Nathan Hill’s first novel, “The Nix,’’ is bursting at the seams with all that it wants to contain. It’s a comic novel, filled with cartoonishly shallow publishers (“A book is simply one shape that interest can take when we scale and leverage it.”) and spoiled undergraduates who proclaim, when caught plagiarizing, “I pay your salary and you can’t treat me like this!” But it also contains plenty of capital-h History: Walter Cronkite and Allen Ginsberg make guest appearances and the 1968 Democratic National Convention serves as the point where all plotlines meet.
Hill’s method appears to be composition-by-inclusion. “The Nix’’ includes, among other things, takes on the media (a force dumbing us all down), video gaming (“not so much tests of skill as of pattern memorization and multitasking”), and the co-dependency of political extremists: “the progressives and the authoritarians — they require each other, they create each other, because they need an opponent to demonize.” “The Nix’’ is the kind of novel that critics describe as timely and, in our summer of political craziness and media saturation, Hill couldn’t have timed things better.
The novel opens with a mysterious act. In suburban Iowa in 1988, Faye Andresen-Anderson abandons her husband and 11-year-old son, Samuel, without explanation. Samuel is left devastated: What could he have done differently in order to be “a child worth sticking around for”? What secret desire or shame caused his mother to make such a decision?
Flash forward to 2011. Samuel is that sad comic stock type: a writer who doesn’t write. Once a “Five Under Twenty-Five” with a big advance for his not-yet-written first book, Samuel is now a 30-something English professor in the Chicago area who is secretly addicted to the video game “Elfscape” and sick of his uninterested students. His book remains unfinished; his publishing house wants his long-since-spent advance money back.
As for Faye, Samuel hasn’t heard from her since she walked out — that is, until she takes over the media cycle by throwing a rock at a conservative presidential candidate. Samuel is told that he can meet the terms of his contract by scrapping the incomplete novel and instead writing a ripped-from-the-headlines book about his mother. Samuel agrees, and we’re off.
The novel moves back and forth in time, offering long set pieces on the 1968 convention in Chicago (Faye’s life shifted after the riots) and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York (Samuel joins protesters against the Iraq War). Lives are touched, even determined, by history. Lives are also touched, even determined, by myth: Faye believes her family has been cursed by a “nix” — a Norwegian house spirit.
“The Nix’’ is a historical novel, but it’s also a mystery. At one point, a character describes the differences between puzzles and traps: “A puzzle can be solved but 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.” Is Faye a puzzle or a trap?
The novel has real strengths, especially Hill’s ability to integrate historical detail smoothly into a well-orchestrated plot. But “The Nix’’ isn’t a complete success. It’s a cliché to say that a first novel could use a good pruning, but this one really could. A side character occupies dozens of pages mainly so that Hill can talk about gaming, cognitive science, and paleo diets; Cronkite appears so that Hill can talk about changes in the media. Hill is so sympathetic toward his characters that it’s disappointing to see him use some of them for such instrumental purposes.
The prose also is uneven. When Hill strains after metaphor, he often fails: “He’s internalized the secrets of Elfscape like a tree that eventually becomes one with the fence it grows next to.” When he goes for weightiness, it can come across as editorializing: “I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark age denialism.”
While reading, I kept thinking about how much “The Nix’’ resembles the work of Jonathan Franzen. A comic novel with a Midwestern setting that pokes fun at academia and suburbia? (Think “The Corrections.’’) Check. A book crammed with think-piecey takes on contemporary issues? (Think “Freedom.’’) Check. A Dickensian plot overflowing with coincidence and page-turning melodrama? (Think “Purity.’’) Check.
This isn’t to accuse Hill of derivativeness. The cult of originality is overrated anyway. Yet it’s worth remembering that “Freedom’’ is a great novel not because of its hot takes but because of Franzen’s writing, the sentence-by-sentence brilliance of his prose. Hill’s writing never rises to that level. “The Nix’’ is a good but not great novel — not so much “Freedom 2.0’’ as its lesser, still impressive cousin.
By Nathan Hill
Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.