An anti-immigrant, conservative presidential candidate who delights crowds with his unvarnished honesty (or, in the eyes of liberals, with his overt bigotry and rabble-rousing). A leftist response with roots in the 1960s protest era. A media response that’s both breathless and often utterly devoid of useful information.
The stakes seem almost eerily timely while reading Nathan Hill’s sprawling debut novel The Nix in 2016 ― and he doesn’t fritter away his 600-plus-page opportunity to both illuminate and mock the whole spectacle.
The Nix opens upon a 2011 campaign appearance by Republican presidential candidate Sheldon Packer. As he glad-hands with supporters in a Chicago park, an onlooker, Faye Andresen-Anderson, suddenly rises from a bench, grabs handfuls of gravel from the ground, and begins to throw them at Packer. The ensuing media firestorm, reminiscent of any CNN treatment of a juicy, ongoing news item, makes for brilliant comic material in Hill’s hands: “A logo is made: Terror in Chicago. It whooshes to a spot next to the anchor’s ear and flaps like a flag in the wind. The news displays a map of Grant Park on a massive touch screen television [...] It all looks really cool.”
Packer, who quickly gets a boost in the polls from his moment of danger, will inevitably remind readers of a certain luminescent orange candidate of this election cycle. As governor of Wyoming, Packer had “banned abortion outright and required the Ten Commandments to be publicly spoken by children and teachers every morning before the Pledge of Allegiance and made English the official and only legal language of Wyoming and banned anyone not fluent in English from owning property.” Oh, and “he compared immigrants taking American jobs to coyotes killing livestock.” (And, Hill slyly notes, the courts “had struck down almost all of his Wyoming initiatives,” though his passionate supporters didn’t care.) Sound like Trump’s America?
But applauding Hill for “prescience” misses the point. Packer bears an uncanny resemblance to the current GOP nominee, but, as a cowboy-boot-wearin’, gun-totin’, dyed-in-the-wool social conservative, he also reads like Mike Huckabee by way of Rick Perry, to the nth power. Trump didn’t start this trend in American conservatism.
Meanwhile, Faye Andresen-Anderson is arrested and christened “The Packer Attacker,” and her appearance in the news (not to mention police custody) soon brings her back into the life of her son, Samuel Andresen-Anderson, who hasn’t seen his mother since he was 11, when she packed a suitcase and left him and his father behind.
Samuel, a failed novelist with a huge, already-spent advance looming over him like a sword of Damocles, has been working as an English professor in the Chicago area, pretending to chip away at the promised manuscript for his publishers and pouring his free hours into an online multiplayer role-playing game, World of Elfquest. After his estranged mother becomes the hottest story in town, he’s reluctant to even speak to her until his publisher, Guy Periwinkle, drives a bargain: Either he can deliver a scathing nonfiction book about The Packer Attacker told from the perspective of her abandoned son, or he can pay back that massive advance with money he no longer has.
Samuel opts for the former.
Faye, who has been painted as a prostitute, a radical who was instrumental in the 1968 Chicago riots, and worse by supporters of Gov. Packer, isn’t ready to just give up a lifetime of secrets to her son, who is realizing that there were more unknown unknowns about his mother’s life than the known unknowns ― her life after she left ― that he was already grappling with.
As Samuel digs into the mysteries of Faye Andresen-Anderson, Hill opens the scope of the novel masterfully. He pulls readers back into Faye’s repressed childhood in small-town Iowa and her half-hearted romance with Samuel’s father, into Samuel’s own tentative, lonely childhood, and into the summer his mother left, when he made two friends, Bethany and Bishop Fall, with whom he falls into different kinds of love ― and who shape the rest of his life. The novel also opens expansively, letting us into the overstimulated brains of Pwnage, Samuel’s screen-addicted World of Elfquest buddy, and Laura Pottsdam, a student Samuel is desperate to fail after she submits a plagiarized paper, but who sees her way of getting through school as a perfectly rational and necessary way to pursue her dream of becoming a successful businesswoman.
Pwnage and Laura’s sections might feel the most frivolous, so tenuously connected to the essential core of the novel, that they could be lopped off without undue damage. But they also contain the most trenchant and funny digital-age satire. Pwnage finds himself locked into an endless cycle of buying more equipment to make more World of Elfquest characters to play simultaneously in order to be able to relax more ― he’s stressed by how quickly he’s running through his money and by his repeated failures to work on his novel, win back his ex-wife, Lisa, and start his new diet. (The Pleisto diet, featuring foods available during the Pleistocene era.)
Laura can’t focus on her work both because she’s never had to before and because she’s constantly hearing her smartphone ping with texts from her long-distance boyfriend requesting nude photos, not to mention updates from iFeel, a social media app that allows users to post any of 50 standard emotions. (Guilt, hilariously, is not one of them.)
The New York Times called touches like iFeel and the Pleisto diet “frighteningly plausible,” but that implies that they’re more than what they are: tweaked versions of things that already exist in the real world in abundance, like the Paleo diet, Crossfit, Twitter and Facebook. This isn’t speculative fiction, a creepily plausible future dystopia like the New York City of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. This is how we live now. Hill is just holding up a funhouse mirror to it.
Plenty of doorstop-length novels promise to be what The Nix is: capacious enough to find sympathy for its most comically deplorable characters, specific enough to precisely skewer specific societal ailments, funny and cleverly written enough to sustain a length that could easily pall if readers had to power through many flabby or dull segments. That it’s so entertaining, so full of energy, and packed with social and political observations that adroitly destabilize our comfortable assumptions about modern life is a triumph.
And Trump? He’s a bit beyond the Packer figure, but that doesn’t mean Hill didn’t have a bead on the Trump phenomenon. The constant, teeming hum of activity behind Samuel’s story, Faye’s story, and even Packer’s small story might capture Trump even better ― the story of the mass entertainment creators who don’t mind exploiting something as serious as the political future of the country as long as the profit is worth their time. Perhaps we’ve just arrived at a point in our nation’s history where the Packers and the men behind the Packers have begun to merge into one. And both The Nix and the 2016 election season make that seem pretty terrifying.
The Bottom Line:
The Nix is a timely mass-media and political satire, a family saga and two bildungsromans rolled into one ― and, in each facet, Nathan Hill crafts a hilarious, observant, unputdownable tale.
What other reviewers think:
NPR: “After 10 pages of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, I flipped to the dust jacket. I wanted to see what the author looked like because I was thinking to myself, Jesus, this guy is gonna be famous. I wanna see what he looks like.”
Washington Post: “If there’s an excess of “The Nix,” it’s an excess of wily storytelling. Beneath the book’s highly improbable, overarching plot about an attack on a presidential candidate and a son’s search for his mother, you’ll find an inexhaustible collection of smart, witty scenes.”
Who wrote it?
The Nix is Nathan Hill’s debut novel, and he’s stated in interviews that he drew heavily on autobiographical material and personal experience in writing it. He lives in Naples, Florida.
Who will read it?
Readers who need a palate cleanser from the current election madness, particularly those who love dense, satirical fiction that targets the creep of modern technology, mass media and consumerism. Hill has drawn comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt.
“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, spoken differently, been a different person.”
“And now the governor has been attacked! Though nobody seems to know how he’s been attacked, what he’s been attacked with, who he’s been attacked by, or if the attack has injured him. News anchors speculate at the potential damage of taking a ball bearing or marble at high velocity right in the eye. They talk about this for a good ten minutes, with charts showing how a small mass traveling at close to sixty miles per hour could penetrate the eye’s liquid membrane. When this topic wears itself out, they break for commercials. They promote their upcoming documentary on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11: Day of Terror, Decade of War. They wait.”
by Nathan Hill
Published Aug. 30, 2016
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.