Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill
Steven Boykey Sidley
Every year I try to read at least one door stop. 500 pages or more. The last few years – 4th of July Creek, The Goldfinch, City of Fire, & Sons, Purity. It is sort of a toxic cure for me, who reads slowly. It is a disciplined commitment of a month or more. A forced marathon of sorts, in a world were ever shorter amusements are endlessly on offer. When I get to the end of these long reads (in this case over 600 pages), I feel as though the accomplishment is as much mine as it is the author’s.
So as usual, I am late to the game. The author of the book, 40-year old Nathan Hill has already been to SA, for the Open Book festival. There have been a number of local reviews. And so I toss my tardy hat into the ring.
Before I review, a couple of factoids. Nathan Hill took ten years to write this, his first novel. After moving to New York in his late twenties he was swamped with rejection from agents and publishers. And then on moving out of tiny apartment in New York to move across town, everything was stolen from his car. Including every word of he had ever written, and all of his backups. He had to get clothes donated by friends. A difficult start for a novelist who then perseveres for TEN MORE YEARS before getting his first publishing deal. That story alone is worthy of its own fiction.
A book of this length needs to sprawl. Breadth is the fuel of such a long tale, the sort of breadth that requires of the author the ability to leap and somersault and reach across time and character and location and pay attention to stitching and borders and tangential excursions and returns. And so it is with this book, not perfect, a little rambly in parts, but overwhelmed by so much brilliance that lapses fade into only minor quibbles. Dickens, said John Irving. This writer is like Dickens. A writer who knew how to sprawl.
And sprawl it does. Over 50 years, backwarding and forwarding, from the small town midwest to Chicago to New York to Norway. It sprawls across past tense and present tense and first person and third person and internal and external monologue. It sprawls across characters who never meet each other and whose lives are full and sad or angry or resigned or shocking or funny. It sprawls across the most poignant of tragedy and true milk-through-nose hilarity. It sprawls across politics and gender issues and sexuality and love and family and betrayal and video game addiction and rough sex and child abuse and a confused America. It sprawls across the English language, acrobatic, virtuosic, at times controlled and assured and at times chaotic and undisciplined. There were times when I thought to myself, mouth agape, is there is anything this author cannot do? It was true that there were parts that went on a bit (the original draft was 1200 pages). There were scenes and characters, while brilliant, which did not push the story forward at all, and seemed like separate short stories gleefully inserted because the author couldn’t bear to kill his literary children.
But by the time I got to the end with its truly face-slapping and a tad labyrinthine reveal and tie-up, I thought, this is is sorcery. It is so glorious and magical and overflowing with, well, the bewildering stuff of life, there was almost a relief when I reached the last page.
So what it is about? the book focusses on two main characters. Samuel Andersen-Anderson, a bored and distracted assistant professor of English in Chicago. And then his mother Faye, who had abandoned the family in the sixties, when Samuel was 11. The entire book is propelled by the story of why she left, and funnelled immutably and combustively into a single epiphanal event in 1968 – the Chicago Democratic National Convention, a fulcrum of American politics and culture, from which the country has never really recovered. Jumping forward, a national incident occurs in the Chicago of 2011 – of a middle-aged woman throws rocks at a Trump-like presidential candidate, to be immediately arrested and charged with felonies of all stripe. It is Samuel’s mother Faye, who he has not heard of in 40 years. Between these two events an entire world unfolds, and the book reaches for the status of Great American novel, a sad and funny and ruthless and satiric and profound story of 50 years of that bruised country, what it was, what it has become and what redemption may yet still gleam on its horizon.
This book is not for everyone; one has to truly love the US (as I do) to really love this book. This book is, for me, everything that fiction should be rash, risky, flawed, ugly, melancholy, enraged, funny, surprising, beautiful and transformative.
There is a long holiday coming up. You have a few weeks. You have no excuse. Run a marathon.