I fell in love with Nell Zink’s writing when I read this short story in Harper’s Magazine. Read it, it is a work of wonder, rich in humor and humanity by a writer who is deeply in love with language. I read the novel Mislaid from which it was excerpted. So of course, when I saw that Private Novelist was soon to be published, I was eager to read it as well.

So what is Private Novelist? It is usually described as a postmodern novel. It is certainly very self-referential. Nell Zink is both author and character, her character being the author Nell Zink who is writing a novel via e-mail, a translation of the Hebraic book Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats. Her translation is not impinged by her lack of Hebrew or incapacity to read the book she is translating. So you get the idea.

In some ways, Private Novelist  is a tour de farce, nonsensical and hilarious, an utterly madcap writing experiment gone wryly right. Or wrong if you get hung up in understanding all the intricacies of the plot. It’s not really the plot that matters, it’s the writing. At that Zink excels. Chapter Seventeen features a story within the story, written by one of the novel’s characters about a man who goes to a remote village in Siberia where the train comes once every six months. He is waiting for the next train, through the long winter. Spring comes, “Then, in the end, rain fell, the poppies opened their orange mouths, the sky took on a faint glow like dawn, and from an oblique angle, if one lay on the ground, the steppes appeared green. Soon I saw a weasel hunting for mice. Then the train came in a slow smear of colored smoke.”

“The poppies opened their orange mouths.” It is that kind of excellence that brings me to a stop, to close my eyes and visualize the scene and to admire the brilliance of the metaphor. That is why I like Nell Zink. Also, she cracks me up.


I have mixed emotions about Private Novelist. It was written before her other published work. There might be a reason it was not published before she was an international awarded and best-selling author. It is chaotic and incredibly self-referential, even self-indulgent. Zink has read a lot of literature and she knows a lot of stuff and makes sure we know she knows it. She demonstrates she can write the cant of the literati with the best of them, though I snorted at “the advanced state of mental decomposition that later became known as deconstruction.”

Private Novelist feels like what it is, an inside joke for Zink and her friends, a shared writing experiment that was fun and worthy and far more meaningful to those involved than readers like me. Nonetheless, it is worth reading. It is entertaining and funny. There’s a giant submarine that shoots missiles filled with semen, reductionist and hysterical at the same time. If you are willing to suspend not just your disbelief, but your adherence to reality and logic, you will enjoy this book. If a book has to make sense, then run away quickly so that missile does not catch you.


Private Novelist will be released October 4th. I was provided an advance e-galley by the publisher through Edelweiss.