignored. Nature is better pursued as an ideal, rather than as an intimate part of the couple’s shared life. Their bodies failed to do what they had hoped for, or what they’d assumed bodies would just “naturally” do.

Out birdwatching, Tiff and Stephen witness a hawk kill Rudi and subsequently eat his heart. “I hope that motherfucking bastard dies,” Stephen says. “If I had a gun, I would shoot every motherfucking sparrowhawk in the whole goddamn alps.” His love of nature conflicts with his affinity for a single creature, caught in a web of interlocking, dependent relationships defined by unexpected crassness: such unexpectedness gives nature its heft. Soon after witnessing their former pet’s death, Stephen embarks on an idealistic quest to save the rivers, a feat of activism that is only less vague than are Stephen’s motives. Tiff watches and observes his actions: she, herself, had “learned to draw back at the sight of the forces of nature.” She chooses not to partake; she will not assume the naturalness of bodies in motion.

Stephen’s decision to pursue a role in the Global Rivers Alliance signals a break from his work at the pharmaceutical company. Rather than spending his energy on an experimental stent, designed to alter and enhance the life of humans, Stephen attempts to stem the construction of artificial monuments that alter and redirect the rivers’ flow. Though hydropower is pollution-free and generates just about 15% of Germany’s overall energy, the Global Rivers Alliance fights to prevent the destruction of wildlife and preserve the uninhibited freedom of the river’s flow, not to mention natural life—here, importantly, mostly birds.

Tiff, without being fully cognizant of her revelations, fleshes out the underlying sexuality that connects nature with the body. By embarking on several extramarital affairs, she asserts the primacy of her body—unrestricted, in these encounters, by a hastily conceived marriage. In a liaison with one man, Tiff finds that she

perceived a powerful longing in [her] innermost or outermost being (there was no difference, since [she] generally based appraisals of [her] affections on the momentary condition of my genitalia) to thaw, to spread, and embody the essence of fecundity like a river in springtime.

Her language shifts from honest self-effacement to an acute description of her own arousal. With a penchant for downplaying the intensity of a situation, Tiff’s self-consciousness bends reality to her will. Her koans of sublime incisiveness (“The beaches were disappearing not because the oceans were rising, but because we hadn’t built the right walls to keep them out”) become something more revealing than maybe she had intended. As the novel progresses, due to an evolving grasp of her own agency, she, and her narrative style, move away from that lack of “cause and effect.”

As Stephen sinks deeper and deeper into a nascent movement that slowly begins to look like an abyss (“Everyone wants to love nature,” he says “but it really just wants to be left alone”), Tiff spends months slowly taking apart a dam built along the Elbe River. She wakes up day after day to lift rocks and let water flood an area of forestry, watching the seasons change from winter to spring, enthralled by her surroundings:

I heard birds throw themselves into relentless singing the moment they felt the approach of dawn. I saw robins kick rival robins when they were down. Life surged into the trees from below, reddening their twigs. I saw the first bugs on the first forays. All around me, frost was turning to slime.

Here, “life surge[s] into the trees from below”; Tiff’s spatial incongruities begin to dissipate. There is clarity to her vision: the unstable world commingles with the beautiful.

Tiff reconnects with a man with whom she had an affair, and, unable to face the fact that this was the man she had “the best sex with of anyone in [her entire life],” she admits that she “distrusted [her] body for the first time ever.” This admission initiates a passage in which Tiff considers that perhaps her mind hasn’t truly been playing tricks on her, her off-the-cuff analyses not the ramblings of a failure, but rather acute interpretations of often-unseen and inexplicable forces. Her mind is now able to piece together notions that her body did not previously have the capacity to parse:

And I realized it was true. My body was swept away by the force of the thought like petals blowing off a rose. And there, at the center of the flesh, were the stamen and the pistil, sexual organs seeking not contact but exchange. Not to be pink and velvety-soft and oblivious, but to broadcast and receive spiky, irritating bits of information. The brain, wired to battle entropy with such resolve that anything repeated too often must become imperceptible or be violently rejected. Knowledge, an allergen. Boredom, the mind’s spring flood, the sole conceivable force for good, the sole means—for human awareness—of striving toward complexity. Diversity through flooding. Or something, because the allergy metaphor tended to make the spring flood be tears and snot, which couldn’t be right. I felt overwhelmed by a new mystic rationalism. I felt a great love for Stephen.

Even as Tiff begins to recognize something distinct about herself, her narrative style bursts in fits and starts—the metaphors aren’t so easily sequestered: flowers cause allergies, a nose is irritated. But it’s all natural, right?

Bodies, like minds, like ecosystems, require an exchange: of ideas, of fluids, of forces. What is nature and what is not becomes quickly confused; when people begin to disrupt the dynamics of wildlife, they then attempt to reverse the damage done. Lines blur—a marriage is meant to function in a certain way, until it’s not. A dam provides a positive civic function—until it doesn’t.

Zink imbues Tiff’s language with the ability to parse connections in which living itself becomes “exchange” (maybe an allergen), allowing repellence and dissonance to propel discussion—equality or maybe something that dwells inside an individual, pushing him or her to refuse to be complacent or complicit. Our relationship with nature is often defined not by our bodies, but by our minds, working for both selfish and unconscious purposes, often simultaneously. An individual’s interactions with his or her surroundings become dependent on how certain thoughts are conceived. Tiff is always reading, thinking, observing: “If a species can’t show itself without being shot at, it’s comforting to think it’s timid. If no nests have been seen for the past ten years, it’s nice to know the species requires perfect isolation to breed. Without the tips of icebergs, humankind would already be very lonely.” She finds flaws in the interstices where flaws aren’t always apparent, until she’s pulled them loose.

What The Wallcreeper often does is just that: it uncovers a fleeting truth from a mundane situation that all too often seeks to conceal it. Zink upsets the status quo, juxtaposing it with its flipside until neither makes perfect sense. Whereas Stephen “never had a strategy about anything. He just went ahead and did stuff, then retrospectively tried to figure out why,” Tiff’s willful acquiescence opens a space to shape future events. “There are terrible things that never get easier,” she asserts, “and there are things even more terrible that get easier with time and repetition.” Tiff’s fortitude is dependent on her ability to sift away some of the inanity of daily life, even if that means relying on customs (like marriage) and ideals (like nature) to provide sounding boards for her thoughts. Through her construction of the world, life may be lived authentically, if unnaturally.



Patrick Disselhorst is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 22nd, 2014.