The Nix by Nathan Hill: A review
Nathan Hill begins his novel by retelling the Buddha's story of the blind men and the elephant. A king commands that all the blind men in the town be brought into the presence of an elephant. Each of the men experiences a different part of the animal. One feels an ear, one the trunk, one the tail, and so on. Then they are asked to describe what they have felt and, of course, they all describe different things, even though they have touched the same animal. The king is highly diverted.
Hill then proceeds to show us his "elephant" as it is seen by many different characters. Although it is the same story, each one has experienced it from his/her own unique perspective and so each person's truth may be different from all others.
The New York Times review of this book referred to it as "the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." I can see that. The multiple story lines, the wordiness, the different styles of writing that are employed at various times throughout the book, and the seeming reluctance of the author to edit out any anecdote or observation that he's ever heard or made; these could all remind one of those authors. But frankly, I found this book much more enjoyable than anything I have read by them.
I don't know how to even begin to sum up the plot of The Nix. It's a novel that encompasses political history from 1968 to the present, that discusses addiction to playing online games, childhood tragedy and grief, academic entitlement, social mores, the decline of journalism, and military misadventure. It flits from the midwestern U.S. to New York to Chicago to Norway to Iraq and back to New York. It sounds like a crazy mix and it is, and yet somehow the author manages to make it all hang together in a way that makes for a prodigiously entertaining read.
We start during the presidential campaign of 2011. The authoritarian demagogic governor of Wyoming is running for president. At a campaign appearance in Chicago, he is pelted with a handful of gravel thrown by a woman described as an aging hippie.
That aging hippie turns out to be the mother of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, professor of English literature at a small midwestern college and an online gamer too addicted to a game called World of Elfscape to notice what is happening in the real world. He has recently challenged a young woman student over her plagiarized work and told her she will be given a failing grade. She admits the plagiarism but sees nothing wrong with it and fights back by complaining to the dean.
Now, the aging hippie gravel-thrower had abandoned Samuel and his father when Samuel was eleven years old and he has had no contact with her since then. But her lawyer contacts him for help with her case and he meets her for the first time in twenty years.
Flashback to 1968 and the riots around the Democratic convention in Chicago. The aging hippie was there, although she was then a young college student and not really a hippie. She has friends who are hippies, though, and she is caught up in their demonstrations and ends up spending a night in jail because of it.
During his adolescent years, young Samuel was friends with twins, Bishop and Bethany. He was in love with Bethany, who was a talented violinist. She later becomes an acclaimed professional musician and, after many years absence, comes back into Samuel's life at about the same time as his long, lost mother.
Along the way, we also meet other Elfscape addicts, as well as Samuel's father and his Norwegian-American grandfather, Walter Cronkite, Hubert Humphrey, Allen Ginsberg, and other assorted relatives, business associates, friends, and enemies of Samuel and his mother. The book goes on for more than 600 pages and it is full of wit and energy and brilliant writing. Even though I can't help but think that it might have benefited from some judicious editing.
This is Nathan Hill's debut novel, hard as that is to believe. It seems like the work of a much more experienced writer. It is a sprawling story, both funny and sad at times.
Of all the themes that are tackled here, the one that stands out for me, probably because this is January 2017, is the political one; the presidential candidate who is a wildly gesticulating billionaire bully running on an offensive platform of xenophobia and bigotry. In portraying a society that could conceivably elect such a person as president, audacious surrealism may be the only path to take. Nathan Hill treads that path without inhibition but he always seems to know just where he's going.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars