A lot of people have called Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix (Knopf, August 30, 2016), one of the best of the year. They’re absolutely right. This willfully sprawling, imperfectly ambitious novel contains so many shades of other books that I love that, upon reflection, it’s startling to consider the unique sort of excellence Hill has been able to achieve.
To inadequately sum up a massive, 620 page novel, the story follows the relationship between an aloof son and his estranged mother. Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a 30-something college English professor obsessed with “World of Elfscape,” starts researching the life of his mother, Faye, after she gets caught on camera throwing rocks at a horrible politician. She had abandoned him without warning at the age of 11, and the two hadn’t had any contact since. However, when his publishing company threatens to sue him for a novel he’s put off writing for them for about a decade, he volunteers a biography of his mother, the new national scandal.
What follows is a rotating series of intertwining story threads that dissect Samuel’s relationship with Faye and the world that surrounds him. From The Occupy Movement to the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention to ’80s Chicago suburbs to Norway in the ’40s, this novel covers a lot of ground, with frequent pit-stops in the points of view of a vast collection of characters. It’s jarring at times, but not to the point where it pulls you out of the narrative. The Nix is filled with a variety of styles, settings and perspectives that you don’t really want to be pulled away from, until you realize that the next situation you’ve found yourself in within the novel is just as easy to slip into.
Hill’s writing is at times joyfully irreverent, and at other times remarkably personal. For example, the novel opens with a description of Faye’s departure, the “slow burglary” of a woman sequestering her possessions, that’s as heartbreakingly authentic as it is bitingly clever. And that’s just the prologue. The rest of the novel is full of similar constructions that vacillate between being unabashedly millennial and utterly timeless.
The New York Times compared certain elements of The Nix to the writing of David Foster Wallace (among others), and this huge novel will happily fill the Infinite Jest-sized holes in the bags and hearts of many people who enjoy the feeling of toting around a colossal tome. I found the length a little intimidating to begin with, but the novel is easy to dive into — which I intend to do a second time as soon as I can, despite the genuinely unsettling elements of the story. There’s a lot going on in The Nix, and the biggest compliment I can pay it is an earnest recommendation that you read this book more than once.