Two decades ago, by means of which I remain skeptical, I managed to write my way into a selective creative writing class at the University of Iowa. I knew one other classmate whose writing immediately impressed and confounded me. I knew two things: I had no idea what I was doing, and Nathan Hill could write like a son of a bitch.
I was right on both counts. Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, impresses and confounds me again. It’s a brilliant, hilarious, prescient book that has nothing and everything to do with me. My meager history with Hill has nothing to do with the book’s greatness, but my generational and Midwestern kinship drive its home as one of the finest books I’ve read in years and years.
The book is a sprawling daisy chain of generations fighting the tide of their anxious culture. Hill playfully shifts eras as much as he does voice, viewpoints, and structure. He’s treading dangerous ground more like a literary veteran than debut novelist. He reveals the saga in ten parts, and within each toys with chapters that reveal his skill as a short fiction writer as he sneaks us into the head of minor characters like Laura Potsdam, the spinning top of coed destruction that sets main character Samuel spinning out of control. Hill’s mastery with these sections compels the next, but he lets the story reveal itself, cheating perhaps slightly in the very last chapter in what may be my only slight reservation about the book.
Samuel, for his part, is a sensitive, anxious failed writer whose life collapses when he – along with the rest of the country – watches the mother that left him at age eleven in her fifteen minutes of fame throwing gravel at a presidential candidate. The encounter sends him on a path crossed by characters pitiful and grandiose to reckon with his lost youth.
Faye, the mother, begins an enigma, but with each piece of the book, the story truly becomes hers. She’s the richest character in the book, real and complicated and recognizable for all her faults. Characters and deliberate caricatures surround her and Samuel both, and the effect is a book teetering between sublime and satirical. Her arc from anxious, even cruel mother to naïve daughter and do-gooder, are a time-reversing wandering into a tragic, lovable soul.
Then there’s Pwnage, Samuel’s newfound friend and hopeless addict of World of Elfscape, a fictional analog of World of Warcraft. Pwnage is at once virtual master and real life disaster. He is a paradox so absurd as to be unreal, but Hill makes us adore him anyway, and pity his useless bouts with self-improvement. Pwnage doesn’t even have a real name, but his frustrations with diet and success and divorce are as real as his physical pain and deterioration.
The moments of Samuel’s strange suburban childhood and Faye’s troubled counter culture coming of age have more emotional truth than historical verisimilitude, though Hill’s frantic portrayal of the Chicago riot in ’68 captures the moment well and simultaneously reveals more about 21st century life than 20th. But those moments in the modern day, when Hill observes the absurdity and anxiety and dysfunction of our current life capture exactly my amusement and consternation. There are no secret truths here, and I expected none. But neither did I expect the foresight in reading it during the fall of 2016 and the insanity of the election. Hill writes as one of us secularized people who want the world to make sense when it can’t. When it doesn’t, and what it all represents. (Read it. You’ll get it.)
This is a book more about my lived culture than any work I’ve ever encountered. My forays into video games show up, along with Hill’s tongue-in-cheek section written as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, one of the fads of my (and Samuel’s, and obviously Hill’s) youth. The dehumanization of social media and 24-hour news cycles seethe under the anxious gooseflesh of characters overwhelmed by their addictions to their own culture. Somehow, despite all that, I laugh right along with them, relieved that I’m not alone in trying to make sense of the senseless. This is a novel that matters to me in a way like nothing I’ve read. It relieves me of the condition that my culture is plain to the point of shameful. That Hill’s prose and elastic characters are skillful makes this all the better.
Hill is keen on one running theme – that the things we love the most cause us the most harm. That’s something of a half-truth and partial wisdom. I’d wager that Hill would agree, and that’s partly why I’m able to count him, however distantly, as an old friend and kindred spirit. What he does not say, but crafts over and over again in the telling is that honesty and language arm us against that anxiety and harm, along with a healthy shedding of shame. Those are hard lessons for real Midwesterners to accept, including the fictional Samuel and Faye.
The Nix by Nathan Hill: ★★★★★