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Books Books Magazine October 2019

A New York state of mind

Doxology by Nell Zink reviewed

September 22, 2019

12:59 PM

22 September 2019

12:59 PM

Doxology covers five decades and a spacious 400 pages with all the subplots and digressions you’d expect from a baggy monster realist novel. It moves from the subculture of ‘straight-edge’ punk to the backrooms of political power-broking, and covers ground from East Harlem to rural Ethiopia. At least half a dozen characters commandeer the narration for substantial chunks of story, and we breeze through the consciousness of many more as cameos. Yet Doxology’s overall feeling isn’t of plenty, but of precarity. From the opening sentence, it seems that time is always about to run out.

‘Unknown to all, and for as long as he lived, Joe Harris was a case of high-functioning Williams syndrome.’ Joe, whose condition manifests as inherent musicality and an assumption that everyone means him well, will become an unexpected alt-rock star. His friends Pam (a punk and a programmer) and Dan (an ‘Eighties hipster’) pay their dues in the gutters of the New York music scene, but are pulled away from music by early parenthood. Pam and Dan’s idealist daughter Flora will be drawn onto the battleground of the 2016 presidential election.

As Doxology takes place largely in New York, two other, more public shocks also loom over the story along with the death of Joe: the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and the election of Donald Trump. There are also more gradual disturbances swelling in the story, including growing consciousness of environmental depletion and the stealth revolution of the internet. Zink doesn’t so much foreshadow this coming upheaval as announce it with bathetic forthrightness: ‘The tech community saw salvation in the abandonment of things, which would be replaced by information,’ she writes of late 20th-century digital utopianism. ‘The world’s naiveté was grotesque.’ (As well as being a very funny writer, she’s refreshingly unembarrassed about moral judgment.)

Zink recreates not just the detail, but also the texture of the past. The title derives from the Christian doxologia, liturgical words of praise for God, and this novel has its eye on the sacred in the everyday. We may all be doomed but, like Joe, we can at least sing worshipfully to this cursed and beautiful universe on our way out.

This article is in The Spectator’s October 2019 US edition.

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