A nix is the ghost of something you love so selfishly that it turns against you. It’s a old-world superstition that the novel’s hero Samuel Anderson’s grandfather brought with him when he emigrated from Norway to Iowa. But it’s also an all-purpose metaphor. Throughout the course of Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix, in its interwoven stories decades apart, the eponymous ghost stands for a loved one or two, a deadly hobby, a stalled ambition.
Samuel’s haunted by his mother, Faye, who abandoned him when he was 11, but also by his first love Bethany, his distant longing for whom has grown painfully hollow. One tragicomic character, known only by his avatar “Pwnage,” has an all-consuming video game addiction for his nix. For a hilariously cruel and oddly sympathetic student of Samuel’s (we first meet Samuel as a cynical adjunct professor who takes a perverse pleasure in failing students), it’s a self-perpetuating cheating habit.
Samuel is his mother Faye’s nix, and she his. A central mystery drives their reconciliation. Who, what, and where has Samuel’s mother been since she abandoned him, who was she before becoming his dutifully loving but aloof suburban housemom—and chiefly now what compelled her to throw a handful of small stones one after the next at a boisterous populist primary candidate, a theatrical Republican named Sheldon Packer? Samuel sees her face for the first time on an airport TV. Shortly thereafter he promises his publisher, in lieu of a long-overdue manuscript, a tell-all takedown of his suddenly famous mother, The Packer Attacker.
Everything We Owe
It’s all alarmingly, or regrettably, of-the-moment post-election, or so one might easily think. Many an aging hippie in yoga pants (such is our anonymous archetypal introduction to Faye) would find herself moved to do the same if she somehow came within a stone’s throw of our president-elect. Oh, but it’s not so simple—neither in The Nix nor in contemporary American life. By the end of its 600 pages, we’re rooting for her, the terrible mother, the washed-up radical.
Hill weaves together Samuel’s jilted childhood in 1980s Iowa with his stagnant adulthood in 2011, the campus he leaves behind to find his mother’s history and her dark motivations. Faye’s story enlivens Samuels. Much, but nowhere near all of her haunting stems from 1968, the year of the youth movement. That burnt-over moment brings her from small-town Iowa to the unforgivingly hyper-modern University of Illinois in Chicago, where anxiety and restlessness apotheosize in the violent riots at the Democratic National Convention.
Hill leans on many an American-historical nix. On an intimate scale, within the novel, each national ghost meets its reckoning and confronts the unexpected rightness of intercessory forgiveness. The great recession, Faye fleetingly concludes at the novel’s close, stands for everything we owe:
So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we’ll find our way back. [Spoilers omitted.] Eventually all debts must be repaid.
The Nix debuted late this summer to wide acclaim, not just scoring key spots on “best of” lists but earning comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and John Irving, who himself compared Hill to Charles Dickens. The Nix’s rare winningness, Irving said, comes from its open-hearted dark comedy, an unsettling honesty that is somehow also deeply kind. “It’s an ambitious novel without ever being pretentious.”
It’s also a meaty novel and a welcoming romp of a read. And it didn’t come without a fight. Like his protagonist Samuel, who has failed for years to deliver on a book contract, Hill struggled to pull together a worthy manuscript— “I was writing to impress people, and it turns out that when you do that, you write very unimpressive prose.” After dozens of rejections he succumbed to video game addiction, which he eventually kicked. Hill’s generosity of insight is hard-won; one gets the sense that in order to write The Nix, he had to forgive his own faults.
The novel itself is a nix too, of sorts. Samuel and Hill most clearly converge in Samuel’s decision to “write a long humorous revealing novel about all this.” For both the author and his hero, then, the novel is a reckoning, a sort of forgiveness, and a coming to terms with spiritual debts ranging from the personal to the national. It is the product of nine years’ work, most of those years dedicated to “research and floundering.” He wanted to write a heavy-handed political novel but decided against it. Instead, the story’s political backdrop reflects ascendant human passions, sins, spiritual debts. The novel does not mirror the news of the day, but creates a world in which historical happenings are pumped-up and exaggerated versions of lived events.
Our Flawed Inheritances
Hill’s characters are hard to love but easy to forgive. Their lives build upon one another’s as the central question and tied-in sidestories come into fuller view. A picture of a drawn-out personal, familial, and national forgiveness falls together with a rightness that feels lived-in and accidental. Just as the people we love who populate our lives complete each other without trying to, simply because they are ours.
It might be that the moral of the story, if it’s fair to assign it one, matches the moral of 2016 and every other psycho-political drama that’s played out on the world stage. That is, namely, the Voltairean admonition: Tend your own garden.
All that haunts the American moment will continue to hang over us until we forgive and accept our own individual flawed inheritances. National politics as a consuming obsession can both mask and project our deepest personal failings. It’s a timelier story than Hill or his publishers—or earlier reviewers—could have known.
In the novel’s most meta moment, the slick commercialist publisher snorts at Samuel’s chosen literary direction: “So it’s going to be like six hundred pages and like ten people will read it? Congratulations.” Samuel, we’re to understand, pockets his earnings from The Packer Attacker and goes on to write The Nix.
Self-deprecating anti-industry snipe notwithstanding, The Nix has in reality been a runaway hit. But the kernel of truth here comes in the more recently ascendant sense that the American haunting Hill drags into the light feels a little too close for comfort. In a literary landscape better positioned to see this year for what it’s been, Faye’s last lines may yet loom large: “Eventually all debts must be repaid.”