Doxology loses its way as it attempts to make sense of these past few years.
The problem with writing fiction that plays with current events is that, by the time the work is released, the intended impact of the timely social commentary is largely lost, the news cycle having turned over multiple times in the interim. Such is the case with Nell Zink’s Doxology, a novel that begins promisingly enough in ‘80s Lower East Side of New York with a trio of punk ideologists, but ultimately fizzles out as it attempts to grapple with the events surrounding the 2016 election cycle. Four years removed from the latter, the sociopolitical commentary on the deeply flawed two-party system, the pros and cons of attack ads, the general public’s perception of political machinations and the perpetual futility of the Green Party are all fairly easy targets and are treated as such, offering little in the way of biting analysis or satirization. Instead, each is played for what it is in an attempt to deliver something intended to be more profound than it ends up being.
But that’s the back half of the novel. As it opens, we’re introduced to Joe Harris, a mentally semi-handicapped (albeit high-functioning) individual, a musical aspirant. This initial introduction sets Joe up as a prominent character within the book, one whose narrative arc could well be traced through the end of Reagan’s America, through the ‘90s, 9/11, the Bush years, Obama and the tragedy of 2016’s election. Sadly, it’s not to be. For Zink, Joe seems to function as a stand-in for the relative naïveté of pre-9/11 America and the youth movements more enamored with music, arts and culture, with mild dabbling in politics.
His removal from the novel on 9/11 (spoiler alert: it’s not what you think) helps further illustrate this, as the nation changed forever and life abruptly stopped resembling anything even remotely carefree. We’re then left with the Svoboda’s, Pam and Daniel, a punk couple who met through Joe, fell in love, had a kid and, following the events of 9/11, abandoned their Lower East Side loft for friendly environs in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Pam and Daniel, though introduced early on, are never really fleshed out as anything more than stock archetypes for ‘80s hardcore punks (Pam is initially calling herself Pam Diaphragm and playing rudimentary guitar in a punk band) and wide-eyed ideologists (Daniel moves from Wisconsin to the city to establish a record label with his meager savings in hope of releasing a single that leads to bigger and better things).
As the ‘80s progress, Pam finds herself in computer programming, while Daniel helps shepherd Joe into what would become a legendary career. The Svoboda’s eventually end up having a kid together (Flora), Daniel marrying Pam shotgun-style because it’s the righteous and noble thing to do. This brings an abrupt end to their character development both in the novel and in terms of their creative maturation. As Joe’s career takes off, Pam and Daniel settle into some semblance of bohemian domesticity, the music and mayhem of Joe’s ascendency taking a backseat to the Svoboda’s as his character becomes little more than Flora’s babysitter/pal.
Understandably, there’s a rather sizable tonal shift following the events of 9/11, as Pam and Flora flee the city to live with Pam’s upper-middle-class parents, whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly a decade. Here, Flora becomes the primary focus, following her time through private schools, an unclear academic path that eventually settles on ecologically minded studies and an assortment of associated growing pains. Where her parents were more focused on themselves and their friends, Flora embraces a wide-eyed ideology common within millennials in which she wants to change the world for the better.
The problem with this is that, from the outset, Flora isn’t a terribly likable character compared to her predecessors. We’re then stuck with her as she engages in affairs with professors, takes an ill-advised internship in Ethiopia that, from a plot and life standpoint, is a complete dead end, muddles her way through her political beliefs, slouches into the Sierra Club and, ultimately, the Green Party. The shift to politics takes the wind out of the sails of previously engaging characters. Pam and Daniel fade largely into the background, cropping up here and there with their own set of mid-life crises. Flora eventually finds her way into the arms of Democratic strategist older than her parents, with whom she seems intent on building a life, abandoning her ecological aims in favor of domesticity.
This entire narrative thread becomes a bit too unwieldy and inflexibly tied to events we all still are feeling the repercussions from, Flora finding her way to Pennsylvania and a fling, a personal crossroads and a return to a Christian-based faith that finds its way into the narrative from time to time. Ultimately, the stakes feel so low and of her own making that the reader is left wondering what any of it really matters anyway. In this, Doxology loses its way as it attempts to make sense of these past few years.