Book Review: Nathan Hill’s The Nix

It’s been years since I’ve posted a book review on this site, but I recently finished reading Nathan Hill’s The Nix, and the book left a lasting impression on me. Here is the summary on Amazon:

From the suburban Midwest to New York City to the 1968 riots that rocked Chicago and beyond, The Nix explores—with sharp humor and a fierce tenderness—the resilience of love and home, even in times of radical change.

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

The book is structured in a non-linear fashion, jumping from the events in the late 1960s to the 2011 present, the year 1988, and then back through the cycle again. While the non-linearity was slightly confusing in the early chapters, it was much easier to follow once the story was unraveled. I found myself reading hundreds of pages daily—in fact, it’s the first time I finished a 500+ page book in less than four days (my average reading speed was about 150 pages per day). In The Nix, Nathan Hill explores the themes of abandonment, empathy (or lack thereof), and broken relationships, which would be familiar to anyone who has read any of Jonathan Franzen’s novels—except reading The Nix was a lot more entertaining.

The biggest takeaway from this fictional work for me is how much of our default emotional state may be (undeserved) anger or frustration or resentment or even hatred toward someone (or some group), which ultimately leads to misunderstanding and broken relationships. Many passages in the book reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s essay “This is Water,” where DFW talks about this default state of self-centeredness:

We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of

Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to 5 drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

A few notable passages from The Nix that struck with me are below.

So what is this Nix, exactly?

Samuel’s mother told him about the Nix. Another of her father’s ghosts. The scariest one. The Nix, she said, was a spirit of the water who flew up and down the coastline looking for children, especially adventurous children out walking alone. Unsaddled, but friendly and tame. It bowed down as low as a horse was able, so the kid could leap onto it.

Do we live our lives in the state of hiding?

This was a formula for living a life full of secrets…People constantly hid. It was a sickness maybe worse than the Parkinson’s.

A humorous conversation between two folks (one of dozens of highly entertaining passages in the book):

“A real hedley-medley out there.”

“A real hugger-mugger, you might say?”

“Yep. Gone all topsy-turvy.”

“A sincere higgledy-piggledy.”

“Yessir, one hundred percent hurly-burly.”

“A pell-mell.”

“A rubble-rabble.”

“A skimble-skamble.”

A passage of being caught in a protest:

He’s squeezing her hand so hard it hurts, but she doesn’t dare let go. She feels herself caught in this moving human river and pressed at all sides and sometimes even lifted off her feet for a moment and carried, a sensation like swimming or floating, before being dropped again, and the thing she’s thinking about most right now is keeping her balance, staying on her feet, because these people are panicked and this is what ten thousand panicked people look like: like wild animals, huge and insensate. If she falls she’ll be trapped. The terror she feels about this goes way beyond terror and into a kind of calm clarity. This is life or death.

One of the themes in the book is the classification of people into enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps. On facing the world and coming to a powerful realization:

But you cannot endure this world alone, and the more Samuel’s written his book, the more he’s realized how wrong he was. Because if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at a constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar.

On treating people as puzzles:

This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.

The Nix has been awarded A New York Times 2016 Notable Book, Entertainment Weekly‘s #1 Book of the Year, A Washington Post 2016 Notable Book, and A Slate Top Ten Book last year. If you are someone who is quick to judgment, who has made some mistakes by acting on incomplete information about someone, or know someone who falls into those criteria, you will enjoy The Nix. This parting thought from me: it’s hard to claim that a book of fiction can make you noticeably more empathetic in life, but I think Nathan Hill’s The Nix comes close. I highly recommend reading the book.

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