‘Dumb and Disgusting Women:  a review of Nell Zink’s Nicotine’, by Emily Meller

1. Most of the women I have ever loved smoke – a dumb and disgusting habit, completely. My Mum, most of my best friends. I don’t know if the smoking is related to what I love, or loved, about them, or a coincidence I am stringing together now for narrative. But I do know there is a special freedom that comes from doing dumb and disgusting things, particularly for a supposedly smart young woman who the world expects better from.

2. The protagonist in Nicotine, Penny, is such a woman. She is twenty-three and when the book opens she is watching her Jewish Shamanist healer dad die. She is jobless and being kicked out of her apartment. This sounds like the start of every book about twenty-somethings, but it isn’t. The strange thing about Penny as a character is that she seems very nice, not all twisted up around neuroses. I think this was a deliberate choice by Zink, who once said her favourite novels are the ones where “the meek inherit the earth.” It isn’t the earth, but Penny inherits a house from her father that is being occupied by anarchists—Rob, Sorry, and Jazz—who are supposedly using it as a base for their activism. The house is called ‘Nicotine’.

3. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). The dictionary says that meek means submissive and easily imposed upon. The Old Testament says Moses was the meekest man on earth. There is a love poem by Keats where he tells a woman “when I seek thee meek, and kind, and tender, / Heavens! How desperately do I adore / thy winning graces.”

4. I don’t know if Penny is meek. I would say she is pragmatic, especially about money. She thinks, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” When she arrives at the house for the first time, she falls for one of the occupants, Rob, who claims to be asexual. This doesn’t deter Penny who continues to make advances that border on assault. This is a woman pursuing a man, aggressively, over the course of a novel.

5. Keats says he can love the woman despite her awful qualities. He says, “Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain, / Inconstant, childish, proud, and full of fancies.” I think this is the original negging. It has evolved from lines in man-child poetry to Drake lyrics. Anyway, in the words of another great poet, Hera Lindsay Bird, “Keats is dead so fuck me from behind / slowly and with carnal purpose.”

6. Penny is subtle and radical. She can be flippant, vain, inconstant, proud, and unrelenting in her almost predatory advances on Rob.

7. How nicotine works is that it imitates acetylcholine, a type of neurotransmitter. Usually acetylcholine is responsible for muscular movements, learning, memory, and breathing. Nicotine pretends to be an electrical stimulation in our bodies, but it is too much for our neurons. They get overstimulated.

Zink’s work is overstimulating most of the time. The dialogue is fast-paced and wide-ranging – and often pointless in terms of plot or character development. Or maybe the point is to show life as an extended piece of art, with all the mess and useless talking and the lack of explanation for people’s actions. Zink also does away with many of the rules of style. Sometimes thoughts just float through scenes, in third person but apparently unattributed to any of the characters. Just ideas in the sky. Which raises another potential anarchist aim for Nicotine: a novel that grants the writer total freedom.

8. There is an art exhibition called Frida Smoked in a gallery in the Lower East Side of New York. The gallery’s statement says that smoking represents “different kind of naughty female independence, one made up of disdain for do-gooder nanny-state-ism and self-help mantras peddled in the age of corporate yoga.” I think this would fit as a statement for Nicotine, too.

9. Nicotine, the house, becomes a symbol for the likes of ‘corporate yoga’. Matt, Penny’s sociopathic half-brother who is the novel’s rich villain, manages to turn it into a commercial house with a bookshop, yoga school, and café – anarchy as a lifestyle choice. He makes his fortune selling energy efficient garbage trucks, which raises the question: is it bad to participate in capitalism if what you are doing helps the world? Does it matter that you don’t care either way?

10. Smoking has been marketed as a lifestyle choice since women joined the workforce. Virginia Slims once told women in an ad campaign, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But it was a lie, and would still be a lie today. The women in those ads were still wearing corsets, like how Beyoncé is still always in stripper heels. I do not think that we should be judged for smoking or wearing stripper heels – I just think it is important to know the history of these things and what these companies are really selling.

11. Fundamentally, Zink has written a social novel in the tradition of Franzen. She raises issues around globalisation, class, and capitalism – but she refuses to offer solutions to these problems. It is assumed in Nicotine that Trump would quickly fade into history as America’s greatest joke. I wonder if Zink would re-write parts of it now.

12. I get the feeling Zink was attempting to produce a feminist novel that would piss feminists off. But occasionally she misses the mark. Like when Penny attends a feminist squat, Stayfree, but finds out that most of the women there are trans. Penny whispers, “We’re the only girls here … I mean, as in – what am I trying to say? Am I being trans-phobic?” It’s another moment where Zink’s target is unclear, and the answer to Penny’s question would be ‘yes’.

13. Most of my favourite women are not ‘good’. I think they would be called things like ‘a bad influence’. I have been told that female friends of mine are a bad influence by everyone from school teachers to boyfriends. Today my boss warned me about getting too close to certain women in the office who make crude sex jokes and smoke too much. He said he would disown me if I ever said such a thing. These people have never considered that I want to be influenced; that I seek out these women because I need to be less obedient.

14. Bad influences do things like talk to you through the door while they are peeing and order you double vodkas without telling you. The only time I have ever smoked has been in the company of such women. I have been told not to give in to the peer pressure, their disgusting habit which will make their teeth yellow and their hair smell, decreasing their overall fuckability by up to three points out of ten.

15. From my perspective, smoking looks like this: sitting on a saggy teal couch while it is raining outside and a woman with blonde hair and red lips calmly taps loose leaf tobacco into a rolling paper as I sob. It is an old man shaking his head at my friend lighting up while he stumbles out of a bar in a laneway and we laugh and he yells “Bitch!” at us. It is saying “fuck it” and taking a drag. It is passing out in the same bed and spending a morning lying in the living room talking about nothing that would advance either plot or character development.

16. In the whole novel, there is not one single passage about the act of smoking itself. No rolling or tapping or inhaling. The only references come early: “On the table, a pack of American Spirit cigarettes – a British American Tobacco Brand boasting all-natural poisonous alkaloids.” Zink is not trying to romanticise smoking, nor does she have answers about how we can change things for the better. It is not so much the form of the rebelling, but the act of rebelling in any form that is important.

17. Being able to work at a bank and date an anarchist. Being a villainous capitalist who loves somebody deeply. Being a meek woman who does dumb and disgusting things.

18. As Matt says in the final words of the novel, “I’m not sure how yet, but I believe in my heart it can be done.”

Emily Meller is best known for her many memorable catch phrases including “hey!” and “[uncomfortable silence at parties]”. Tweets great thoughts @EmMeller.