“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Nathan Hill’s “The Nix” is a grand tale about Samuel Andresen-Anderson’s search for his own story, told through his family history and his cast of supporting characters, amidst flashbacks to the 1968 Democratic convention and riots in Chicago.
Samuel is a literature professor at a small university in suburban Chicago. His students are detached from learning in general and his class in particular. Samuel is having issues with a student, Laura Potsdam, who has plagiarized her paper on Hamlet. When we first meet him he is sitting in his office at the university playing Elfquest on his computer, a game of elves, orcs and dragons, where he is known as Dodger. The best and most prolific player is known as Pwnage. Pwnage and Laura are supporting characters with a deep impact on Samuel’s evolving story.
While Samuel is engrossed in Elfquest and teaching in the late summer of 2011, Sheldon Packer, the former governor of Wyoming and bombastic candidate for president, has been attacked by a pebble throwing 62 year old former radical, the Packer Attacker, who turns out to be Samuel’s long estranged mother. Samuel soon receives a call from his mother’s lawyer asking him to help in his mother’s case. Samuel is bitter about his mother who left when he was age 11.
When Samuel was a college student he had written a short story, based on his friends Bishop and Bethany, that drew his teacher’s attention. Ultimately, the story was published in a notable magazine and he was given a large advance to write a novel. The novel never materialized and Samuel’s publisher, Guy Periwinkle, wants his money back. He proposes that Samuel earn the money back by writing an expose memoir on his estranged and seemingly radical mother. Thus starts Samuel’s search for his mother’s (and by extension, his) story.
The story alternates between Samuel’s 11th year in 1988, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and riots and the Packer Attacker year of 2011, with a brief interlude to 2004 in New York at the Republican National Convention. We learn about Samuel’s childhood and his brief but close friendships with twins Bishop and Bethany. These relationships follow him through the entire book. We learn that his mother grew up in Iowa with a strict Norwegian father. She went off to college in Chicago in 1968, was taught by the poet Allen Ginsburg and got involved in the protests and mayhem of the times, resulting in her rapid return to Iowa and marriage to Samuel’s father. Ultimately her need for more caused her to leave the family.
The book has many plot twists and angles, too many for this short review, and in any event, disclosure would take away some of the fun. All of the seemingly disparate characters come together in surprising and enjoyable ways. Hill uses all kind of literary devices, including flash backs, letters, a short story within the story and, in one instance, one sentence that runs 11 pages (with punctuation in case you wondered).
It’s a great story, brilliantly conceived and composed, but it could have used some editing (too much Elfquest for me) and the messages it imparts are shallow and unfulfilling. For instance, Samuel’s mother tells him that “the things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst” and “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Toward the end of the book when everything falls together, he offers lessons like “you cannot endure this world alone” and “if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted…” Or, ” a crisis is not really a crisis at all–just a new beginning.” Really? The novel would have been much better if Hill had left the reader to draw her own conclusions.
So if you like to read for a grand well written and creative story, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you read for epiphany inducing insights, you will not find them here! All in all, I am glad I read it and I wish I could have written it, but I am still in search of the perfect contemporary novel. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222626__Sthe%20Nix__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold