The Nix by Nathan Hill

Reviewed by Lucy Unwin

No book could be simultaneously more timely and more timeless than this future classic. The Nix is fun, joyous, exciting and tender; full of both the outrage, anger and giddy momentum of political change and subtle layers of sympathy for the characters at the heart of it.

It is inescapably apt that The Nix and President Trump arrived at the same time: The Nix was published in the UK in the week of Trump’s inauguration. The novel opens with the scene of a Trump-esque Presidential candidate getting hit with a handful of gravel thrown by an angry middle-aged women. How many people worldwide would like to throw some gravel right now?

Protest is at the centre of The Nix. After the gravel incident, the woman who threw it becomes labelled by a hostile press as an angry hippie radical ex-prostitute; not a description that rings true for her son Samuel. She was his normal, suburban mum before she abandoned him, aged 11. The central thread of The Nix is Samuel trying to put together a profile of his estranged mum, and unearth the truth behind the mysterious photo of her, at the 1968 Chicago riots, that accompanies every news story. His publisher demands it or else they’re suing him for non-delivery of the novel they signed him to write years ago.

But while the Chicago protest is the climax of the book, the aspect which makes it so very timely is not the demonstration or the candidate, but that magical thing that makes reading wonderful: empathy.

That Obama reads fiction and Trump does not says a lot, and many fiction writers must be hunkering down right now trying to fill their pages with as diverse a cast of characters as they can, in the hope of somehow influencing voters of the future to have more empathy and compassion. If only every American citizen had The Nix as a required text before voting in the latest Presidential election!

The breadth of characters we get to know here is astounding, and many of them the sort who don’t often get a starring role in fiction. From the traditionally derided, like Pwnage – addicted to an online game inspired by World of Warcraft, to the amusingly annoying and manipulative student Laura Pottsdam, to the withdrawn and distant factory-working Norwegian immigrant to the squaddies taking bets over shooting a camel in Iraq.

Each contains within them both the characteristics of the stereotypes they represent and the details to subvert that. The squaddie, for one, may act out our expectations, but thoughtful perceptions like these might thwart them:

Back home, life was like driving a road at sixty miles per hour, every little bump and texture flattened into an indistinguishable buzz. War is like stopping and feeling the road with …bare fingers

While plenty is played for laughs, and many of the characters are unlikeable and clearly drawing on unsavoury motives, they are all painted with love, insight and affection. As one character reflects in the novel: “Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime.” It feels as if Nathan Hill has crammed 10 lifetimes into writing this, and tried his best to see EVERYONE clearly.

It’s true The Nix is long (600+ pages,) and at times feels like an indulgent, rambling rollercoaster of a book, but it filled me with joy – it’s exhilarating, life-affirming and brimming with empathy and love.

Lucy Unwin blogs about books at www.thosepreciousstolenmoments.com. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin

Nathan Hill, The Nix (Picador, 2017). 978-1509807833, 640pp., Hardback.

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