With novels, it’s often like with TV series. Sometimes you have to fight yourself to pay attention to it and give it much more of your patience. Rifle through first twenty pages to finally get to the story.
N athan Hill’s debut novel, “The NIX” is absolutely not one of those give-me-thirty-pages-chances books. Hill just in the first paragraph grabs your full attention. Albeit the novel has 625 pages, with maybe minor differences, it can effectively hold your interest until the end.
If Samuel had known his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention. He might have listened more carefully to her, observed her more closely, written certain crucial things down. Maybe he could have acted differently, spoke differently, been a different person. Maybe he could have been a child worth sticking around for.
But Samuel did not know his mother was leaving. He did not know she had been leaving for months now – in secret, and in pieces. She had been removing items from the house one by one. A single dress from her closet. Then a lone photo from the album. A fork from the silverware drawer. A quilt from under the bed. Every week she took something new. A sweater. A pair of shoes. A Christmas ornament. A book. Slowly, her presence in the house grew thinner.
We first meet Faye Andresen – Anderson, Samuel’s mother, at the age of 61, when she attacks the presidential candidate in the United States – a populist and a Democrat. The event leads to a huge media scandal and confusion. From the perspective of this year presidential election won by Donald Trump in, there is a particular analogy to be found. Probably the allusions to real life, not only political but also social, resulted in the decision to make a series based on Hill’s novel. Nonetheless, Faye, who was hailed as Packer-Attacker and portrayed in the media as an unstable hippie, that in the 60s took part in anti-government demonstrations, is a figure full of conflicts, limitations, and an irresistible desire for freedom.
Samuel, a 34-year-old English professor at the University of Chicago, is struggling with the failures and sense of selflessness of his own life. Abandoned in childhood by his mother, unfulfilled neither as a professional writer nor in his love life. He is a picture of complete failure not only to us but also to himself. In his sometimes pathetic, helplessness in the fight for life, he finds solace, understanding and friends in the virtual world of “Elfscape,” which creates space for his own alter ego. Samuel, however, had a chance to accomplish his goals both in love and in his professional life. Already as a student, he received a lucrative contract for a novel. Since then, almost a decade has passed, and he has not been able to meet his obligations. The moment when he faces the publisher and the threat of lawsuits forces him to act. In the light of recent events involving famous hippie Packer – Attacker, he offers the publisher in return for dropping the lawsuits a book written about her, about his mother. For Samuel, this chance is far more than writing a book to avoid a lawsuit. It is an opportunity to get to know his mother, her past before and life after she abandoned her family.
Nathan Hill uses this moment as a starting point to take us on a journey to modern America 2011, to Norway in the 40s and to Chicago in 1968. “The Nix” is a voyage, not only in space and time; it is a journey between the stories of many people whom life suddenly intertwine. During this voyage, we have a chance to meet many different people. Among others, there is a computer-game-addict Pwnage, who ruined his real life in favor for his virtual one. Passionately and consistently playing with Samuel in Elfscape, thus escaping from the responsibility and difficulty of the daily lives. When he meets Samuel for the first time he expresses a rather surprising view of life:
Pwnage – I find Elfscape way more meaningful than the real world.
Samuel – Seriously?
Pwnage – Avsolutely. Because, listen, what I do in Elfscape matters. Like, the things I do affect the larger system. They change the world. You cannot say this about real life.
It may sound ridiculous, but it seems like a sad image of an absurd reality in which a relatively large group of people live. Besides the rest of Hill’s novel is filled with similarly idiotic events like meeting one of my favorite characters in a book, a student named Laura Pottsdam. She leads a heated discussion with Samuel after being caught by him on the plagiarization of one of her essays. Albeit Samuel seems to be right and has a firm ground, in the end, he broadly loses with populism and absurdity. Any attempt to persued her is doomed to fail.
„The point here is that when you submit work, there’s a basic assumption that it’s your work. You own.”
„It is mine”. she says.
„No, you bought it.”
„I know” she says. „I own it. It’s mine. It’s my work.”
“The NIX” is a novel of many stories, told on many levels. It is a tragicomic reflection of the world, showing the absurdity of America and beyond, the bigotry and the lies of the 50s and 60s, the nonsense and foolishness of the recent years. The ambivalent of Hill’s novel seems to be tragic – it is an image of the struggle of human desires with fears. It is the story of one’s own weaknesses and limitations, the submission to social expectations that create a predetermined role and place for everyone. Hill’s characters, with better or worse results, fight for their own desires, for more or less rational reasons. Nathan Hill fluently passes between the stories, sometimes abruptly ending one, but in the end, they are all part of the intricate puzzle. He plays with form and language perfectly, adjusting it as necessary to the story and period in which he takes us. And while the novel is funny and reads smoothly, somewhere, in the end, it leaves us thinking of the Norwegian demon NIX, living in our basement.