Avalon

Nell Zink. Knopf, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-0-593-53489-2

Zink (Doxology) delves into class, art, and American culture in a characteristically witty bildungsroman. The narrator, Brandy, is raised on a topiary nursery in semirural California, where she provides unpaid labor from a young age in exchange for necessities; her late mother’s partner, Doug, also works there. Life improves when Brandy befriends Jay, an upper-class kid in love with flamenco, who enrolls at UCLA and crushes on classmate Peter, an East Coast intellectual-in-waiting. When Brandy meets Peter while visiting Jay, the two almost immediately fall in love, and the rest of the novel sets Brandy’s rough-cut brilliance in tension with Peter’s academic ambitions. She spends less time working for Doug and more time with Jay, sleeping on his floor and helping with film projects. Meanwhile, Peter gets engaged to a well-off woman who promises to make life “uncomplicated.” The characters let forth some hilariously caustic barbs against the film program’s bland progressive politics, such as when Peter encourages Brandy and Jay to upend a “social change” assignment: “You want to find out how you can tweak speculative utopias to make them palatable to your social-justice-warrior film school, and I think with libertarianism you’re on the right track.” Even more impactful than the intellectual ballistics is the tortured romance story. The style is all Zink’s own, and she’s as brilliant as ever here. (May)
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