Let’s open with this: a politician, the faux-folksy governor of Wyoming—who harbors presidential aspirations, despite a blatant disregard for the U.S. Constitution—is attacked in a park in Chicago. Various news outlets, in their haste to break the story, do not bother to ascertain any details before issuing a slew of hysterical, speculative headlines. To the utter delight of the media, it gradually emerges that the governor was hit by “projectiles” (i.e. a handful of pebbles) tossed by a teaching assistant with the vaguely insane-sounding name of Faye Andresen-Anderson. As an added bonus, apparently Faye’s past includes a stint as a war protestor and—wait for it—an arrest for prostitution.
This is just too much. How can one headline possibly gather all these amazing details? RADICAL HIPPIE PROSTITUTE TEACHER BLINDS GOV. PACKER IN VICIOUS ATTACK!
Thus begins The Nix, a magnificent and unbelievably timely debut by Nathan Hill. Right away, I enjoyed its subversive tone (I love sarcasm and subversion in a novel; who doesn’t?) But this book offers so much more: it’s one of those rare gems that combine a snarky, witty voice with a profound and unsettling societal message. Best of all, it’s revealed through the unspooling of an phenomenally inventive plot.
The story revolves around two central characters: Samuel Andresen-Anderson and the aforementioned Faye Andresen-Anderson.
Faye, initially, is a cipher, having fled from her husband and son Samuel decades before she becomes briefly infamous as the Packer Attacker. Samuel is a loner, addicted to one of those online games known as MMORPGs (For you non-computer geeks: Wikipedia: Massively multiplayer online role-playing games … are role-playing video games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual world.) This particular MMORPG is a timesuck known as The World Of Elfscape, where the avatar—an elf named Dodger— can escape Samuel’s dreary reality as a nebbishy literature professor at a small Chicago university.
Okay, in case you’re worried this is a novel about a hacker, bear with me here: one of the most remarkable things about The Nix is its immersion, in great and authentic detail, in many different social milieus. It bounces between the alternate reality of hardcore gamers to the Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s and the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, to the self-centric worldview of a certain subset of millennial college students, to the dark legends arising from the endless Arctic night of pre-WWII Norway, to the blistering contempt with which women were once treated in small town America, to the glib, slick, existentially-indifferent corporate-entertainment world, to a clickbait-obsessed public with no interest whatsoever in any story requiring journalistic depth. Samuel and Faye are the threads tying these disparate scenes together. Hill’s imagination (and research!) is incredible as he weaves together the truth behind Faye’s abandonment of her family. (And, among other things, the novel contains the absolute best revenge scene I’ve ever read, the most riveting description of music I’ve ever read, and the most terrifying mob scene.)
As I was reading The Nix, my city, Charlotte, exploded in protests and violent—even criminal—riots related to the shootings of African-American men by the police. I kept thinking, it's like he wrote this whole book last night. It must have taken Hill years to write a novel of this degree of complexity, but so many of its themes—protest movements; the surreal Orwellian landscape of American politics and advertising; the anxiety and helplessness of an electorate faced with fathomless depths of hypocrisy in its political candidates; the inextricable twisting of the present and the past—have immediate relevance to the breathless news cycles of today. Assuming, of course, that the news coverage we see today were to ever venture into the complicated, messy, half-hidden truths behind the headlines.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant book. I loved everything about it. It verges on the epic—640 pages—but every page is worth it. Immediately, it reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s family saga The Corrections in tone, with a dash of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (the most interesting book I’ve ever read featuring MMORPGs.) I could go on and on with accolades, but basically it boils down to this: if you’re a reader, you should read this book. Immediately.
Buy The Nix HERE
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