Nathan Hill’s ambitious debut novel, THE NIX, opens with that famous parable about the blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant --- the trunk, the ear, the tusks, the hooves --- and so each one, based on his limited experience, gains a drastically different idea of what an elephant is. Later on, Hill’s narrator reflects on that parable as it relates to the life of one of its central characters, Faye Andreson: “In the story of the blind men and the elephant, what’s usually ignored is the fact that each man’s description was correct. What Faye won’t understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.”
"THE NIX is a sprawling novel, but in the best way. It creates a world that, despite its characters’ foibles and imperfections, readers will delight to inhabit."
Getting at that true self is the central challenge of the novel. For much of the narrative, the reader follows the fortunes of Faye’s son, Samuel, a cynical English professor and failing fiction writer who has made a concerted effort to forget his mother ever since she abandoned the family without warning when Samuel was 11 years old. But when she is arrested for throwing gravel at a right-wing politician in a Chicago park, and when it turns out that Faye (whom the press has dubbed “The Packer Attacker”) was a one-time radical with an arrest for prostitution on her record (before Samuel was even born), he can’t help but ask questions. And when it turns out that uncovering the truth behind his now-infamous mother’s perplexing actions might help him salvage his languishing publishing contract, all the better.
THE NIX bounces back and forth between the novel’s present (in 2011), Samuel’s childhood in the late 1980s, and his mother’s dramatic coming-of-age in 1968, against the background of political protests against the Democratic National Convention. Allen Ginsberg and Walter Cronkite have cameos here, and Hill manages to work in references to and considerations of modern popular music, vintage feminine hygiene products, Norwegian folk monsters, and massively multi-player online role-playing games.
Hill plays with perspective and with structure, at one point illustrating various logical fallacies through one of Samuel’s students’ attempts to defend her own plagiarism and elsewhere using the conventions of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that young Samuel adored to tell the story of Samuel’s spectacularly failed love affair. Careful readers will delight in small details that pop up in different parts of the narrative, in surprising questions that are raised early and then answered a hundred pages later.
THE NIX is a sprawling novel, but in the best way. It creates a world that, despite its characters’ foibles and imperfections, readers will delight to inhabit.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 25, 2016
- Publication Date: May 2, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 752 pages
- Publisher: Vintage
- ISBN-10: 1101970340
- ISBN-13: 9781101970348