Some writers grapple with grand ideas, while others compose devastatingly satirical works of fiction. Nell Zink’s got both neatly covered. Her latest novel Doxology spans several decades in the lives of its characters—notably Pam and Daniel, a young couple with a daughter named Flora, and their friend Joe, whose musical career takes off in the 1990s.
Joe’s music helps reveal something crucial about Zink’s fiction: she’s pulled off the task here of writing a convincing musician of the period, one with certain similarities to other songwriters who achieved fame at the same time, but who’s singular enough to feel like his own entity, with plenty of ties to both the early-90s indie scene and the burgeoning music scenes happening all over the New York of the time.
Doxology is an intimate book, about parents and children and families both biological and self-created. It’s also a novel about the shifting fortunes of a city and a country, an ambitious exploration of grand themes. Zink’s attention to detail includes a number of references that longtime New York residents will delight in, along with some thought-provoking observations about city life. I interviewed her about the book’s setting, her incorporation of real people, and her precise observations about decades of change in New York.
With a handful of exceptions, nearly every scene in Doxology takes place in New York or Washington, DC, to the extent that the novel feels like a kind of duet between the two cities. Did you have that in mind going in to writing the novel? And how would you say that having these two cities in conversation with each other affects your take on each of them?
I think you’re missing something. DC is Chocolate City! If I’d set out to write a book in which Washington is a character, it would look nothing like this. Doxology is set in a specific Senior Executive Service milieu in Northwest. New York in the book starts and ends as an unrealizable vision—the gleaming towers resting on grimy cubbyholes—plus the characters almost never leave the East Side. The tug-of-war is between two ideas of the good life.
Throughout Doxology, both indie rock (at least, Joe’s take on it) and technology go from being very niche situations in the early 90s to massive business two decades later. As someone editing a music zine and working at a startup in the late 90s/early 00s, this hit home for me. What led you to juxtapose these two seemingly very different worlds in your novel?
Programming seemed like a good fit for a DIY-minded woman. It’s still a field where an autodidact can found a company. It doesn’t require much in the way of social skills, clothes, or even basic competence. A punk band struggles through ten takes, and a programmer rewrites it ten times before it compiles—same basic pattern.
Reading this novel, I kept encountering bygone places in New York City—See Hear and Tower Records among them. Was it difficult to balance referencing places that may resonate for some readers and be entirely new to others?
I refused to worry about it. I didn’t want to write the kind of book that’s jam-packed with descriptions. Instead I made the possibly obnoxious choice of explaining well-known things from the perspective of the novel and letting obscure things pass without comment because it’s easy to look them up. My audience is all ages and scattered around the world, so I can’t win.
I wanted to give readers some temporal orientation and—in case they’ve been alive for a while—jog their memories. I selected landmark events on the basis of whether they directly affected the characters. Living in New York, they sort of couldn’t miss 9/11. Hurricane Katrina was also a huge caesura in American life, but I think it would be a distracting plot point in a book contrasting children of the Peace Dividend with those of the Forever Wars.
He likes my books! He got in touch with me a couple of years ago and we met up in DC and I was blown away. What an inspiring guy. So talented, smart, pragmatic, original, radical, eloquent, exemplary, and every other good thing! So obviously when I set out to write another novel I was intent on making it a tribute to Ian, whatever the cost. Ian rules! Calling all editors: work with Ian. His ideas and personality must be recorded indelibly for future generations (by “future” I mean next week). I had never paid much attention to him before we met. But his record label Dischord always bought ads in my zine Animal Review, and he followed my career as a novelist from the start.
In telling a story where a fictional musician is one of the main characters, you also incorporated a host of real people, from Byron Coley to Jill Stein to Thomas Disch. What prompted you to use a real person as opposed to a fictional one at certain points in the narrative? Was there anyone else who almost made it in?
When David Foster Wallace put Alex Trebek in a story in 1988—giving him a character, motivation, and lines of dialogue—it seemed super daring. Naming real institutions is now accepted practice, or my publisher would never have let me get away with it. It clearly brings joy to ex-scenester readers to see the name Byron Coley in print, and I don’t see how he could possibly mind. I don’t go so far as to give anyone a speaking role. The first draft name-checked Steve Albini in the worst way. But his post-sensitive nimbus took so much explaining. Now it’s down to a Rapeman shout-out (band of his, pointedly named after a manga hero, not the best idea he ever had—he came close to going the way of Pentheus in The Bacchae).
About a third of the way through the novel, you write, “The city had lost all its cheapness,” which feels like one of the most succinct statements about the evolution of New York City I’ve read in a while. Was that a specific observation you’d had before placing it in Doxology?
Obviously I miss $1.75 hot breakfast specials like any normal person. Entrepreneurs tested the waters and discovered that with a captive audience like the working people of Manhattan you can double your prices without losing volume. Then came Starbucks. In my mind it all started the day Labatt’s bought Rolling Rock, doubled the retail price, and found it had successfully positioned the legendarily bad 3.2% (“baby”) beer as a competitor with watery yuppie fern bar fave Corona. You won’t find anything about this on the internet (or at least I can’t).
Ambition—whether it’s Joe’s songwriting or Pam’s skills in the tech world—plays a huge part in this novel, which is also (in part) about the way that New York has become unaffordable for many. To what extent are your characters victims of New York’s success, and to what extent are they playing a part in it?
Art needs space and time, but fame needs media. New York has always offered artists that trade-off. You sacrifice the material conditions your work requires in exchange for potentially lifesaving social contacts. I met a guy at the Miami book fair—I’ve forgotten his name, but you probably know him, because apparently everyone knows him—who was described to me as this witty genius who’s been in the city for 30 years and will get a major book deal in a heartbeat if he ever finds the time to write it. My artistically ambitious character Pam doesn’t get nearly that far. It’s no coincidence that Joe, who finds success as a musician, is a trust-fund kid with all the space and time he wants.