Nell Zink’s Doxology is sprawling, unpredictable and mysterious, with an ensemble of characters helplessly in thrall to time and chance. The novel is a tale of two generations of a family told over the course of five decades — from the 1970s until the present and, for the most part, revolves around Pam Bailey and her daughter Flora Svoboda.
We see the world through Pam’s eyes at various stages in her life. First, as an adolescent punk rebel growing up in a Protestant household in Cleveland Park, Washington, DC, in the early ’80s; then, as a 17-year-old who has fled to New York, joined a band and found a partner in Daniel Svoboda; then, as a young parent working to help support a child and partner and finally, as a middle-aged woman successfully navigating her way through a midlife crisis.
When Flora begins to come of age, Pam’s punk ethos and artistic aspirations take on a different tinge as she is pigeonholed — through Flora’s perspective and ours — into the role of the ‘mother’. But Zink challenges society’s tendency to cast older generations aside — “grandparents were considered irrelevant” — and seeing Pam grow up in the earlier part of the novel enables us to develop a nuanced approach towards her character. She has a life after becoming a parent, as well as before.
The meteoric rise and fall of Pam’s eccentric friend, Joe Harris, one of the central characters of the story, is a testament to the frivolous nature of pop stardom and its dark underbelly. A music-lover and aspiring singer with no particular talent or commercial ambitions, Joe gets lucky and turns into an overnight sensation with a single that Pam’s boyfriend, Daniel, helps him record. Joe may suffer from the genetic disorder Williams syndrome, but on-screen — according to Daniel — he looks “vibrant, yet blotless” and “reduced to two dimensions ... he became someone else.”
A shape-shifting novel traverses band culture, sociology and politics to paint a sprawling picture of the United States over several decades
Within the first half of the book, Joe dies of a heroin overdose in New York on the same day as the 9/11 attacks. He had tried the drug for the first time, at the insistence of his girlfriend, Gwen. The sordid details of his death — put down as involuntary manslaughter — are covered up by a process of smoke and mirrors. The juxtaposition of this grim episode with the event of 9/11 has the effect of mythologising it and the character of Joe. The public never learns of the truth behind his demise. Even Flora, who had been babysat by Joe and had developed a strong bond with him over the years, grows up being fed a censored version of the incident by her parents.
In the days immediately following 9/11, “the air in New York was thick with smoke and love,” writes Zink. “People drank oodles of liquor and hugged on a whim.” Daniel, meanwhile, “felt alone in being consciously animated by a spirit of cynicism and hatred.” He is enraged by the injustice of the attacks and the fact that Gwen has absolved herself of blame for the death of his friend. When he sees that Joe’s father, Professor Harris, is too depressed to take action against Gwen, he realises that “the animus of resistance has a hard row to hoe in a world where everybody wants a hug.”
9/11 marks a pivotal moment in the novel. Fleeing New York, Pam returns to her parents’ home for the first time since she ran away, with Daniel and Flora in tow. Having lived away for so long, she sees things from a fresh lens. At a nearby park, she tells her mother, Ginger, “I can’t believe I hated this place so much. It’s beautiful.” It is decided that Flora would be better off living with her grandparents in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Washington, DC, than with her parents in a state of semi-squalor in a New York loft.
Flora is raised by her grandparents, who bring her up very differently than they did Pam. She attends a prestigious school and graduates from a “private, upscale, but not Ivy League” university in 2014 with a degree in ecology and a “magna cum laude honours thesis on soil degradation.” According to her grandparents, she is “the most employable family member in history.” Yet despite the promise, we sense that something is amiss. Sheltered, idealistic and naïve, Flora always seems dissatisfied and disheartened. Lacking the resilience of her mother, who was “raised on short rations”, she is attuned to instant gratification: “her friends were always with her in her smartphone ... she never complained of boredom or loneliness.”
Pam, on the other hand, may not have finished high school, but she had demonstrated, at the age of 12, the ability to come up with an innovative idea for a software programme, when “she made up an outer-space-themed role-playing game that earned her $2,000 when her father licensed it to Atari.” Later in life, this skill provides her with the financial security she needs to pursue her artistic dreams. Needless to say, Pam breaks new ground not as an artist or a musician, but as a software developer.
Despite her efforts as a crusading environmental scientist, Flora often finds herself in the throes of currents that are beyond her control. A brief romance with her college professor, Mr Mntambo, opens doors to a summer internship in Ethiopia, from where she returns disillusioned. Later, as a Green Party stalwart, she gets involved with a middle-aged Democratic Party strategist, Bull Gooch, who, “behind her back”, helps her get a job as a grassroots campaigner for the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein. Bull “felt no compunctions about handing her dubious talents and energies off to a competing organisation. He assumed she would do the Greens more harm than good.”
As Flora’s relationship with Bull deepens, we begin to see glimpses of a darker, Machiavellian side to his personality. For instance, he lets slip that he doesn’t care about Native Americans who live on reservations, as they are a “flyspeck minority.” When Flora gets pregnant and assumes it is his baby, he goes along with it and doesn’t let her know of his infertility. After an amniocentesis, he is told in confidence by his doctor friend that the baby isn’t his and responds by saying “well, that’s one less worry.”
Bull’s suggestion of running a television spot accusing Donald Trump and the Republicans of paedophilia draws a perturbed response from Hillary Clinton’s campaign organisers, who show him the door. Later, we learn that Clinton and the Democrats have, according to him, been accused of “child trafficking for purposes of illicit sex.” His repeated references to child pornography make the reader uncomfortable, seeing that he has a habit of sleeping with girls half his age.
After Trump clinches victory, a story does the rounds that Bull had a hand in sabotaging Jill Stein’s campaign through Flora. It is left up to the reader to decide whether he also had a hand in sabotaging Clinton’s campaign, through accusations of child trafficking.
America’s downward political spiral coincides with Flora’s pregnancy and her increasingly emotional state of mind. But if there is one thing the novel teaches us, it is that order comes out of chaos. Becoming a mother had brought with it a degree of balance and stability into Pam’s life. Perhaps it will have the same effect on Flora.
When Flora learns — through a purely coincidental meeting — that her former fling, a Clinton fellow by the name of Aaron Fleischer, is the baby’s father and that Bull is infertile, she remains indecisive as to whom to settle down with. Zink hints that one of the problems with today’s youth may be that they have too many options.
The novel shape-shifts throughout its course. Earlier on, the emphasis is on band culture and a committed readership to music magazines in an age before the internet. Then, the emphasis shifts to the sociological: the contrast between growing up in different eras and changing sensibilities. In its latter part, it begins to resemble a political thriller, where the personal and political are intertwined. There are moments of hilarity — dark humour in particular — such as the time when Daniel learns of Joe’s death.
One of the most memorable and revealing moments of the story is at a climate change conference. In a speech, a speaker warns, “Global warming is the single most major challenge facing the human species today.” Flora, bored, “felt embarrassed. She thought, This is not mitigation, This is not adaptation. This is not what I signed on for ... and besides, it’s not even true.”
The reviewer is a Karachi-based journalist who has written for local and international publications.
His writings can be accessed at alibhutto.com
By Nell Zink
Fourth Estate, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 16th, 2020