The Nix

The Nix: The Whole World Is Watching

This month, we read (Jennifer) and listened to (Lara) the rollicking, full-bodied, epic debut by Nathan Hill. We’re talking about The Nix. This 620-page book chronicles the lives of two individuals, a mother (Faye) and the son (Samuel) she abandoned without explanation in 1988. We travel between two central narratives: Faye’s early life, especially the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Samuel’s 2011 intersection with his missing mom’s life when Faye gets in trouble for physically attacking a right-wing presidential candidate—right at the time when Samuel’s life could be on the verge of bottoming out.

Jennifer: I’m, like, Who gets away with 620 page debuts? Lara, start us off. Thoughts?

Lara: I love, love, love this book. It is massive. It is epic.  It has all the things. Humor. Despair. Intrigue. Betrayal. Multiple betrayals. Politics. Prodigies. Cheaters. Gamers. Dreams. Deaths. Beautifully crafted sentences. And if you listen to The Nix, which won’s Audio Book of the Year for 2016, you are in for a special treat with narrator Ari Fliakos. I think I have a crush on his vocal prowess.

Jennifer: I loved it too! I really have to say this: I loved all of it. I read one review that suggested that Hill was a little indulgent, a tad long-winded. I guess I’m going to disagree. I really savored the comprehensive, anti-minimalist, cerebral stuff. I was into it. David Foster Wallace has been mentioned when discussing Hill’s prose. That’s fair. I might also mention Dave Eggers—especially, or maybe only, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I think the prose had a certain momentum, a forward movement. (Remember how Eggers’ second book was called You Shall Know Our Velocity? The truth is that Eggers’ first book had the velocity—and Hill’s has it too. Velocity.)

Lara: Well, of the Eggers’ books I’ve read, there’s a little bit of pretention or over-confidence… and I didn’t get that in Hill’s book. And, that impressed me because you have to be hella confident to write a book of this magnitude and not have some level of ego about your abilities. So, let’s dive in a little deeper. What made this work?

Jennifer: I’m pro-Eggers. He’s ambitious, smart. People call it cocky. Unfair.

But Hill. What worked? I think it worked for many reasons. First, the prose is sharp. Second, dare I say this book is “important,” by which I mean culturally poignant?

Let’s just go with the quality of the prose.

This is a passage about a cheating college girl:

“Laura looks like she showered in a wind tunnel, her hair so frazzled and disorganized. That she is wearing tiny frayed flannel shorts roughly the size of a coffee filter is impossible to ignore. Ditto her deeply bronze leg tan. On her feet, she’s wearing slippers, Muppet-fuzzy . . .”

Or this passage about a gamer who goes by the name Pwnage:

“Pwnage’s hand hovered over the nacho rubble, searching for any chip that still retained its structural integrity, many of them having gone flaccid in the cheese-and-oil swamp that gathered on the bottom of the pan.”

Here, Hill describes a father-son get together for lunch, with menus

“roughly the size of the Ten Commandments in that one movie about the Ten Commandments.  . . The food was pretty standard chain-restaurant fare: burgers, steaks, sandwiches, salads, a list of invective appetizers with names involving whimsical adjectives, e.g., ‘sizzlin’”

Lara: Or this doozy, that I just loved,

“If you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles and you see yourself as a puzzle you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

Jennifer: Besides description, Hill does—maybe indulgently but who cares?—dip into multiple points of view and he does play around with literary tricks. I think there’s an eleven-page chapter that’s one-sentence long (it was, admittedly, a bit much). He devotes a section to imitating the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And here, he dips into second person narration:

“When you decide to become a writer . . . you throw yourself into the lifestyle: You go to artsy readings; hang out in coffee shops; wear black; build a whole dark melancholic wardrobe that might best be described as postapocalyptic/postholocaust; drink alcohol, often late into the night; buy journals, leather-bound . . .”

I liked his finesse, which I suppose could be perceived as over-the-top.

Lara: I don’t know if it’s over-the-top as much as it is skill. And, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure section. That was totally brilliant.

Pwnage was one of my favorite supporting characters in this book. As Samuel is hurtling towards mediocrity, Pwnage steps in as kind of a real-life warning if Samuel doesn’t pull himself together. He’s pathetic and yet bizarrely endearing.

I had a pretty in-depth conversation with my guy, a gaming guru, because I didn’t understand the name Pwnage, how to say it, or what it was supposed to signify. According to him, the gaming community uses what’s known as leet (Elite) speak. The o and the p are next to each other on the keyboard and own as in to own someone or beat them badly is often represented online a pwn. When I asked him why he thought Hill named the character Pwnage, he surmised it’s “just an evolution of the term ownage (another declaration of dominance) to pwnage, i.e. ‘I own your ass, punk.’”

I bet you didn’t realize there was so much smack talk in online gaming, did you?

Jennifer:  I did not. I think this is—wink, wink, reader—the equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s “cartridges.” The entertainment addiction in DFW has become a gaming addiction in Hill.

Lara: I have no idea what that DFW reference is. So, back to Pwnage. He’s a critical link to Samuel locating his mother after her decades-long disappearance from Samuel’s life. Let’s cover a little context. Faye Anderson left when Samuel was eleven-years-old, overly sensitive, and believing her fateful sentiment that the thing we love most in life is what will ultimately destroy us.

And for a little more context, at the book’s opening, Samuel is set to be sued by his perfectly snarky publisher, Guy Periwinkle, for his book advance after not producing said book. To salvage himself, Samuel agrees to write a tell-all about his estranged mother, Faye Anderson—the infamous “Packer Attacker.” (Governor Packer is a presidential candidate.) The only problem is that he has no idea where she is or how to reach her. Pwnage, one of Samuel’s online gaming community buddies that he decides to meet IRL, offers to help.

“You have to be careful with people who are puzzles and people who are traps. A puzzle can be solved. A trap cannot. Usually what happens is you think someone’s a puzzle until you realize they’re a trap. But by then, it’s too late. That’s the trap.”

So, question: Do you think Faye Anderson is a puzzle or a trap?

Jennifer: Faye is a puzzle. She can be solved. Which gets to my second what-worked point. A book can be truly culturally relevant/important/poignant is if it’s written with love? (I’m thinking aloud.) Hateful diatribes may not ring true—or be lasting and universal—having significance? I felt like Hill loved his characters. There was a tenderness with which he approached them. I love this subtle line about the cop when Faye is arrested, having got caught up in the protest movements surrounding Viet Nam at the 1968 Democratic Convention:

“How could he bear it, her shattered heart?”

It’s soft, gentle.

The puzzle of Faye is solved for us, maybe not for her:

“In the story of the blind men and the elephant, what’s usually ignored is the fact that each man’s description was correct. What Faye won’t understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self . . .”

Faye may never come to the conclusion that there is not one true self. But the reader will.

Lara: I think Faye has some self-awareness at the end. At least an awareness that she has been extremely selfish.

“Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.”

I loved that for Faye, and I love that sentiment in general. That’s a universal truth, I think.

Jennifer: Yes. Even with all the storylines and themes, the book is about Truth.

Lara: It is. And, it’s so good and so layered and detailed and we just want you read it. Or listen it it. Yeah, listen to it.

Jennifer: I think the book offered up some real insight, which came out—surprisingly (for multiple reasons)—of Periwinkle’s mouth:

“You know, there used to be a difference between authentic and sellout music. I’m talking about when I was young, in the sixties? Back then we knew there was a soullessness to the sellouts, and we wanted to be on the side of the artists. But now? Being a sellout is the authentic thing. . . The only fundamental truth is greed, and the only question is who is up front about this. That’s the new authenticity.”

and on Disney:

“. . . I ducked into a store. Ye Olde Soda Shoppe, it says. I’m in this facsimile of Main Street USA. This charming little street that multinationals like Disney helped annihilate in the real world. Nobody here seems to mind the irony. . . . Every ride, it’s the same conceit: agonizingly slow boat trip through robot wonderland. Like that ride It’s a Small World, which by the way is just a horror of narcotized puppets doing the same rote tasks over and over in what I’m sure Disney totally did not intend to be an accurate and prescient vision of third world labor.”

But there’s more and this is my favorite, the most culturally damning, a true statement on the hippie-protest-movement-turned-gaming-addict-sanctimonious life:

“What’s true? What’s false? In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It’s very hip right now.”

And that’s what this book is about!

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t talk about the political relevance here. Hill wrote it before the bodily waste hit the free-standing air cooler, so to speak—but I think he captured the disillusionment of the protest movement, as well as its failures, in a pretty honest assessment. (I’d personally say the failures are grounded in that good old definition of Truth; Hill might agree.) But this book is certainly about the failures of the politically hopeful and what it might give rise to. There are some surprising turns in the novel, spoilers, which we’re not giving away.

But another quote on contemporary protest, which is incomprehensible and gibberish:

“Nobody knows the words to use today. They are committed only to their individual furies.”

Still, Hill can maintain his humor in all this:

“Steak and chicken have too much baggage these days. Was it free-range? Antibiotic-free? Cruelty-free? Organic? Kosher? Did the farmer wear silken gloves to caress it to sleep while singing gentle lullabies?”

We are, ultimately, protesting nothing by protesting everything?

Lara: Yeah, I think so. We live in a time with a lot of soap boxing and proselytizing just about everything. Hill writes:

“It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.”

Jennifer: He also played around with fictionalizing Walter Cronkite during the convention, mixing fact and fiction—capturing this amazing historic moment. I loved the Cronkite part.

Lara: That was good too. Hill does a great job providing a snapshot of historical events, weaving them into a dysfunctional family dynamic and offering a painfully accurate social commentary on some of our societal shortcomings.

Jennifer: It’s an excellent book that takes a moment and turns it into a life. Oh, and personally, I keep turning over this quote from Periwinkle to writer Samuel,

“The only people who get famous on their own are serial killers. Everyone else needs people like me.”

Lara: Man, I loved Periwinkle. Quit reading our review and start reading or listening to The Nix right now.

Next Up!

We will be back to get all parental with Brit Bennett’s The Mothers.

Until next time… Happy reading, Snotties!


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