THE NIX (2016)
By Nathan Hill
Knopf, 625 pages.
The Nix is an inventive novel, but first a bit of Norwegian folklore to enhance the background. Christianity supplanted older Norwegian religions in the 11th century but, as in many parts of Europe, it never succeeded in destroying them. Nature spirits, elves, imps, and other such magical beings remained part of the vernacular. How much people believed in them is a matter of debate akin in modern America to that over the efficacy (or not) of luck, superstition, intuition, and prayer. Most scholars argue that common folks throughout history outwardly profess sanctioned religion and privately practice a belief smorgasbord.
In Nathan Hill's novel, two spirits collide: the nisse and the nix. It's up to you to decide whether these are for-real Old World spirits, metaphors, or a bit of both. Nisse are mischievous spirits akin to English brownies–house sprites that reside in the cellar and raise small havoc like moving things and causing chimney back drafts. They're usually benign, but they hate to be dissed or get wet, so be respectful and if you spill water, apologize immediately. The nisse are powerful, short-tempered, hold grudges, and can place a curse on you. You definitely want to avoid the nix–a Germanized version of the Norwegian nøkk–which are malevolent. They appear as beautiful horses, but woe to those who mount one as they rush headlong into the sea and drown their riders.
The Nix revolves around mother and son Faye and Samuel Andresen-Anderson: double Norwegian Americans, if you will, and each other's nix. The story is non-linear; hence we meet Samuel in 2007, when he's 34, still harboring a grudge over the fact that his mother disappeared when he was 11. He's also failing to complete a book, pining over the loss of the love of his life, and holding a monstrous mortgage on a now-worthless apartment, courtesy of the housing market collapse. He teaches literature at a third-rate college in Chicago whose students would rather juggle hamsters than read Hamlet, and a few of them are toxic nasty. To top off the pain, Samuel's publisher for his non-existent book threatens to sue for the return of a long-spent advance. Basically, Samuel's a loser whose sole pleasure has become addiction: he compulsively plays an online fantasy game called Elfscape. (I gather this is based partly on Pure Pwnage, a Canadian mockumentary about an obsessive video gamer. Elfscape's best player calls himself Pwnage.)
We also meet Faye in 2007—aged 61 and the center of a media frenzy when she hurls a handful of gravel that strikes red meat Republican Sheldon Packer, a mash between Paul LePage, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump. Suddenly Faye is the "Packer Attacker" and a manufactured terrorist–courtesy of a Fox News surrogate that propels Packer to the fore of the POTUS wannabe pack. No real info on Faye Andresen-Anderson? No problem–find a few old photos, set loose the shock jocks, and invent a back story. Or better yet, let Samuel off his debt hook if he agrees to an instant biography exposing his mother's unfit parenting, her radical past, and her propensity for violence. Not easy when you've not seen someone since you were 11, but not necessarily a deal-breaker given that such a book has already been mostly ghost written and it's his name that's wanted, not his prose!
If you think I'm giving away too much, you're wrong. This is just the setup to Hill's sprawling novel. The Nix has spawned comparisons to everyone from Charles Dickens and Thomas Pynchon to David Foster Wallace. Those seem a stretch, but let's toss in John Irving for the careful plotting and the shit-just-happens circumstances of the main characters, and perhaps a dollop of E. L. Doctorow for the deft mix of fictional and historical characters. Hill moves us back and forth from Samuel's Iowa boyhood, his intense friendship with rich bad boy Bishop, his obsession with Bishop's sister, and his mother's mysterious disappearance. Hill takes us even deeper into Faye's past: the burdens of being female before and during the 'liberated' 1960s, her fixation on Allen Ginsberg, her escape from Iowa, and a few months of college in Chicago, just in time to be swept up in the drama of the Yippies and the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention. Real-life figures such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Cronkite, and Mayor Daley are woven into the narrative. So too are sadistic cops, hints of the COINTELPRO program, and many other late 60s references.
Many readers will enjoy Hill's take-down of contemporary culture even more than the history lesson. His send-up of the fake news cycle and the tools of modern fascism are, perhaps, too chillingly real to be as amusing as he intended, but he's not letting liberals off the hook either. He has nothing good to say about political correctness, coddling college campus culture, the cult of money, or the shallowness of the pop industry. Hill serves us a roll of Sweet Tarts–candy whose sweetness gives way to sourness. He seems to be saying that if want to know why things are they way they are, it's because we're too distracted to pay attention. Our distraction might well be the American nix.