Author: Nathan Hill
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: April 2017
At one point in The Nix, in a passage where the protagonist is living his internal monologue through the lens of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, he is asked what his great novel is going to be about. He responds, “I don’t know. Family?” And of course that’s what The Nix itself is about, the type of multi-decade, inter-generational tale that doesn’t always do it for me any more. I tend to need something strange in my stories and this is straight realism, even though the title describes a spirit from Norway known as a nisse, which I read this as a metaphorical haunting of a ghost from the old country. (There’s a neat comparison here to American Gods, where Gaiman went at the idea more literally.)
I’m finding that without the fireworks of sci-fi or the supernatural in the plots, the success of these books often rest on whether they can illuminate a specific time or psychology. Even though it’s fiction, I want the story to reasonably inform me. With The Nix, it’s mostly the historical moment of 1968 in Chicago, during political turmoil between college students and police. The risk here is acknowledged by Hill when he frames this concern inside the mind of news anchor Walter Cronkite: “For many people, whatever they see tonight will cement in place everything they think about protest and peace and the sixties.” And to the fictional Kronkite’s dismay, this is now true for me. This novel is defining what I think of all those things.
The other sweeping American era that Hill wants to make a statement about is simply today. The storyline of addictive technology and MMORPGs is incisive and humanizing. Another one involves the dreaded millennial college student who you wish was a caricature but may not be. Then you have the nod to the outrage machine when a publicist says “It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Technically all of this is taking place in 2011, but the exact calendar year probably doesn’t matter. In some future time, the early 2000s will all be bunched together into a few accepted social “truths” that become shorthand for several years, if not decades (such is the way of viewing the past). So in that vein, Hill’s attempt at the great American novel, in so much that the great American novel should say something about us within our times, is right on track.
The book has a lot of heart and sincerity, even if it serves up its morals a bit easily. I think it’s mostly a benefit, though. Ideas like “Every memory is really a scar” and “Time heals many things because it sets us on trajectories that make the past seem impossible” could probably be reasoned out by the reader, but having them put to page unapologetically is refreshing in its own way. And I’m a sucker for books that justify their own existence internally, as this one seems to do at the end. Every once in a while, the tidy family dramas are quite satisfying, so score a point for The Nix.