Friday, 3 November 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

"Sometimes we're so wrapped up in our own story that we don't see how we're supporting characters in someone else's"

One of my absolutely favourite tasks is curating a reading list for a few days in the sun. There is, after  all, an art to achieving the right blend of titles to set your stack apart besides the pool. 

One vital component for the holiday stack is the longer novel; the story you can immerse yourself in fully from your sun bed making use of the well earned extra time a holiday affords. For my week in the sun I chose Nathan Hill's 600+ page debut The Nix which is now available in paperback.

For a debut Hill has created an incredibly dense and rich story with multiple perspectives which spans over a big chunk of the 20th Century from Norway to Chicago. This confidence was applauded by critics on the book's release who even claimed that The Nix would enter the canon of 'The Great American Novel' - high praise indeed.

The novel concerns Samuel Andreson-Anderson an acedemic and, somewhat failing, writer under pressure from his publisher to deliver his second novel. Out of the blue inspiration arrives when Samuel's estranged mother appears on the news having thrown grit, in protest, at a right wing Republican candidate. The case grips the nation and when the Media demands to know more about his mother, Faye,  Samuel takes matters in to his own hands and determines to understand her motives and more importantly why she abandoned him as an 11 year old boy.

The narrative flips between Samuel's investigation and the memories of his childhood. As his mother opens up we learn from her perspective what motivated her protest as the narrative takes us back to the 1968 student uprisings of the sixties. These sections are well researched and brought as vividly to life as oral history.

Alongside this Hill introduces a number of secondary characters including his childhood friend Bishop and his more recent friend Pwnage a fellow gaming addict in the virtual world of Elfscape. Personally I could have done without this particular side plot. There is a lot of story here and at times the pace needed some speed but at other times, particularly when writing about Samuel's childhood, Hill delivers beautifully sensitive storytelling reminiscent of Donna Tartt. 

The Nix itself is a reference to old Norse mythology and folktales told through the generations. Tales of The Nix have been passed down from Samuel's grandfather in Norway and it is these stories which ultimately draw Faye back to Europe to discover her own childhood story. If The Nix is to be considered one of the great American novels then its due to Hill's ability to articulate a truly American story through the eyes of their non American forebears.

So did Hill take on too much with The Nix? Possibly, though his writing style is accessible and clear for me there is an editing job to be done.  Had I been reading this is in my normal 20 to 30 mins sittings, rather than in hours spent on the sun-bed, I may've struggled more.

I read this novel by the pool in Lanzarote.

The Nix by Nathan Hill published by Picador, 640 pages.     

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