'The Nix' cleverly mixes politics and a troubled mother-son relationship

Nathan Hill's smart, empathetic novel involves an anti-immigrant politician and a disappearing mom.

The Nix By Nathan Hill Knopf 640 pp.

Nathan Hill has remarkable timing. He started writing his debut novel, The Nix, 12 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine it could have been more topical if he’d begun 12 weeks ago.

In 2011, a woman flings some rocks at an anti-immigrant politician, Governor Packer, whose career is fueled by “an antielitist populism and found a receptive audience especially among blue-collar white conservatives put out by the current recession.” The Packer Attacker, as she’s dubbed in the media, is soon decried as a “terrorist, radical, hippie, prostitute teacher.”

Professor Samuel Andreson-Anderson knows her by a different name: Mom. And he hasn’t seen her since she walked out on him and his dad when he was 11.

Samuel was left with questions about his mom’s “acres of secrets” and a collection of Norwegian ghost stories his mother used to terrify him with at bedtime. One of those was the title character, “The Nix,” a spirit that would appear to children as a white horse. When the child got on its back, it would run faster and faster until it leaped off cliffs into the sea. When Faye’s father told her the story, “he said the moral was: Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” For her part, Faye told Samuel the moral was, “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.” (She also told him “every memory is a scar.” “And they all lived happily ever after” was apparently not in the Andreson-Anderson family vocabulary.)

While he has a four-piece, matching set of emotional baggage he’s been lugging around since he was a pre-teen, Anderson claims to be preoccupied with his current troubles. Once, he was a “promising” writer who won acclaim and a book contract on the strength of the first – and, it turns out only – short story he published. Now an English professor, he’s tangling with a student, Laura Pottsdam, who turned in the same plagiarized term paper on “Hamlet” she used in high school. (This recycled cheating actually seems like uncharacteristic sloppiness from Laura, a budding CEO-type and social media maven, who has delegated all of her pesky “work” to various besotted minions.)

She certainly isn’t going to allow a rude professor to stigmatize her by calling her a “cheater” and destroy her career over “Hamlet,” which she’s never going to need in the future anyway. College is supposed to be a “safe space,” isn’t it? While “The Nix” isn’t a campus novel like Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” or Francine Prose’s “Blue Angel, Hill deftly satirizes academia over the course of a tour de force sequence of arguments. Here’s just one: “Writing a paper for Professor Anderson triggers negative feelings of stress and vulnerability. It feels oppressive. If I write a paper using my own words, he’ll give me a bad grade and I’ll feel bad about myself. Do you think I should have to feel bad about myself in order to get a degree?”  

And Samuel’s publisher is threatening to sue him for the never-completed novel – unless he agrees to write a tell-all about his mom.

“The Nix” is smart without being pretentious – the novel mixes a family history with political, social, and academic commentary with Choose Your Own Adventure stories and a fictional World of Warcraft called Elfscape. There Samuel (aka Dodger the Elven Thief) feels more alive than he does teaching “Hamlet” to deeply unmotivated students.

Hill goes back to the 1980s to Samuel’s childhood and a pair of siblings with whom his life becomes entwined; and then follows Faye back to college in 1968 Chicago, the site of the Democratic National Convention riots; and then traces her father’s past in Norway. While it’s a big book, clocking in at 600+ pages, “The Nix” isn’t ponderous.

And, with one exception, it’s hard to imagine Hill excising anything. Certainly, this reader would never want to lose the Choose Your Own Adventure story he includes at the heart of the novel. However, there’s a subplot involving a fellow gamer named Pwnage that doesn’t add much – except an unfortunate 11-page long sentence about a character a reader isn’t terribly invested in.

But in addition to being a smart novel, “The Nix” is an empathetic one, as in this description of the panic attacks Faye had since she was a child: “It didn’t feel like she was panicking; it felt more like she was being forcibly and methodically deactivated all over. Like a wall of televisions being turned off one by one – how the images on each TV shrank to pinholes before disappearing altogether.”

One character tells Samuel that knowing his mom’s story won’t change anything – “the past is the past.” Another echoes Pilate, asking “What’s true?” He points out that the world “has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data.” Reality is too complicated: “it’s way easier to ignore all data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does.”

But Samuel is a dogged gamer who used to leave a bookmark at pivotal points in his beloved Choose Your Own Adventures, so he could go back and try again if the story didn’t end well. “More than anything he wants life to behave this way.” This quest isn’t exactly a reset, but it’s a chance for both mother and son to make different choices.

“What we think of as forgetting really isn’t,” Samuel’s mom tells him. “Not strictly speaking. We never actually forget things. We only lose the path back to them.”

In Hill’s generous novel, the two get a chance to forge a new path.

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