During the 2016 election, I worked in events at Politics and Prose, one of Washington, D.C.'s best-beloved bookstores. My office shared a wall with Comet Ping Pong, a similarly beloved pizza restaurant that became the target of the alt-right conspiracy Pizzagate. The conspiracy, which posited Democratic Party higher-ups trafficking children for sex beneath Comet's concrete floors, was conceptually ludicrous. It was also homophobic, viciously cruel, and — even before an armed vigilante showed up to "self-investigate" — too frightening to be funny. Pizzagate taught me the difference between absurdity and humor. That difference proves the downfall of Nell Zink's fifth novel, Doxology, in which Pizzagate makes a brief appearance.
To me, Zink is the English language's funniest literary novelist. Kathryn Schulz wrote in a 2015 New Yorker profile that Zink is "a comic writer par excellence, one whose particular gift is the capacity to keep a perfectly straight face." In her previous work, particularly the semi-Shakespearean social comedy Mislaid and the madcap eco-adventure The Wallcreeper, Zink combined that capacity with a wild imagination and an impulse for zigzagging, lies, and big ideas mashed up with big plot moves. Doxology is much tamer. It provides a linear socio-cultural overview of upper-class American political behavior from the rise of hardcore punk to the rise of Donald Trump, and for the first time in Zink's career, the comedy never quite works.
Sentence to sentence, Doxology is still very funny. Zink is a vivid, voicey writer exceptionally gifted at both wryness and character development. The three main characters in Doxology's first section crash unforgettably to life in a $100-a-month Lower East Side loft (Doxology is set in the 1980s, when that was possible) rented by Daniel Svoboda, an "eighties hipster" who lives "in a state of persistent ecstasy." His girlfriend, Pam Bailey, who introduces herself as "Pam Diaphragm," is an Ian MacKaye-obsessed punk runaway from mannered Northwest D.C. Their best friend and bandmate, Joe Harris, is a mildly intellectual disabled "louche mooncalf" who is about to become a rock star.
The Lower East Side part of Doxology is diffuse in a good way. The omniscient narrator does a bit too much arch political musing, but it's funny. Ideas about music and religion float around, soon — we hope — to coalesce. Mostly, the characters take long, early-20s walks, go to punk shows, and grit their teeth through the kind of disturbingly fast life changes that most novelists pretend don't happen. Pam gets pregnant, she and Daniel get married, and Joe gets famous. Suddenly, Daniel is persuading Pam to call her parents, to whom she has not spoken in nine years, so their daughter Flora can have family other than constantly touring Joe.
Pam hesitates to call, only because the "possibility of making such a momentous change with so little effort induced vertigo." Zink employs that vertigo skilfully, whiplashing the Svobodas — and the reader — through 9/11, removing Joe from the novel, and arranging a split-custody setup wherein Flora moves in with her D.C. grandparents, enrolls at the National Cathedral School, and visits her punk parents in Manhattan on weekends.
In D.C., Doxology loses its way. Zink muddles through Flora's education and an ill-advised — for Flora and Zink alike — internship in Ethiopia, then delivers her to sad environmental activism, at which point arch political commentary takes over the novel. Zink's sentences get less funny. Music and religion all but vanish from the novel, replaced by social orthodoxies. Flora, having figured out that capitalism is "a fetish, producing 'goods' that weren't good," decides to embark on a "political struggle under the cover of beauty. Her mission: to end economic growth."
Zink does not precisely judge Flora's mission, but she evinces little respect for the novel's new protagonist. Flora attends protests, chanting slogans because "she needed regular doses of trance inducement to mask the struggle's increasing difficulty and diminishing marginal returns." She works at the Sierra Club, though, "In her own opinion, she needed to get off her butt and apply to grad school." Her ideas — "'I don't want to throw my life away doing stuff because I enjoy it!'" — become a little ridiculous, and more than a little under-baked. Perhaps this is why she signs on to work for Jill Stein.
Once the election starts, Doxology's ideas mostly end. Zink hews too closely to events — first Pizzagate, then the Standing Rock pipeline protests, then Flora's off to canvass in western Pennsylvania — and spends too little time digressing from or meditating on them. The dialogue becomes political snark, Daniel warning that "your typical voter goes into the booth and flips a coin," and Flora's 50ish boyfriend grumbling about Bernie Sanders, the "soi-disant socialist from the all-white state." It all feels a bit downloaded from three-year-old text threads, lacking perspective on events too recent to warrant rewriting otherwise.
The fundamental issue here is that absurdity is not humor. In Mislaid, Zink mined American racial and sexual mores for humor, but in Doxology, she relates facts rather than digging beneath them. With more fully realized ideas, Doxology could have been a comedy of belief. It could have satirized Flora's political credulousness, or satirized capitalism. Instead, it mostly pokes fun, and pokes some not-so-old social wounds in doing so.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.