Avalon by the Avalon Writer

From the polyamorous cigarette cult of “Nicotine” to the naive addict of “Doxology” to the white girl raised as Black by her lesbian mother in “Mislaid,” Nell Zink has taken high-concept premises to transgressive extremes with a self-assurance that’s both pleasing and a bit baffling. So it is with “Avalon,” which might feel smaller in scope than her previous novels, but which also contains many delights.

A cultish-sounding cabaret troupe mysteriously appears on the night boats that travel New York’s waterways. Its members are said to be able to make anyone fall in love with them, and its leader is whispered to have made some sort of Faustian bargain for her music. Rose is drawn into the Avalon and its world of sex, art, and ecstasy, but finds herself struggling to maintain her connection to her sister and her life outside it.

As Zink weaves her spellbinding tale, the social drama of her main character’s daily existence acts as a velvet wrapped mallet to the cruelty of modern life. But she also reveals the depths to which Rose can sink when she is consumed by the desire for Avalon. In the end, her relationships with her coworkers and love interest serve to show how utterly unprepared she is for the realities of the world beyond the Avalon walls.

The Avalon series is a loosely connected set of novels about the Isle of Avalon, the magical realm of King Arthur and his knights. It draws on a number of sources, including the traditional legends of King Arthur and his knights, medieval literature and history, Celtic paganism, and contemporary neo-pagan traditions. The books explore the idea that Avalon is a place where dreams come true and that it can be accessed through meditation, dance, and the arts.

Avalon also reflects on the ways in which mythology is shaped by cultural beliefs and assumptions. In the case of Avalon, this includes the implication (strongly hinted at, but never explicitly stated) that several characters from each novel are the same souls reincarnated.

Loosely plotted and chatty, The Avalon Writer is a fun and entertaining read. It’s also a smartly written novel that plays with the way teenagers bumble toward identity and purpose. And while the story does lose some momentum near its conclusion, there’s no denying that Zink’s flight of fancy replicates the exhilarating experience of absorbing a game for the first time and finding yourself utterly hooked. Lovingly lampooned but never meanspirited, the novel’s a good match for readers who don’t mind a little digression in their fiction. Mike Barrett has had poems published in Blue Unicorn, Red River Review and Abbey. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Seattle. He runs a full manuscript writers retreat each fall for eight writers and two agents/editors. He is also a writer for the literary journal, The Avalon Review. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his stories have appeared in a variety of other publications.