Nell Zink

The Wallcreeper

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The Wallcreeper Summary

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A belated coming-of-age novel, American author Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (2014) follows a disaffected young American woman, Tiffany, as she travels through Europe with her husband, Stephen, with whom she shares an open marriage and a passion for the environment. Zink initially wrote the novel to impress her pen pal, fellow author and environmentalist Jonathan Franzen, who subsequently brokered a six-figure deal for Zink’s second book.

The novel’s opening line introduces the affectless, ironic voice of Tiff, the narrator: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.”

While Tiff vomits, Stephen is more concerned about the bird he swerved to avoid (unsuccessfully). It is a wallcreeper, and the couple takes it home to nurse it. They live in the city of Berne, Switzerland, where Stephen works as a marketer for a US company that makes medical devices. He is a passionate birdwatcher, but the collision with the wallcreeper causes the couple gradually to become more interested in serious environmental activism.

This shared interest increasingly becomes the only thing holding their emotionless marriage together. Stephen all but coerces Tiff into anal sex. This episode seriously damages their sexual closeness, but Stephen wants Tiff to have his children: “I feed, you breed.” She is resistant to the idea, suspecting that he wants a family because it will help him be promoted. She uses their newfound environmentalism to deflect him, revealing the shallowness of even this connection:

“‘What about global warming?’

“‘If it weren’t for global warming, we’d be under an ice sheet right now’ He gestured toward the mountains. ‘But look at us. Earth as far as the eye can see. I love global warming! And I love you!’”

Meanwhile, both partners begin affairs without discussing it. Tiff takes up with a younger man named Elvis, a simple-minded Montenegrin (although Stephen says, “He’s Syrian if he’s a day! ‘Elvis!’ It’s like a Filipino telemarketer calling himself Aragorn!’”

Tiff increasingly lives for sex with Elvis, a physical satisfaction that feels right to her. Unlike Stephen, who is content for Tiff to simply “breed,” Elvis thinks she should do something, use her brain. It goes badly.

She takes a course in Berndeutsch, learns 10 verbs for work, and “then the ten weeks of the course were over and I didn’t know anything anymore, except that I would never look for a job.”

Stephen’s affair is with a colleague’s wife, who eventually pleads with Tiff to leave him, because she loves him more: “Her hands were pressed against her heart and she was taking the feeling of emptiness there very, very seriously—a hole in her heart only Stephen’s dick could fill.”

Tiff refuses, realizing that she loves Stephen more than she knew, but soon both are embarking on new affairs, occasioned by their environmental activism. With Birke, a young woman activist, Stephen begins working on a campaign called the Global Rivers Alliance to remove all the hydroelectric dams from the River Rhine.

Tiff follows him to conferences all over Europe. At one of these, she begins an affair with an activist named Olaf; Reverend Gernot, a German Anglican minister, persuades her to take up a river of her own: the Elbe.

Just as Tiff begins to become interested in rivers, Stephen grows disillusioned, annoyed that the river ecologists and biologists don’t take him seriously: “They hate me. The only thing they think laymen are good for is to supply emotional arguments that might make somebody put up with nature.”

While Tiff secretly begins sabotaging the stone banks of the Elbe under Gernot’s orders, Stephen begins surveying the birds of the Balkans. Tiff eventually follows him, and they are joined by her sister Constance, a professional stripper who sleeps with Stephen.

As a household, they relocate to Berlin. Tiff works—for a single night—at a club. There, she encounters Elvis again and is dismayed to realize how simple he is. She understands, for the first time in her life, that she has been wrong to let her body make her decisions for her. She decides to embrace her intellect, bringing her closer to Stephen.

Stephen and Tiff—alone this time—return to the Balkans, where they are happy, birding together and having sex in the wilderness. While skinny-dipping in cold water, Stephen has a heart attack and drowns.

Constance takes care of the paperwork while Tiff grieves and wonders what to do. Reverend Gernot offers her a house to live in, and she begins to write: “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow. In between wallpapering, I wrote The Wallcreeper.” Her story ends with a glance at her future: She will find a way to make a small, meaningful impact on river ecology through research and management.