‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill tells the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a thirty-something college professor with writer’s block whose estranged mother Faye is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate and subsequently portrayed in the media as a radical hippie. Samuel is on the verge of being sued by his publisher for failing to produce the novel he received a huge advance for several years earlier and in order to avoid bankruptcy, he must write a biography of his mother who he hasn’t seen for over twenty years. However, his quest for information about Faye reveals that she has a far more complex past than he ever imagined.
The first thing to say about ‘The Nix’ is that it is very long, or sprawling as some might say, clocking in at over 600 pages. As with almost any novel of significant length, there are sections which could have been subject to some harsher editing and as a result, the story tends to go off on some fairly long descriptive tangents. However, the plot is skilfully constructed in such a way that none of the subplots or characters could easily have been edited out completely which is a pretty remarkable achievement. All of the different elements of Samuel’s family story are essential to the plot and the supporting characters are equally well drawn, from his childhood friends Bishop and Bethany to his grandfather’s early adulthood in Norway during the Second World War through to Faye’s upbringing in Iowa and involvement in the countercultural movement in Chicago in 1968.
The second thing to say about ‘The Nix’ is that it is a satirical novel which is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The passages from the 2011 strand of the story about the effects of Samuel and his online friends’ addiction to the computer game Elfscape – not a million miles away from a possible ‘Black Mirror’ style scenario – and his meeting with serial plagiarist student Laura Pottsdam are particularly brilliant. I think comedy is one of the most difficult things to pull off convincingly in fiction – Hill not only manages to do this repeatedly in several different contexts but also balances the satire effectively against the more poignant aspects of the story.
‘The Nix’ has been mentioned in virtually all of the “ones to watch” lists and for very good reason. Yes, it could have been shorter, but above all, it is a hugely entertaining and very well written debut novel. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.