The Nix by Nathan Hill

the-nixI have mixed feelings about this book. It feels like the author asks some big questions but shies away from answering them.

The Nix is the story of Samuel, an English professor and failed author in Chicago whose mother abandoned him when he was eleven. He doesn’t see her again until she’s on cable TV, after she throws stones at a right-wing Republican and gets arrested. When they are brought together (via her solicitor) Samuel sets out to find out the truth about her life, about why she left him and what she’s done since, while also going back into his own memories.

This novel has that serious-American-white-male author thing of combining a personal story and lots of zeitgeisty references and a bit of state of the nation stuff. I initially thought it was like a nicer Jonathan Franzen, then later I thought it was a more sentimental John Irving. It has Big Themes that almost have arrows pointing to them in case you miss them (like the way the adult Samuel devotes his leisure time to computer games while back in his childhood his best friend informs him that life is just a game).

The Nix is made up of a number of points of view over varying time periods, going back through three generations of Samuel’s family. These take you from Europe to Iowa to Chicago, including a long section about the 1968 riots (cue resonances with today’s political turmoil). Some of these feel like they may have been written as standalone pieces and stitched together later. It feels like the work of a young writer finding his way, so I was surprised to learn that Nathan Hill is 40.

There’s a certain amount of repetition and there were long passages where I had that, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ feeling. At the end some plotlines are wrapped up too neatly and sweetly, and others are quietly dropped. And that resolution! It hammers you over the head with the moral of the story, like an extended version of the homily at the end of The Waltons.

But on the plus side…I particularly liked the secondary characters, like Pwnage the computer-game addict and Alice, a student protestor in Chicago in 1968. The author has a great ear for contemporary cultural references and highlights the absurdity with comic set pieces which made me laugh out loud several times. He is also very perceptive on the tricks the mind plays on us when we are anxious or afraid.

I just wish Nathan Hill had a ruthless editor who could knock this book into shape and make him be a bit tougher on his central characters, push through to what he’s trying to say.

I received a copy of The Nix from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Nix on Goodreads

Want to know more? Try this profile of Nathan Hill from the New York Times

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