Nell Zink’s “Doxology” offers a sweeping, multi-generational story of an American family from the 1980s to our current moment. It’s a deeply modern epic that whips through cultural touchstones like the ’90s punk scene, 9/11, late-’00s conservation movements and the 2016 election. “Doxology” is an ambitious novel, and though not every swing quite works, its lofty goals ultimately serve it well.
We start with Pam, Daniel and Joe, three musicians living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who are shocked by both a surprise hit single for Joe and an unplanned pregnancy for Pam and Daniel. Their scrappy beginnings are underpinned by a sense of genuine camaraderie, and the characters’ histories are laid out with sprawling, extensive detail. We follow them through the ’90s as they raise baby Flora and work on the music, through A&R meetings and concerts, all the way through to the events of September 11, 2001. From there, the novel shifts focus to Flora, and we watch her as she grows up, goes to school, and gets involved in political campaigns, including, eventually, Jill Stein’s Green Party bid for the 2016 nomination.
Zink is a sharp writer, the sort whose offhand observations sting with their acuity. Like when Flora’s post-grad entry level job starts dampening her spirit, Zink writes: “She faked the rote excitability of a charismatic zombie. She hid in the ladies’ room and cried.” She sweeps through days, weeks and years with unrelenting speed and dexterity, but it’s these moments of keen observation that cut through the grandeur and expanse of the novel’s concept.
Trump looms large in “Doxology,” but less as an endpoint in a larger American narrative and more as a silent fixture, a structural keystone in the politics of an intimate family story. The modern political climate, Zink seems to argue, is deeply connected to the personal ties and erosions in contemporary America, but the personal will always take the foreground over the political in a person’s conceptions of their own lives. “The personal is not political,” she writes. “It can become political when abstracted and generalized, stripped of identifying markers. The political subject is a depersonalized subject: This could be you.”
On its surface, there’s nothing depersonalized about “Doxology.” It’s as specific and clearly drawn a story as you can imagine. Approaching it as purely a work of political commentary would do a disservice to the intricate narrative structures within which Zink works. At the same time, though, there’s no ignoring the ways the family dynamics pay tribute and give service to a larger political narrative, as a send-up of our modern media diets and political strategies. The personal isn’t political, Zink argues, but the political might just be personal. It’ll be interesting to see how “Doxology” ages, how its specificity and distinctly contemporary cultural references take narrative form after their relevance wanes. But that’s a conversation for another day. With “Doxology,” Zink achieves a criticism that goes beyond satire to arrive at something suspiciously resembling hope. For the moment, at least, the novel feels much more than merely relevant. It’s essential.