New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 640 pages. $27.95.
Publishers have long marketed new books by comparing their writers to more established writers—these comparisons can leave readers both intrigued and incredulous. Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, has been compared to the works of Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, and John Irving. To join a club this esteemed, a writer needs a witty eye for social criticism as well as characters who are both unique and identifiable to the reader. A wicked sense of humor helps lighten even the most heartbreaking moments. Irving himself has likened Hill to Charles Dickens, a judgment The Nix stands up to again and again with its profound observations of love and betrayal, its contemporary tone and language, as well as its sharp commentary on everything from recent American history to pop culture and all that lies in between.
Ironically, it’s exactly this kind of setup for success that would prove calamitous to most of Hill’s characters, such as Samuel Andresen-Anderson, whose existence proves that the price of hope is often failure.
One decent story as an undergraduate lifts Samuel to the heights of unexpected success, where he teeters for a decade in the life of an adjunct professor who hates his students and, more importantly, does not write. While he is not writing, he spends most of his free time playing World of Elfscape, an online game where he is known as Dodger the Elven Thief.
At the novel’s core is the unresolved problem of Samuel’s mother, Faye, who left the family when Samuel was eleven and has been missing ever since. It is Faye’s own life story that comprises a sizable section of the novel, beginning in the small Iowa town where her father immigrated from Norway to work for a chemical plant that produced Napalm used in the Vietnam War. Faye’s life is relatively uneventful until her brooding father tells her about the house spirit who followed him from Norway and lives in their basement.
The house spirit, or the nix, is only one of a series of ghosts that populate the novel. One takes the form of a white horse that carries children into the ocean and drowns them. Another is a simple stone that becomes heavier the longer you carry it, eventually leading to your destruction. In this mythology, the bottom line is that the things (or people) we love the most are the very things that will hurt us the worst.
One of Samuel’s gamer friends, Pwnage, explains that any problem in video games or in real life can be categorized as an enemy, obstacle, puzzle, or trap.
“You have to be careful,” Pwnage said, “with people who are puzzles and people who are traps. A puzzle can be solved but a trap cannot. Usually what happens is you think someone’s a puzzle until you realize they’re a trap. But by then it’s too late. That’s the trap.”
Samuel wants to believe his mother is a puzzle, but she increasingly acts more like a trap, especially when she finds herself at the center of the 2012 presidential election. After her two-decade absence, Faye appears to Samuel and the world when she attacks Governor Sheldon Packer, a presidential nominee with an anti-establishment campaign that echoes the current Alt-Right movement that has propelled Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s standard bearer. The media depicts Faye as one of the counterculture’s most dangerous radical leftists, a piece of Faye’s history that Samuel knows nothing about.
Among the many holes in Samuel’s life that have contributed to his overwhelming and continued sense of failure are beautiful, smart, and mysterious Bethany—whom Samuel has loved since they were children—and Bethany’s twin brother, Bishop, a take-charge kid with powers of knowledge and manipulation beyond his age. Samuel failed Bishop at a time when he most needed help, and he carries this knowledge with him.
Hill’s prose provides as much momentum for the novel as his sprawling plot, especially when the prose deviates to reflect certain supporting characters. One of the most engaging chapters in the novel is composed of an eleven-page sentence from Pwnage’s point of view that mimics the hardcore gamer’s endless stream of consciousness; and the chapters with the most biting social judgments are delivered through the voice of one of Samuel’s students who is accused of plagiarism.
Hill’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to juxtapose historical moments like the 1968 Chicago riots to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. He always puts a human face on political and societal issues like First Amendment Rights, political party warfare, and various marketing schemes that seem to manipulate and impact every aspect of our world. In those ways, The Nix makes a wonderful reading companion during election season, not because it’s about politics, but because it’s about so many of the facets of modern civilization and culture that feed our political system.
Hill sustains readers’ interest with a plot that winds back and forth on itself through multiple timelines. Not only has Samuel’s life been shaped by actions within his lifetime, his very existence has been determined by the actions of those before him: certainly Faye and all of her wrong turns but also Faye’s father, Frank. For every aspect of Samuel’s life that has been affected by Faye, she, too, has been affected by her father’s life and the ghosts he brought with him from the old country.
Perhaps the truest aspect of this novel is that we are all shaped by other people—those we know and those we don’t know fully or at all—and by places we’ve never been. Also true is the knowledge Samuel ultimately discovers, that the world cannot be endured alone. Part of this realization is the belief that,
. . . if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar.
Everything in The Nix is interconnected in one way or another, from the 1968 riots that rocked Chicago to Norwegian ghost tales to online gaming—including its psychological, behavioral, and physical effects—to the way opposition forces in American politics play out in the most basic of family relationships. Like the great masters before him, Hill refuses to tie his threads into neat bows. By the end of the novel, no one’s life is perfect. No one is perfectly happy. But there is forgiveness and hope, and perhaps that’s all we can ask for.