Writing the next great American novel is the holy grail of American writers. Like Infinite Jest and American Pastoral, these books attempt to recapture America’s troubled conscience. Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix is the latest in the category. It is a sweeping doorstop which provides biting social and political commentary on the country’s history amid a kaleidoscope of distinct voices.
The book begins with a corker of a scene — Sheldon Packer, the ex-governor of Wyoming and a populist, far-right presidential candidate, has been pelted by a middle-aged woman, Faye, who is now tagged by the catchline-addicted media as The Packer Attacker. A video clip of this absurd act of fury goes viral with everyone being aware of it except for our protagonist, Samuel. He is a professor of English and a failed novelist who leads a desultory life indulging in his two guilty pleasures: wallowing in self-pity because his mother abandoned him as a child, and being a closet gamer, spending his free time playing a World of Warcraft-style game, Elfscape.
Things take a turn when he finds out that Faye is, in fact, his estranged mother, after her lawyer asks Samuel to act as a character witness for her impending court case. Around the same time, his editor tells him that he is going to sue him for failing to deliver his long-promised novel after having spent the hefty advance payment. The only alternative for Samuel is to write a tell-all about Faye that will basically be a sordid exposé and will serve to “make money off the pre-election mania.”
A satirical work concerning US politics that is encumbered by its own ambition
He also has an ulterior motive for agreeing to write about his mother: he is curious about the stranger that she is and wants to figure out her reasons for abandoning him. This leads Samuel to dig around in his mother’s troubled youth in Iowa and as a student in Chicago circa 1968, where she was involved in riots at the Democratic National Convention.
As we continue to read we encounter a handful of idiosyncratic characters with interconnected stories. Laura is Samuel’s student who is caught plagiarising, but she turns things around by invoking the current buzzword “safe space” which she knows guarantees the attention of university authorities whose job now, it seems, is to placate the self-esteem of students rather than impart quality education. She is part of the entitled, egocentric American youth who misuse the “rights” and “learning disability” cards to cover up for their uninspired lives.
The character of Pwnage, Samuel’s screen-addicted buddy, is used as a proxy to satirise our digital age. Here the book displays its troubling proclivity to become self-indulgent. Pwnage’s storyline is pretty pointless as Samuel is already established as a gamer early on in the story and would have served as a sufficient parable to highlight the pitfalls of technology. An 11-page-long run-on sentence which takes us into the disoriented mind of Pwnage is not required to drive this point home.
“Rolling Stone wanted an interview with Molly. But because they were reporting on her writing and not her music, they said they wanted it more ‘real.’ A more real interview, to reflect the more real memoir, I guess? [...] [T]his recent Yale grad who is going places let me tell you, he has this dazzling idea. He says let’s have them watch her make pasta at home... It focus-tests better than meat. Steak and chicken have too much baggage these days. Was it free-range? Antibiotic-free? Cruelty-free? Organic? Kosher? Did the farmer wear silken gloves to caress it to sleep every night while singing gentle lullabies? You can’t order a hamburger anymore without embracing some kind of political platform. Pasta is still pretty neutral, unobjectionable. And of course we’d never show anyone what she really actually eats.” -Excerpt from the book
The most interesting character for me is Periwinkle, who is a spot-on caricature of the pop culture ethos. He is a smart-talking corporate man who used to be an editor, but now calls himself an “interest maker.” Through his character, Hill lampoons the current culture of doctored literature, focus-grouped products and ersatz food. Periwinkle tells Samuel, “It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” His conversations with Samuel provide comic relief and are the high points of the book.
The Nix is being hailed as an apposite novel for our times and one can see why. Governor Packer’s folksy, pro-arms character has an uncanny resemblance to the current president of the United States, Donald Trump. Packer commands anti-elitist populism and a rabid following amongst blue-collar white conservatives. He likens immigrants taking over American jobs to coyotes killing livestock. While the similitude is fortuitous, one of the biggest shortcomings of this book, in my opinion, is how it never taps into the full potential of this thread.
While trailing Faye’s roots to the 1960s, Hill riffs on everything from the 1950s American Dream to the hippie cultural revolution of the ’60s to the Vietnam war and on to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Iraq war. While there are occasional penetrating observations, the writer’s earnest attempts to give a panoptic view of the last 50 years in America result in frequently disjointed prose.
Hysterical realism, a term coined by writer James Wood to describe “novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all” best represents The Nix. The main plot is fraught with so many intersecting storylines that as soon as the reader develops familiarity with one story arc, the narrative hopscotches to an entirely different thread in another era. The writing is exuberant, but lacks intimacy and depth, which dilutes the effectiveness of the story.
Hill also has a predilection of meandering down a string of inconsequential plot threads. This leads to the excursive narrative being unnecessarily long at over 600 pages. At the heart of The Nix is a mother-son relationship and the idea of how our childhood shapes our perspective and has a far-reaching impact on the decisions we make throughout our life.
The Nix is often garrulous, but still worth the time because of the many redeeming characteristics of the writing. The discerning view of the evolution of perspectives in the social fabric of America makes for an enlightening read. At its best, this book is entertaining, with trenchant, razor-sharp observations about pop culture, American conscience and capitalism. It’s a shame that all the disparate, albeit pertinent, themes that The Nix aims to address never really come together in a coherent way.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and critic
By Nathan Hill
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 16th, 2017