Wellness Nathan Hill's Newest


By Nathan Hill

Alfred A. Knopf, 634 pages.




Wellness is the second novel from Nathan Hill, whose The Nix justly won much praise. Wellness isn’t quite up that level, but give Hill credit for a second effort whose focus is quite different. Its dual protagonists are Jack Baker and Elizabeth Augustine whose 20 -year plus relationship begins in the 1990s.


If you suspect that Wellness is likely to be an ironic title, you’re on the right street, though you may not have the correct address. Each has fled to Chicago to reinvent themselves. They live in facing apartments in a delipidated complex in Wicker Park. Due to unfortunate urban renewal and highway construction, their section of Chicago was gritty, if not as entirely devoid of life as they later recalled. Jack and Elizabeth were mutual (and mostly innocent) voyeurs clandestinely observing each other before they actually met. Jack fled Nebraska, his sister’s death, a perpetually pessimistic mother, and a passive farmer/planned prairie fire starter father; Elizabeth three generations of often ill-begotten wealth and The Gables, an outwardly impressive mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut. Though slight in build, Jack now sports an enormous tattoo, studies photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, hangs out at seedy venues to see now-forgotten “hot” bands, and makes an unexpected splash in the art scene du jour. Elizabeth studies psychology and is mentored by Dr. Otto Sanborn, a guru of placebo studies. Jack and Elizabeth fall in love based on the idea that the other is the rebel they only pretend to be. Ha!


The two marry, have a difficult-to-raise son, and move away from Wicker Park until Jack’s friend Benjamin Quince can finish the New Urbanism Shipworks, which will contain their “forever home” condo. They also struggle with the slaps of adult life and the suspicion they aren’t the people they thought they’d be. Jack constantly seeks stability and Elizabeth opens a research lab called Wellness that does blind trials on placebos. On  a personal level, she’s looking for a panacea for whatever upsets her. Her greatest success, though, is in monetizing placebos. To give one example, she helps an airline develop an ad campaign to make people feel good about crowded flights and sell premium seats that used to be called coach. 


Wellness takes us into some weird situations. Jack touts photography without a camera; Elizabeth wonders if a woman named Brandie is onto something with her polyamorous lifestyle. Benjamin rockets from one trend to another–hypertext, gag-me diet fads, real estate development–and Jack nods knowingly though he doesn’t have the bandwidth to question whether Ben is a genius or just a moth looking for a flame. You can mix in Minecraft addiction, sexual discontent, guilt, the sophistry of positive psychology, rightwing conspiracy theories, bats in the proverbial belfry, and a whole lot more. At the heart of it all is a burning fear: If Jack and Elizabeth aren’t who they thought they were, are they terribly, terribly wrong for each other?


Hill gives us a deep dive into their backgrounds, mostly in flashback chapters. These serve to help us understand Jack and Elizabeth and raise questions of whether self-deception is hardwired into their DNA. In many respects, everyone in the book is selling snake-oil. The chapter titled “The Placebo Marriage” is particularly devastating and revelatory.


Wellness is rich in ideas, but sometimes overly so. It’s a long novel that could have been usefully trimmed. There are passages that read more as asides than as necessary to advance the plot. I understand how sections on Facebook seduction parallel those of Minecraft and other trends. I even agree with such observations, but such diversions and another involving the important question of whether algorithms are the new master need more direct connection to character development for full impact. There is another thread–whether we actually live inside a computer simulation–that is suddenly and cavalierly dismissed, so why go there at all? The book also threatens to tire readers, as its protagonists are more annoying than sympathetic.   


Hill redeems himself when he’s directly rather than obliquely on target. At heart, Wellness asks the right questions; among them: What is real? What is wellness? Why don’t we detect BS when we’re stepping in it? Can you really leave home? My favorite centers on how to tell the difference between a true rebel and faded tattoos, real ones and those metaphorically etched onto our skins.


Rob Weir




The Hero of My Book/Men in My Situation: Not My Cup of Tea


THE HERO OF THIS BOOK (Elizabeth McCracken)

MEN IN MY SITUATION (Pers Petterson)


Sometimes well-regarded books knock your socks off; sometimes you wonder what the fuss is about. Here are two recent ones that didn’t resonate with me. Maybe they will or already have with you, so feel free to let me know what I missed (if I have).



Elizabeth McCracken used to be one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t like Bowlaway (2019) nor was I fond of her latest, The Hero of This Book (2022, Ecco, 192 pages). It’s a self-reflexive work about an author who hates memoirs, tries not to write one,   though she really is writing one, and hates that. Got all that? Methinks the author doth protest too much. She’s in London, which she doesn’t seem to like very much either. She reflects upon her parents by trying not to do so, but eventually surrenders. Mainly the book is a litany of the things she doesn’t like (besides memoirs): Barbie dolls, bagels cut in half, ballpoint pens, fiction writers, inappropriate cellphone use, eavesdropping, colored hair, writers as characters in fiction, audience participation, men with long hair, Mark Rothko…. I could go on. She does.


I actually share some of her dislikes, but do we pick up a work of fiction­–and she is a fiction writer–to read this? McCracken is a fine writer who has things to say, when she gets around to the task. I enjoyed her wry observation of the lengths Western society goes to avoid the number 13, the contrasting uses of the word mudlark (noun and verb), and ironic sentences like this: “What doesn’t kill you won’t make you stronger, but at least you’ll recognize its face on a WANTED poster.”


McCracken eventually gets to the task of telling us about her mother and father, and they are characters in several senses of the word. What she doesn’t do is tell us another truth: almost no one’s actual family is as fascinating to other people as the real-life narrator thinks they are. It’s the job of a fiction writer to invent things to make them interesting. McCracken’s attempts at self-parody humor are often quite amusing, but I simply got tired of the whining. Some have hailed this as a feminist work. I hope it’s not, or other side has won. Had it been a longer book, I would have quit midstream. 



Per Petterson is a highly regarded Norwegian author, so maybe Men in My Situation (2022 in English, Graywolf, 304 pages) loses something in translation. From where I sit, Petterson made trauma boring. It follows the inactivity of author Arvid Jansen from ages 38-43, a time in which his parents die in a ferry fire, he gets divorced, picks up women he doesn’t care about in bars, smokes Blue Master non-filter cigarettes, drinks too much, and does his best to hate everything his ex-wife liked, including Morrissey and “colorful people.” (Get it? His world is gray.) He goes from one dumb thing to another, which means he, in turn, loses a lot of access to his daughters. His friend Auden is his only significant human contact and he’s not doing much to keep up that relationship.


The novel is told in the first person, which is a problem, as Arvid doesn’t really have a point of view on much of anything. Petterson compounds the problem with weird punctuation or lack thereof. (What does he have against quotation and question marks? Why does he love run-on sentences?) I suppose one could call this an honest look at grief, but one could just as easily call it an unexamined life. That is certainly the consensus of detractors on Goodreads, where readers have used phrases such as “pity party,” “selfish,” “cold” and “self-indulgent.”


My take is that it’s the kind of book that literary critics want to love so they exaggerate its virtues. Like Arvid who likes to take meandering drives, Men in My Situation has no plot. There is a lot of description of externalities, but they are in no apparent service of anything. Like the insomniac Arvid, who tries to sleep in his car, the novel tosses and turns but does not refresh. Try it if you’re curious, but whatever do, do not believe any hype comparing Petterson to Sweden’s Fredrik Backman. There’s more humanity in one of Backman’s subordinate clauses than in the entirety of Men in My Situation.


Rob Weir


Minyeshu: August 2023 Artist of the Month



Minyeshu (Kifle Tedla) isn’t as well known in North America as she is in Europe and it’s bloody well time to correct that. She hails from Ethiopia, where she made waves with the Ethiopian National Theatre. Alas, some of the Theatre’s work ruffled the feathers of the autocratic EPRDF government that took over in 1991. Five years later, Minyeshu was granted asylum in Europe and now lives in The Netherlands. Call it Ethiopia’s loss, as she might be the most exciting singer to come out of the African continent since Benin’s Angélique Kidjo (who also now lives in Europe because of religious and ethnic strife at home).


No wonder Minyeshu ‘s new album, Netsu, translates as ”Free.” She is a different kind of singer than Kidjo, but every bit as exciting. The opening track “Fidel is an earworm of the very best type, a stunning and infectious song that’s in turn catchy, growly, and soaring. (It even has a little talk-box surprise near the end.) It’s also typical of Minyeshu’s blend of West-meets-the-Horn-of-Africa. She sings mostly in Amharic and other African languages, but you don’t need to understand a word to know she’s the real deal. Plus, her blend of funk, roots music, soul, and jazz is so hip you’ll want to jump on the Minyeshu bandwagon.


On “Ethiyo yo yo pa” she and her backup singers warble like birds, but shift when the brass brings on the funk. It is one of several tracks in which you’ll hear ululation, a distinctive African wavering vocal that comes from the back of the throat and presses the tongue to the roof of the mouth. It’s hard for Westerners to emulate. One is tempted to leave it to the experts, but it’s just so joyous it’s hard to resist trying! “Yene Africa” is an ebullient mix of Afropop and brassy instrumentation. It backs Minyeshu’s strong lead that cues robust and percussively-timed backup vocals.


Qhakaza Thando” is the jazziest track on the album, hence the most familiar in sound for those unfamiliar with Minyeshu’s repertoire. Those familiar with Ladysmith Black Mambazo might find resemblances to South African Township songs in the merged voices that that open this song. (Note: South Africa lies nearly 4,000 miles from Ethiopia and one should be aware of cultural differences.)  


For the most part, Minyeshu follows the rhythms of Eskista, which lends itself well to schoulder dance, a term that means pretty much what you think it does. This is a movement that originates in the shoulders and emphasizes everything from a hands-on-shoulder birdlike circular movements to a stiff-bodied shrug that is a prelude to looser movements of the neck and lower body. It can seem unusual at first, but observe how perfectly it fits the music and how much fun the dancers have with it.


Note: The two live tracks I posted are not from Netsu, though they serve to reinforce my comments on how Minyeshu gets in your ear. I’m betting that the feet and shoulders will follow.


Rob Weir