Nathan Hill’s The Nix is about family relationships and the way people yearn to connect. Faye Anderson leaves her family, and her young son Samuel, abruptly in the 1970s and he doesn’t see her again until she become an internet sensation for throwing rocks at a controversial politician in current day. When a book publisher wants to immediately release a scandalous tell-all biography of Faye, Samuel, a writer, is persuaded to uncover his Mother’s past. As he starts to put together the puzzle that is his Mother, while dealing with his own current career problems, he realizes the ghosts of the past are all around him.
Ghosts, according to stories Faye’s Norwegian immigrant father told her as a child, can literally be everywhere if you know where to look. In his stories, the ghosts hurt you if you didn’t behave. The Nisse was a house spirit in the form of an old man that haunted Faye’s youth. But ghosts teach us life lessons and can take any form from horses to rocks. They could be good or bad, but never trusted. Faye recalls the learned-lesson that drives her: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.” She’s actually talking about people, and it’s one of more biting commentaries on the sacrifice and love families have for each other over time and the pain it can cause. This isn’t a feel-good book about family, it’s a more measured and realistic sense of how we manage.
As Samuel finds out more about Faye, Hill’s narrative takes on a variety of issues. On women’s empowerment he hysterically takes us inside a 1960’s Home Ec class for girls and all the training they get for being perfect wives and breaks it apart by comparing the ideal housewife with the new feminists of the hippie movement. The addictiveness of internet gaming and it’s substitution for real life experience are explored through Samuel’s secretive nighttime gaming. The excellent Elfscape gamer Pwnage (pronounced Po-Nage) who plays the game obsessively several hours a day, and who Samuel does meet in person, yearns for real connections despite his massive on-line popularity.
I really liked the sly digs taken at the manufacturing of pop culture, of which there are several. In one story-line the book publisher Samuel is trying to please, works for a multi-media conglomerate where he also manages teen pop sensation Molly Miller and promotes her tightly controlled image and her hit song’s anti-establishment but not too anti-establishment message of “You have got to represent!” It’s a completely fake image and message created to create “buzz” and make money. Hill takes it a step further and compares the shallowness of modern pop culture, with the naivety of hippie culture. He fictionalizes the emerging historical theory that the hippies brought their own destruction by over-reaching with their behavior and message until the conservatives had to respond. The “ghost” for the hippies, radicals, and youth of the 60’s, when they felt the pride and vanity of taking over the establishment, was the heavy hand of conservative America and the Presidency of Richard Nixon quashing their idealistic movement.
There’s a lot in this book about unrealized expectations. Every character in this book has an idea of what his or her life is supposed to be like, and the plot stems from those expectations not being met. Hill, in satirizing current conditions in the Country, may actually be comparing what we expect of America vs. what America really is…expectations that are falling short of the ideal.
The Nix owes a great debt to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in it’s complex structure, but Hill keeps a tighter reign on the moving pieces. At over 600 pages, the book is sprawling, with multiple story lines, characters, and settings. Hill is in complete control from beginning to end. His characters are well-drawn, the plotting makes perfect sense, and the voice of an author who has something to say about society rings clear.