What I’m Reading: Nicotine

One of the things I’m going to do consistently here is post about the books I’m reading after I’ve finished them. When we moved to Bethesda, we decided to only get a cable box for the living room, so we don’t have live TV in the bedroom. I was pretty excited about this, because it meant more reading before bed, and for years I felt like I didn’t have enough time to read. I hated watching my to-read list get longer and longer with no idea of when I would get to the books, which would stress me out a bit, in a silly way. So since living here, I’ve really enjoyed having more chances to read.

So to get to the book. I just finished Nicotine by Nell Zink. I heard about Nell Zink on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour from NPR, during their segment “What’s Making Us Happy This Week.” I had been looking for a book that would challenge me, that wasn’t just a froo-froo historical fiction novel, and it sounded like one of Nell Zink’s books could do that. So I headed over to my favorite bookstore in Hoboken, Little City Books (I haven’t found a new indie bookstore in Bethesda yet, but I will!), and they had Zink’s fourth and newest novel, Nicotine.

A paperback small enough to fit in your purse and at just 288 pages, it seemed like a book I would be able to fly through, but that wasn’t the case. I’ve always been intrigued by books that start in a time and place completely separate and disparate from the story summarized on the back of the book, as I find it enjoyable discovering how the author gets from that starting point to what she, or perhaps her publishers and editors, have deemed the meat of the story and decided to put on the book jacket. Zink did this flawlessly—there were even a few sentences introduced toward the beginning of the book that she repeated almost word for word 2 or 3 times throughout the story. Each time they took me straight back to that first place and those first emotions, further immersing me in Penny’s (the protagonist) story and helping me relate to her, even though the experience she was having was so far away from my own.

She turns on the light and sits up against his headboard. She drinks from his water glass. She sees herself surrounded by his furniture…She thinks of his death for another hour and a half before she falls asleep (103).

Quick plot recap: 20-something Penny is by her elderly father’s side during his slow and painful death, and she takes it much harder than her mother, his second wife, or her half-brothers. Left searching for meaning, her mother tasks her with fixing up her father’s childhood home in Jersey City, but when she arrives she finds it inhabited by a group of anarchist squatters who have called it Nicotine. The rest of the book is Penny immersing herself in their world while struggling to find meaning and purpose in her own.

A brief online search told me that this novel was pretty polarizing—people either couldn’t stand it or couldn’t put it down. I think the former camp were those who need to see themselves represented in the content they’re consuming, and that’s not something Zink cares about. She writes a very specific, at times haphazard story about a very specific set of people. Penny’s experience isn’t particularly universal, but that’s why I enjoyed it. I relished immersing myself in this bizarre world so far away, yet so close, geographically speaking, to my own (I think this is also why I like TV shows like Shameless so much). I wouldn’t describe Zink’s writing style as having flow, but the lack of chapters gave the story a kind of continuous, nonstop feel more akin to real life.

This book definitely isn’t for everyone—if you get frustrated by smoking, anarchists or flippant attitudes toward sec, it’s not for you. But if you’re looking for something unlike anything you’ve read lately, I would recommend giving it a shot. I haven’t decided if I’m going to read any of Zink’s other novels, as I still have a rather long to-read list, but I don’t think I’d rule it out. If you read it or have read it, let me know what you thought!

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