F EW debutant novelists try their hand at a sprawling, 620-page epic about family, identity, protest and lies so whatever about how well Nathan Hill pulls it off; The Nix cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition.
The main narrative structural arc bends its way around Samuel Andresen-Anderson, an English professor at a local Midwest college and an obsessive video game player. We leap from present day to his childhood and back again and discover his world which has been indelibly marked by his mother Faye’s decision to leave the family when he was 11.
The novel moves its way through decades between Samuel and Faye’s story to decode her reason for leaving and it takes its title from a tale Faye’s father tells her when she is young, of a Norwegian Nix, a hex, a ghost that will haunt her forever.
Hill has drawn comparisons with Jonathan Franzen and even David Foster Wallace with his debut and the influence of both is easy to see. He is particularly adept at mimicking the Wallace knack for lucidly descriptive paragraphs about seemingly innocuous things and the novel shines the brightest when Hill is describing Samuel’s childhood and in particular his relationship with Bishop Fall — a character that has his origins in Infinite Jest.
Hill is mischievous with Bishop and expertly crafts his chapters into a fulfilling conclusion but Bishop’s strength in the novel is his lack of airtime. Samuel and Faye dominate the novel’s every fibre but both are left undeveloped emotionally.
The story is bookended by the Chicago riots of 1968 and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 but Hill has little to say on the state of American protest or one person’s role within them. You are left with a bunch of characters that all have their well-developed flaws and all have their well-developed strengths but unlike Franzen, for example, you’re not really bothered about what happens to them.
The book would be saved had the story been a riveting page turner but while it ambles along at a jogging speed, there is no real great revelation, no real shocker to keep you guessing. It becomes a serious of unfortunate events. Faye achieves national fame when she seems to attack a right wing Presidential candidate at the start of the book but even the reveal of its cause feels like a cheap trick.
The book’s heft also feels a little self-indulgent, a fact nodded to by Hill near the end of the novel but this type of smart alec-ness cannot excuse the fact that a good two hundred pages could have been chopped off here for the price of one joke.
Another secondary character and another video game obsessive Pwange becomes an interesting case study in the light of Donald Trump’s election and his support amongst middle aged lonely white men but again, while his character shows promise, he is merely there to move Samuel’s story along.
Ultimately, The Nix is similar to another much publicised debut; that of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire last year. In their rush to anoint a new Franzen, some American publishers seem to in thrall with overly long, meandering epics about contemporary American life.
The Nix is well crafted by a talented writer but you are left with the feeling of wanting to read maybe his third or fourth novel when a good editor has taken hold.
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