I would never write a memoir. There’s a section of Private Novelist (2016 Ecco paperback original, quick and dirty, recommended) called “My Memoirs and Parents”—soon truncated to “My Memoirs” and then “The Mailbox”—that spans two pages. It details a brief interlude of acute terror in a childhood rich in alarming scenes. Routinely terrorized, I grew up afraid of everything but fear itself, so that to all appearances I have led the life of a particularly adventurous person.
I have another autobiographical novel coming out soon, called Avalon. (All novels are autobiographical.) How I longed for it to appear on some kind of “most anticipated books of 2022” list! The literary-industrial complex’s failure to promote my book wounds me. Thus while out running just now, three miles from home, alone in woods roamed by a pack of wolves, I started trying to come up with more commercial titles for my book: The Avalon Apocalypse. Avalon of the Undead. . . . Suddenly I realized that I am in possession of an immortal sequel to “My Memoirs and Parents,” to be published immediately: “My Memoirs and Brothers.”
My Memoirs and Brothers, by Nell
In May of 2012 my mother died horribly, over the course of weeks, in a not terrifically competent hospice. It was expected to happen fast, with an anal bleed-out, but in the end she died of thirst like a normal person. I remember standing in front of a mirror, repeating to myself, with eye contact, “Daniel Pearl got off easy, Daniel Pearl got off easy,” over and over until it was burned into my brain. I knew I would repress what I had seen, but it was important to me never to forget that if given a choice between dying slowly and sawing off my own head, I should go for the option that takes less time. That is, I was going through a lot, but I couldn’t write to my usual confidant Avner about it, because his mother had died youngish, also in a protracted way, from the aftereffects of poor living conditions experienced as a tween Holocaust evader in the Soviet Union.
Fortunately—due to shared ornithological interests—I had a new outlet for my work, whose thick skin was a matter of public record and whose reading comprehension I regarded as almost on a par with Avner’s: Jonathan Franzen.
My new memoir (below) is taken from our correspondence.
Email from Nell Zink to Jonathan Franzen
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Subject: Raised by wolves
That’s my problem in a nutshell. I’d been toying with telling you the story of the funeral dinner—the highlights were all in the space of two minutes—
Little brother’s wife’s brother’s wife’s mother, out of the blue: “Do you have any children?”
Nell: “No.” [Brief silence while Nell realizes that her interlocutor expects some kind of explanation.] “I dodged that bullet.”
Ibid. chortling hesitantly: “Well, it is a bullet.” [Longer silence.]
Big brother, seeing an opening: “So, [distant relative], what are you doing these days?”
Little brother’s wife’s brother’s wife, who bears distant resemblance to big brother’s wife if she were younger, thinner, curlier-haired, willing to wear warm colors occasionally, and forced by botched elective laser surgery for myopia to wear dark glasses night and day: “Still at Western Washington Mint, making commemorative coins. We’re doing some now for Throng [or something like that, name of book or movie or TV series] with all the zombies [et cetera].”
Big brother: “Ooh, zombies! [et cetera]”
All: “[Zombies, zombies, zombies]”
Nell, regarding chaotic wad of moo shu egg in loose, shiny, grayish wrapper in her hand and putting it down: “New topic, please!”
Nell: “I need a new topic. This one is doing a number on my appetite.”
Nell, sotto voce to no one in particular: “I saw my mother die, and they’re talking about zombies.”
Nell, louder: “I’m serious. Come on, [little brother], you said we’re here to celebrate Mom’s life and honor her memory, and you’re all talking about zombies!”
Big brother: “If mother were here, the topic would be zombies!”
Nell: “That’s not true. Mother never said a word about zombies in her life!”
Big brother: “Mother is dead. If she were here, the topic would be zombies.”
The silence that followed was broken by a six-year-old’s ecstatic proclamation that she was a zombie. It took me longer than anyone else to get the joke, I think. I wasn’t ready.
Franzen’s archives must be chock full of endless reams of shock-and-awesome material, such as bro letters from DFW. He told me he waits in vain for a collector to express interest. Since he spends a lot of money supporting insect-friendly organic agriculture on migratory bird flyways, please remind your hedge-fund-with-dorms special collections librarian friends, if they’re not on strike, to make him an offer.
Since “My Memoirs and Brothers” is too short to merit publication, I will append the thematically adjacent “The Young People’s Suburban Fiction Workshop,” a short story dating from mid-2014, a few months before my first book appeared.
The Young People’s Suburban Fiction Workshop
“As he parted the split halves of her skull and slipped his penis into the cleft, the four-year-old girl whispered, ‘Hold me,’” Ned read aloud.
“Stop right there,” Nell said. “A four-year-old saying, ‘Hold me’? Care Bears don’t say, ‘Hold me.’ They say, ‘I need a hug.’”
“The four-year-old girl whispered, ‘I need a hug.’ Leaning down to obey her dying wish, Danny carelessly disregarded his stiff member, which impaled her midbrain like a moldy orange.”
There were groans all around the room. “‘Stiff member like a moldy orange,’” Ted mocked.
Nell nodded at Ned to continue, and he read, “Without a quiver or a breath, she lay still. Only her heart continued to beat—one, twice, five times, with a rhythm that gradually slowed, unlike the strokes of his cock, which—”
“‘Cock’?” Nell frowned. “What is this, pornography? Use your words!”
“Repetitive!” Ted said.
“My kudos for your dense use of colloquial mannerism, but there’s a fundamental problem with your story,” Ed said. “There’s no conflict. She’s a dead man walking from square one!”
“That’s not true,” Ned objected. “I haven’t gotten to the flashbacks yet. How she got into this situation. If you’ll allow me to read a little more—”
“Ed’s right,” Nell said. “Your backstory needs to surge or cut bait. As it stands there’s no conflict. She’s three feet tall and bench presses five pounds, and if I’m hearing right your protagonist is a grown man with an axe.”
“He’s only 16,” Ned said. “And she really, really gets on his nerves. She asks all these stupid questions, like nonstop.”
Nell shook her head. “That’s not a conflict. It’s water flowing downhill.”
Fred suggested, “Maybe somebody sees the two of them and picks up the axe? And kills him in retaliation, and the conflict could be like societal injustice, because they try him for murder one, even though mutilating a corpse is a misdemeanor, and the whole case revolves around when exactly did she die, and then you describe the experience in flashbacks, but from her perspective? That might be really great.”
“It’s Ned’s story,” Nell said. “Our job is to help him sharpen the conflict. We’ve established that it’s a classic babysitting situation. How can we make her a more worthy adversary?”
“Make her older,” Jed said. “Bigger. So she can fight back.”
“Dig deeper, Jed. What is this story really about on an emotional level?”
“Two conflicting aspects of childhood?” he proposed tentatively. “The innocently annoying as fuck, and the viciously sociopathic?”
“And on the formal level?”
“It’s about crushing other people and paying the price,” Ned said firmly. “Not putting up with any shit, and being warrior enough to take responsibility.”
“Exactly,” Nell said. “It’s the archetype of the Pyrrhic victory, like in Little House on the Prairie when Laura dares Nellie Oleson to wade in the creek and she comes out with leeches on her feet. That makes Nellie Oleson hate her more than ever.”
There was a collective shudder. “Leeches,” Ted said. “Ugh.”
Suddenly Ed declared, “But it’s brilliant. Introduce a single element of horror from the natural world, and the whole thing gets this inevitability! It’s not just a homicidal teenager anymore. It’s death itself!”
Ned reviewed his manuscript briefly and said, “He could find a leech on his dick, maybe?”
“From where?” Nell said.
“In Sri Lanka there are leeches that live in trees. It could be an invasive species in their yard. Global warming gives the story an additional level of meaning.”
“I said sharpen the conflict, not muddy it up,” Nell objected. “You really want to move into carbon emissions? Seems to me you have a little girl to kill here!”
“But under a roiling black cloud of leeches,” Ed begged.
Ned asked, “Couldn’t she be bigger and better able to defend herself but just as annoying? I could make her 16. She’d still be physically vulnerable enough.” He glanced through his three pages and announced, “I wouldn’t have to change anything except the word ‘four.’”
“So give it a shot,” Nell said, leaning back.
Ned returned to reading aloud. “Through the mists of orgasm he saw her still alive, standing at the foot of his bed. Asking, ‘How big is large? How many is a few?’ ‘I only have half an hour to do my homework before dinner, so please get out of my room,’ he pleaded in vain. ‘What color is plaid? How tall am I when I lie down?’ ‘Get out of my room!’ he said sharply. ‘Danny!’ his mother’s voice drifted up from downstairs. ‘Come down here this instant!’”
“Does she sound 16 to you?” Nell asked the group.
“She’s stoned,” Ned countered immediately.
“Wasted,” Ted agreed.
“I think if you unpack it she was 16 all along,” Jed remarked. “That’s why she said, ‘Hold me.’ It was latent adolescence.”
“He’s selling her drugs,” Ed urged the others. “It’s so obvious. The axe part is symbolic. He’s ‘fucking’ with her ‘mind.’ And symbolically she remains a four-year-old, because she’s in his power. The conflict is not between her and him. It’s between a society open to pleasure, and a society that rations it through prohibitions and drives it underground.”
“So the conflict is not internal to the story at all?” Nell asked. “I’m confused.”
“The conflict is between both of them and that mother!” Ted said. “They just want to live their lives.”
“Why don’t you read again from the beginning, Ned,” Nell said. “Now they’re both 16, and he’s her dealer.”
“As he parted the split halves of her skull . . .” Ned began.
“Respect, bro, you’re a fucking genius,” Jed said.
Ned was forced to stop reading because the others jumped on him in one of those jumpy joy-huddle things team sports players do after a scoring event. Only Nell held back. She had short sleeves on and was feeling a little squeamish after the numerous mentions of leeches.