Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post 13 - Nicotine

This week the doldrums won. I made hardly a dent in Part Three of Being and Nothingness. I did, however, finish Nicotine by Nell Zink. I’ve decided that I’m going to work hard to catch-up in Being and Nothingness, so I’ll be trying to complete Parts Three and Four. These are hefty chunks of paper, so I’m neither surprised nor ashamed. 200 pages of phrases similar to “But the present is not only the For-itself’s non-being making itself present” (179). Now I’m taking on about 450 pages… wish me luck!

It’s important to me that I complete this book before I complete my blog, because I want to read Nausea by Sartre as I’m wrapping up Being and Nothingness. One of the most eye-opening and fun experiences I had in college came about because I (and my classmates and prof) spent two months reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and then read her novel The Mandarins. This allowed us to perform more profound readings and delve into her book philosophically, avoiding the pitfalls of typical conversations I endured more often than I like to admit. Anyways, I hope I can recreate that experience, despite my lack of peers reading the same exact thing at the same.

Anyways, enough of that. Let’s talk about Nicotine.

Nicotine follows Penny, recently bereaved of her father and her apartment. She discovers that her father still owned his childhood home. Now, charged by her mother and half-brother with cleaning up the place, Penny discovers this house is home to anarchist squatters. They’re “smoker’s rights activists” and they dubbed the abode “Nicotine.” Then, Penny falls in love with one of the residents--who is asexual and uninterested in that sort of relationship--and decides to join up with these wacky leftists.

According to Zink herself, she writes about situations that anger her, where something is said that isn’t fully developed. Nicotine is full of conversations and events that take on serious questions, but never provide one neat answer; this is why I like this book.

For example, at a potluck at an associated leftist-feminist house. “‘We’re the only girls here,’ Penny whispers, ‘I mean, as in--what am I trying to say? Am I being trans-phobic?’”

Transphobic would not describe Penny’s attitude. A “bathroom bill” is transphobic because it is moronic and hateful. Penny’s feeling requires a more nuanced description than something like that. At first, this seems like a childish and tangled sentiment. There are women who are at the party at Stayfree. Whose genitals look like what is never described and the narrator never clues us into the demographics of the gathering. Penny’s attitude is an indirect way of telling us that many transgender people are at the potluck. Then, Penny’s feeling ought to be called transphobic, yes? Dismissing these people as ‘non-girls’ denies them common courtesy and respect? Yet, I think that what’s causing Penny’s discomfort is not that these people are ‘artificially feminine,’ but that this gathering of these particular genderqueer and trans people reveals how artificial femininity and masculinity are no matter your past, your present, or your future. I imagine Zink listening in on a conversation about gender and femininity and wanting more to be said; she says it quite well here but doesn't conclude with a tidy package; in the end Penny might be transphobic, but it's up to you, and not the narrator, to decide.

It’s moments like these that save Nicotine from its lackluster characters. Penny appears shallow. the reader is led to think that the death of her father is causing her world-shattering grief, but the only glimpses of this are sparse descriptions of how she stays up late into the night thinking about his death. Penny feels more like a vehicle for commentary and insight, both invigorating causes for reflection when they come from Zink, but delivered through the character equivalent of a Honda sedan. Many of the characters feel similarly shallow even if their dialogue is intellectual. Nonetheless, this is another week I can wholeheartedly recommend the novel I read.

You already know what I’m reading this coming week. Wish me luck!

Until then, happy reading!