The Nix: A novel
“The Nix is an engrossing and impressively researched novel. . . . laudable . . .”
The debut novel The Nix runs 640 pages, but it gallops by like 300, with only a few stumbles.
Partly that’s thanks to author Nathan Hill’s rich yet readably honed writing.
But the big spark plug is a page-turning plot—rather, a half-dozen major plot lines, spanning more than 70 years, two continents, three populist demonstrations, and some 10 complex and original key characters.
The main narrative—or at least, the starting line from which the rest of the book sprints—concerns the reunion of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, an assistant professor of English at a small Illinois college, with his mother, Faye, who had abruptly abandoned him and his father Henry 20 years earlier when Samuel was 11. Now Faye has been arrested for throwing gravel at Sheldon Packer, a former Wyoming governor and right-wing presidential candidate who makes Ted Cruz look like Bernie Sanders.
So first of all, one story line is propelled by the theme of how Samuel and Faye will deal with each other, while another line works on the question: Will she go to jail?
At the same time, Samuel has caught a student, Laura Pottsdam, plagiarizing an essay on Hamlet. That run-of-the-mill academic kerfluffle metastasizes into a crusade by Laura to (as she writes on her favorite social media site) “totally discredit the professor & get him fired & ruin his life” by hacking his computer, accusing him of creating a classroom environment that “does not feel safe,” and launching a new student organization, thereby avoiding the requirement to write a new essay. However, Laura frets that this “makes me feel a little guilty & also angry that the school has boxed me in this way & essentially forced me 2 do something I will feel sort of remorseful about later all b/c i plagiarized one stupid paper.”
If that wasn’t enough of a threat to his livelihood, his publisher is demanding that Samuel return the “fairly large advance” he was paid more than a decade ago for a novel he has yet to write. The only way to salvage the money is for Samuel to quickly produce a hatchet-job biography of his mother, which must “describe Faye Andresen’s sleazy past, how she abandoned her family and went into hiding and only came out to terrorize Governor Packer.”
Then there are the complicated backstories explaining how Samuel and Faye each reached this point in their lives. What trauma caused Faye to flee Chicago during the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention? Why did she marry her boring high school boyfriend Henry? Why did she leave Samuel? And what has she been doing in the 20 years since then?
For his part, why did Samuel never fulfill the promise of his brilliant first short story? And what happened between him and his childhood sweetheart, the charismatic violinist Bethany Fall?
Interwoven in these narratives are a slew of secondary yet fully drawn personalities. Among the most important is the surprisingly sweet video game addict Pwnage, who manages to enter the real world long enough to help Samuel with a crucial clue.
One theme connecting some of the stories is the title concept of the nix, a temperamental, shape-shifting house spirit from Norse mythology. As Faye’s Norwegian-born father explains, “Sometimes they’ll follow you around your whole life. . . . You mustn’t ever insult them.”
For both Faye and Samuel their lives feel like a series of wrong choices whose nixes continue to haunt them.
The novel could easily have been cut by 100 pages if Hill just wrote shorter lists. He delineates 49 different ways to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy in 1968, and spends 27 lines describing the roadside sights on a family trip to Iowa, including “the gas stations that advertise live bait, the American flags flying from VFWs and public parks and golf courses and churches and boats, the occasional John Deere tractor halfway on the shoulder, the occasional Harley riders who stick out their left hand to greet other Harley riders going the opposite direction, past the quarry where orange gravel gets kicked up by tires, past the speed limit signs rigidly enforced. . . .”
Yet even that seemingly Dickensian (as in, paid by the page) flaw has a justification, for it deepens the reader’s understanding of the world Hill is painting. The roster of unsafe and unreliable abortion methods, for instance, hammers into the reader’s consciousness the desperation of one character’s attempt to end her pregnancy.
Indeed, Hill’s descriptions are often startling in their sharp, multisensual richness. Perhaps no one has portrayed crying as honestly as in a scene where Laura’s “eyes are red and her cheeks shining and wet and there’s one small pellet of snot that has crawled terribly out of her left nostril.”
A description of Pwnage playing “World of Elfscape”—which at one point consists of a single, 11-page sentence—is a fascinating insight into the mind of a gamer.
A more troubling weakness is Samuel’s reaction when he finally comes face to face with his mother, especially because their relationship is the heart of the book. Admittedly, Samuel is kind of a wimp. Yet in their first two meetings, each of which apparently lasts about an hour, he only once asks: “Why did you leave me? What happened to you in Chicago? Why did you keep it secret? What have you been doing all these years?”
Faye replies: “I can’t. It’s private.”
And with a “Fuck you,” Samuel drops the topic.
Even for passive guy who never seems to check his email, this lack of curiosity is just not believable.
Overall, though, The Nix is an engrossing and impressively researched novel. It is laudable proof that Hill—who has won or been nominated for several awards for his short stories—can also go long.