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The Nix by Nathan Hill book review

The Nix is a remarkably hefty debut novel with a whopping 620 pages, an act of generosity rarely granted by publishers to writers other than to fantasy or science fiction writers who’ve sold at least a trilogy or two.

American writer Nathan Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson (he prefers just Anderson) and his mother, who walked out of her son’s life when he was 11. Faye Andreson-Anderson bursts back into his increasingly unsatisfying life at the beginning of the novel, when she is arrested for hurling a fistful of pebbles at a pistol-slinging state governor of a kind the Tea Party would clone if they could.

If it was simply the story of Faye and Samuel, of their rift and reconnection steeped in detailed reminisces of ’60s activism and ’00s existential angst, the novel would be compelling enough. Their story is funny, fraught and in parts, incredibly moving. The sections where an adult Samuel slips seamlessly between his current and childhood experiences are particularly emotive.

“Samuel stood at the threshold of his mother’s apartment, his hand on the slightly ajar front door, readying himself to open it but not yet feeling able to. ‘Don’t be scared,’ his mother had said. It had been more than twenty years since she last uttered those words to him, and ever since that morning he’d felt haunted by her, always imagining that she was around, spying on him from a distance. He’d check the windows at odd moments and scan crowds for her face. He lived his life wondering what he looked like from the outside, to his mother, who might be watching. But she never was watching. And it took a long time for Samuel to remove her from his thoughts.”

But Hill clearly had much bigger plans than telling the story of one dysfunctional family, when there are so many in this world. He weaves together a cast of characters diverse enough to keep the long novel interesting while capturing a portrait of our times.

Each character, from an online gaming maven still pining for the wife who dumped him to a splendidly strategic book publisher light on ethics, are invested with so much energy each could star in a novel of their own. The specific detail lavished on each presents readers with an array of refreshed archetypes: classic characters remixed by the impact of the internet on so much of our lives.

Although the book reaches as far back as 1944 and as far from the US as Norway, The Nix is very much of the 21st century and how we got here. It explores everything from the internet-enabled thousand-people strong protest Occupy movement to the communion that comes from mass multiplayer online games.

The complexity of the plot, ten sections hashed together with overlapping storylines, has drawn the kind of praise that every debut novelist must dream of. The New York Times declared the book “the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace”.

True, The Nix is riddled with the anxiety, irony, underlying questions and quirky complex asides that those two authors are revered for. But the experience of reading it is far smoother, and in fact more like another acclaimed, yet polarising author: Jonathan Franzen.

Like Franzen’s break out novel, The Corrections, Hill’s book is really several slim novels combined. It also shares a slightly paranoid humour and compulsive stitching together of details with Franzen’s own debut, The Twenty-Seventh City. More notably, Hill’s writing has something of the effortlessness with which Franzen side-swipes so much of contemporary life in all of his books, especially his latest Purity.

Towards the middle of Hill’s novel comes this witty, woeful imagining of a holiday abroad. “He imagined them in Paris trying to talk to each other. She’d give small lectures on the country’s innovative health care system, he’d give similar disquisitions on French jurisprudence. That would get them through one day, maybe two. Then they’d start making small talk about whatever was in front of them at that moment: the charming Parisian streets, the weather, the waiters, the daylight that clung on until well past ten. Museums would be a good choice because of the enforced silence.”

His skill with lists and fluid prose unites the novel’s sections that each have their own tone, some more adventurous than others. Readers might find his unspooling of asides either make or break the spell he weaves to try and capture our world at this moment.

The digressions, as the NYT describe as Foster Wallace-esque, spill into the story more and more as the book continues. Its protagonist Samuel faces being sued for the advance for a novel he never wrote, and instead capitalises on his mother’s sudden notoriety (and need for him) by writing a novel “inspired by” her life. He’s commissioned to write a tell-all, and he has enough anger to write several. Samuel’s struggles and decisions along that journey as he reconnects with his mother provide the emotional momentum needed to keep the story spinning along.

We probably didn’t need another novel about an aspiring novelist. However the raucous characters and socio-political themes throughout the book, combined with Hill’s ferocious talent as a word wrangler, make The Nix wickedly gleeful and at other points sorrowful. Also, it’s just a plain fun novel likely to claim a place in many readers’ conversations about their most memorable reads.

You can buy The Nix here

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