The Nix by Nathan Hill

28251002It’s good.

I enjoyed it.

It’d didn’t exactly knock my socks off, but I was entertained.

A couple of points….

First, have you noticed, lately, the prevalence of the two plot structure I call What’s Happening/What Happened?

In this structure there are two plots, one that is happening in the novel’s present and one that has already happened in the novel’s past.  The two plot lines alternate; each is developed as the past starts leaking into the present until the two come together in the end where we get a big reveal from the past that also brings the present plot line to a satisfying, often shocking, close.

It’s a very neat structure, one that you see on television dramas frequently these days.  Every time these’s a new character on The Walking Dead we’re treated to intertwining back story, what happened, reflecting on what’s happening in the present as we all sit there stupefied, wondering when that kid will finally cut his hair.

It used to be that the present was a framing device for the past.  A stranger arrives at a haunted old house. He meets a servant who tells the story of how the house came to be haunted.  In the closing chapter he comes to realize that Heathcliff and the rest of them are nuts and he should scream get me the heck out of here, pronto.

Now the past and the present are thoroughly mixed.

In The Nix what’s happening features a middle-aged college professor, one who never got around to completing his novel.  His publisher is threatening to sue him, his estranged mother is in trouble with the law, and one of his students is giving him grief over a paper he knows she has plagiarized.

The what happened story features twin tales of his mother’s youth focused on the month she spent as a college student in Chicago as the riots broke out in 1968 and his own childhood friends, a set of mysterious twins, brother and sister, who both sort of loved him.

It’s all well-told and well-written.  Entertaining stuff that is easy to get lost in once you start reading.  However, I found myself less than anxious to pick it up again the next day.  At over 700 pages there were quite a few next days.

And I kept wondering if all this dialogue was really necessary.

And it kept reminding me of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.  Remember that one? The big book of 1987?

You couldn’t escape it, back then.

There’s this underlying hint of satire throughout The Nix that I wasn’t really sure about.  The parts with the college students, the vindictive Midwestern judge, the various characters at the Chicago riot, the rich publisher.  Just how much of this are we supposed to take as “true” and how much as “satire”?  I suppose an author should never really answer that question. That’s part of what makes the reader uncomfortable, which good satire should always do.

But there were a few points, too many points, when I was reminded of how condescending Tom Wolfe can be.  There’s this hint of snobbery throughout The Bonfire of the Vanities, an attitude that I kept picking up little bits of in The Nix.

 I won’t give away the ending here (don’t worry, no spoilers) except to say that I was surprised how every character basically got an ending they would be happy to have whether they deserved it or not.  It felt a little odd.  Rather than give one side what I thought they deserved, all of the characters basically got what they wanted.

It should have left it all feeling more satisfied than I did.

But at least I never screamed get me the heck out of here.


(Full disclosure: I don’t watch The Walking Dead anymore.  Not after they killed Glen and that other guy.  Zombie stories are supposed to be fun.  I just don’t see the point of all that moodiness in a zombie story. It’s a zombie. Kill it. Move on. No one cares about your drama. So if that kid has cut finally cut his hair, please let me know in a comment. Thanks.)





3 thoughts on “The Nix by Nathan Hill

  1. Nice review! I like your various points. I’ve often wondered about the Present/Past structure and whether it’s overdone these days. It seems to be the default mode and while compelling, is becoming just a standard thing. It makes me wonder how many books actually have a single chronology that only points forward. Maybe that’s the new edginess!

    Thinking back on this book, I’m with you on the satire thing. Were some of the characters only caricatures? To what degree? Hmmm.

    1. Thanks for your comments here. I suspect this present/past structure may be the influence of television on the novel, too. It’s all over the television series as a way to introduce a new character or to go to back story when the current plotline doesnt’ have enough umph to keep the viewer’s interest.

      1. You’re right, this is a major TV influence. In the modern era it probably started with LOST’s flashback/flash forward trickery. Now everyone is very comfortable with the inter-splicing.

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