Expected Publication Date: October 4, 2016
“She wills her body to be equally wraithlike. Not sodden, not heavy, not dead, but filled with crackling, electric life, like a stale Marlboro on fire.”
Nell Zink’s “Nicotine” is a social satire on a grand scale. It invokes and satirizes the philosophies of shamanism, pragmatism, and anarchy. It begins with Amalia at age 13 being “adopted” by Norm from a garbage heap in Cartagena, Columbia. From there, the novel flash forwards to Amalia’s daughter, Penny, at age 12 at her father’s psychadelic healing center. Her mother is now “married” to Norm and Penny has two older half brothers, who happen to be older than her mother.
When Penny’s father falls ill and is on hospice, Penny is the primary caregiver. It is said by many of the Shamanist followers at the funeral services that Penny always had that spiritual connection like Norm.
Upon her father’s death, Penny, now in her 20s (a recent business school grad) thinks she will take over his childhood home which has been taken over by squatters, anarchists that are united by their love of nicotine. Hence, the the name “Nicotine” for the house they have squatted. There are many houses in this area of New Jersey being squatted by millennials. Penny falls in love with one of the squatters, who happens to be asexual, and decides to live with them. Her brother, Matt, decides he will kick out the squatters and he, too, falls in love with one of the squatters.
Penny’s mother initially declares her love for Matt (Penny’s half-brother) which is not returned. However, this brings up questions of what happened when they were younger. Could Matt be Penny’s father? Amalia, too, goes to try to kick out the squatters, and falls in love with one of them.
Matt is a huge sociopath and gets what he deserves when he lands in a huge amount of shit. Everyone and everything gets confused and turned on its head. “Nicotine” becomes the “Norman Baker Center” bringing together the Norman Baker followers and millennials alike.
This one was tough for me to connect to. I appreciated the social satire and the brilliance of the author, but honestly did not feel too much for the characters. It felt like all of the ideas were thrown together in a slurry and the result was interesting and at times amusing, but just did not seem as polished as it could have been.
- Discuss how and why this is a social satire? How are the millennials portrayed?
- Why do you think Rob was portrayed as asexual in the beginning? What do you think made him sexual in the end?
- What do you speculate was the nature of Amalia and Matt’s relationship when they were younger?
- Why do you think Jazz continues to communicate with Matt, even after it’s clear that he is a sociopath? Do you think she still has feelings for him?
- What is the role of Sorry in this novel? Discuss the meaning of her name.
- What is your view of Norm by the end of the novel?
- What secrets do you think he wanted to write down before he was rendered incapable of doing so?
- How are the police depicted in this novel?
- How does the book depict pragmatism, anarchy and shamanism? How does it satirize these philosophies?