This review could spoil your reading of Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix, not because I plan to tell you it’s not a good read—in fact, The Nix is a great read, of the variety of great reads that draws you in slowly, patiently, with stores of writerly restraint and pertinacious plotting for a few hundred pages, each chapter and section coming to a close just as you (and the detective-like protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson) want to know more, until around page 350 anyway, when the numberless plot mechanisms and psychological preoccupations that Hill erects around and within his characters feel like they are about to topple under the splendid weight of their accumulation, at which point, as a reader, your drive to consume the last 200-300 pages as quickly as you can makes all the other things you have to do in your life—cook dinner, teach your classes, wash your dog’s feet due to the fact that she is having an allergic reaction, you believe, to the figs that have fallen to cover the sidewalk outside your apartment—feel like encumbrances on your path toward following the stories of Hill’s characters: Samuel, his mother Faye Andresen, and Pwnage (Pwnage being your favorite secondary character).
Instead, this review could spoil your reading of The Nix because I want to talk about all the novel encompasses, which requires divulging some of the rewarding reversals Hill reserves for the last few sections of the book; what’s remarkable about The Nix, though, in terms of the whole spoiler question, is that at the same I know warning you I could be spoiling parts of your reading experience by discussing the entire plot, the only conscientious thing to do in the case of a book review, of course. I also feel that in the case of The Nix—and this is directed specifically at those of you who normally don’t like having things spoiled—that in this case, even if you know what is ostensibly going to happen in The Nix before you read it, you will still absolutely enjoy the book, for one of the main pleasures of Hill’s novel is not so much what happens or what happens to his characters, but is instead the way Hill’s characters conceive of what is happening to them, conflicted and damaged and self-conscious and big-hearted as they are.
This book is not as much about what we do, but what gets in our way, what clogs our ability to think clearly and act with purpose, to pursue what makes us happiest and most fulfilled.
The Nix is about doubling: it is about how Samuel is fated to repeat the sins of his mother (his double), and about how she is fated to repeat to the sins of her father (her double), and about how Faye has a double that she has never known, physically, anyway, Freya, a ghost of another nation far away and yet tied intimately to Faye in a way that she had always known and sensed in both her own being and her father’s as well as her son’s. But they don’t know that she knows, nor what she feels, and her prescience about the world of this ghost is perhaps the novel’s most tender and terrifying center. Samuel may be the book’s protagonist, but Faye is the novel’s hero. She bears its greatest burdens, and her journey from Iowa to Chicago, from Chicago to the suburbs, from the suburbs back to Chicago and on to Norway and back to Iowa is a devastating story of expectations and ideals disappointed. She is the first Samuel, and thus we read her son through her.
The Nix is about the double-failure of the self-centeredness of New Left and the guarded solipsism of the Millennial Middle, and we watch their me-first i-feel culture wash up on its own shores again and again, oblivious that they are part of the sea. The novel is set primarily in 1968 and 2011, paralleling a Chicago-based branch of the protest movement that surfaced to be slaughtered at the 1968 Democratic Convention and a potential contemporary counterpart that fragmented across uninspired and uninspiring college students, media culture, and the Occupy Movement, and Hill’s novel straightforwardly laments the inability of any one of these things to transform the culture of which they are a part. In the words of one of his characters: “A drum circle. Jugglers. They’re a living breathing non sequitur in the middle of the financial district. But what they don’t understand is that there is nothing capitalism loves so much as a non sequitur. This what they need to learn. Capitalism gobbles up non sequiturs happily.” And in the mind of another: “[Playing video games required] [or owning a Netflix or Hulu subscript required] [or being a human in the twenty-first century required] such a massive capital outlay that he felt absolutely beholden to play the game even more, even if he was dimly aware of the irony here, that the stress of his deplorable financial situation created the need for all of these electronic street relievers, the expense of which created more of the very same stress he was trying to avoid in the first place, which made it seem like his current level of electronic distraction was no failing and so he sought out newer and ever-more expensive distraction, thereby magnifying the stress-and-guilt-cycle.”
The Nix is about consumer electronics and technology and 24-hour news and graphics and banners and ads and attention spans dwindled down to clicks and swipes, which Hill’s novel elaborates as also a kind of doubling: Pwnage and Samuel and other important secondary characters, such as Laura Pottsdam, are, for the most part, more interested in living through their video game or social media avatars than they are in living their own lives, favoring virtual worlds over actual worlds, and confusing the signs of achievement and status gifted to them by software with actual real-world emotional currency, or experience, or life in general, but they don’t just favor it; rather, they cultivate this taste and the machinery that makes this cultivation possible is part of the novel’s fabric, and one that even in the book’s brightest and most hopeful moments is shown to be unavoidable and necessary and live-within-able, or else Samuel would never be able to do what he has to do, plagiarize the one medium (novels) that he seems to still hold in relative high regard in order to save his mother from prison.
That is, except for the fact that The Nix is about the struggle of living a life parallel to one’s own, of living within the kind of doubling experiences we have each day, which is consciousness, which in Hill’s book is Choosing One’s Own Adventure, is considering how one must live with the results of certain choices one makes at one certain time for the during of one’s entire life, despite time, despite change, despite unrelenting and no-bullshit serious skull-crushing agony that has absolutely no solution or balm, and thus one wishes one could double oneself and go back and do things differently: and it is this kind of wish, this kind of thinking, on a very personal tight-lipped level, within which all of the novel’s clever play in doubles and doubling and parallelism and history and capitalism finds a home—the individual—because this is where all of the smart and thinky plot and circumstance and apparatus weighs most excruciatingly on the human, the scale of an individual mind, coping with itself, which in this book Hill shows the difficulty of quite completely, a kind of fissure in its own consciousness, the mind at work.
And it is on this scale, however damned, that Hill most succeeds, because, as it turns out, Hill has written a novel of our times—these, now—with all of the necessary largesse to capture it, and The Nix succeeds where Samuel does, in realizing “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.” And The Nix is Samuel’s version of that process, peeling back the layers of all of those who have surrounded him his entire life, including himself, and searching for not an unbridle but a fitting magnitude of empathy, which requires all of his time.