“Why am I being churlish and not tagging it #greatamericannovel if it’s so readable and clever and big and bold?” – The Nix by Nathan Hill
The Nix was something of a hit with the literati over in the US last year – in fact, they’re saying that it’s (drum-roll) the next Great American Novel! Well, of course it is: it’s big, it’s sweeping, it’s funny-but-political, it’s a début by a white male! Okay, fine, I’m cynical, but hear me out. It is a good book – I ate it up, hulking it around in a backpack for a week despite its 600 pages – but it’s ticking a lot of crowd-pleasing boxes, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does mean that it’s not exactly breaking new ground in a way that’s super exciting. As in, it’s enormously entertaining with vivid characters and plenty of tension and excellent turns of phrase and comic timing, but it’s of a type with a lot of other Big Books on the bestsellers lists. It’s great but not Great. Or, put another way: if you liked The Goldfinch (and, on one level, who wouldn’t? I did), you’re in the right place, but if you’re after more of a challenge (maybe you’re more Nell Zink than Franzen?), then there’s a fair chance you’ll really like it, but you probably won’t love it.
So. The plot’s straightforward enough at first glance – Samuel, a writer whose life is going down the toilet, tries to reconnect with Faye, his long-lost mum, in order to profit from her own woes by rattling out an exposé on her radical-left no-good ways, but then he finds out loads of unexpected stuff about her past, and it all becomes a journey of self-discovery for everyone involved. That sounds a little saccharine, but by and large it’s not a saccharine text; it’s caustic and tense and generally full of fucked-up people who continue doing fucked-up things. There’s a computer gamer who’s so hooked to his keyboard that he’s messed up the actual structure of his brain; there’s a cop whose thwarted desire for a hippie protestor sends him literally homicidal; there’s a college student whose unwillingness to study prompts her into such contortions of lies and dissemblance that she comes to the attention of the hopeful presidential candidate fascist. There’s the fascist himself, Packer, who isn’t the major player in the story that the first section might have you believe, but whose presence (and the laws he’s trying to get passed) probably goes some way towards accounting for the book’s popularity in late 2016 (no bad thing). There’s a host of absentee parents of both genders, and bitter children and absconding lovers and disillusioned idealists and failures in various careers. There’s a large cast and a plot that’s expansive, but also, ultimately, very tightly knitted together, so that while in summary (as above) it sounds simple, by the end you’re blinking at the intricacy involved in pulling it all off. The whole thing revolves around a lost month in Faye’s life – a month during which she fled her home in rural Iowa and got caught up in the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests in Chicago; a month that reshaped her life and caused her, years later, to walk out on Samuel and his dad, never to return. The book gives us Samuel’s present-day hunt for Faye alongside his excavation of her past, which means we get to hear not only about his childhood (including his first/only love) and hers, but also about the protest movement from the perspectives of several of the protesters themselves, as well as those of a cop, some CIA agents, and Allen Ginsberg (Faye’s teenage literary hero), and, in the text’s 2011 present day, the Occupy movement, and, in brief, WWII and Iraq (which brings us back to Vietnam in a history-repeats-itself-through-the-generations kind of way), and it takes us not only across the US, but up as far as Hammerfest in Norway. Well, I said it was sweeping. And the breadth of reference is hugely compelling; there really is something in here for everyone. Coming-of-age, tick; social movements and their rights/wrongs, tick; sexual experimentation, tick; unrequited love, tick; scary lawsuits and how will the characters ever get through this, tick. And so on. So, yeah – it’s maximally entertaining. And Hill isn’t simply good at plotting and ambitious with his subject matter, but he’s adept at switching between registers, which means his characters’ voices are both distinct and individually credible: although Laura’s vacuous student voice errs maybe too close to stereotype, Pwnage’s single-sentence sections are superb, and Faye’s careful, conscientious, but ultimately pained and hopeful voice is beautifully rendered.
What’s the problem, then? Well, ‘problem’ is a little extreme: it’s more like, why am I being churlish and not tagging it #greatamericannovel if it’s so readable and clever and big and bold? Mainly because it’s a little too pat, a little too tied-off and wrapped-up by the final pages; the denouements come at such a rapid clip, weaving so many fates and motivations together at once, that I had to blink and pause and track back. It’s satisfying to see everything coming together, but all the same: everything? And it’s a comedy, sure, but, really – would Periwinkle/Charlie Brown/Bethany actually do/say that? I’m not giving spoilers (because it is a great read) but it’s all just too convenient, a little too novelly (technical term ahoy, guys). Plus Bethany – she’s not a real woman, right? Surely? Does the world need a manic pixie dream-violinist? And do we really want to, even ironically, talk about ‘getting the girl’ in a book that’s at least partly about women, or at least a woman, wanting to break away from sexual and social objectification? But more than all of that: a book about a writer who’s (okay, here’s a spoiler – sorry, but man) writing his first novel, and, wow, this book is that first novel! Hill, dude, spare us. He gets in a self-referential jibe, sure – a little meta-moment about the tired old trope of the coming-of-age novel – but still…
Any Cop?: I really enjoyed this; I just wish Hill had shied away from some of the more obvious ways to wrap it all up. But, at the same, those exact ways (the satisfactorily concluded plots and self-realized characters and the writer-writing) will appeal to a big crowd, and they don’t make it bad, they just make it a little less great if, like me, you don’t want to be pandered to as a reader, if you’d prefer a little more ambiguity here or there. I’m looking forward to Hill’s second book, though, and I hope he feels emboldened by the success of The Nix enough to take some bigger risks next time.
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- February 10, 2017 / 9:00 am