THE NIX by Nathan Hill (Picador Books, 2016)

thenixAccording to the cliché,  everybody has at least one book in them. Nathan Hill has now written his in the form of this bold and hugely entertaining debut novel.

The American author says that his previous attempts at fiction followed formulas in vain attempts to win a lucrative book deal.

After a series of rejections he decided to cut his losses and simply write a book to please himself. In doing so, he had no idea whether or not it would be published.

It took him ten years to write, a slow but enjoyable process that he equated to tending to his own garden. The result is a triumph.

The Nix began as a modest short story but grew into a multi-layered 620 page epic.  The story is rooted in the disconnected yet, ultimately, connected lives of a mother and son (Faye and Samuel).

Perhaps more by accident than design, Hill also ended up addressing themes and causes which have a particular resonance in the Post-Trump era.

Like a modern-day Dickensian drama, the rich range of characters are all trying to make sense of the complexities and contradictions of their worlds. It is their failures as much as their successes that make their stories so compelling.

The title of the novel comes from a Norwegian ghost story centered on a mythological animal. The moral of this tale is that the things you love and treasure hurt you the most.

The big question at the heart of the book is why Faye, apparently acting out of character, should suddenly decide to leave her husband and 11-year-old son. In the process of exploring this puzzle Hill cultivates a patchwork of interwoven tales (and writing styles) which hold together remarkably well albeit with a number of loose ends and glaring plot holes.

A viral video of an attack on a Republican presidential candidate sets everything in motion and in the course of the narrative, Hill suggests that the Chicago riots of 1968 have a more recent equivalent in the Occupy movement protests in Wall Street.

Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to describe this as a political novel. Indeed, the weakest parts are those in which Hill tries a little too hard to make profound sociological insights.

He is at his best when writing about innane pop songs, bullying, addiction to video games or when satirising the world of academia. For instance, one of the funniest sequences come when a cheating student in Samuel’s literature class at first denies then desperately attempts to justify her actions

A comment of one character, Guy Periwinkle, a smart but cynical publisher, shows that Hill was fully prepared for his ambitious work to sink without trace. Periwinkle advises Samuel to cut out any arty complexity in his writing: “In today’s market, most readers want books with accessible, linear narratives that rely on big concepts and easy life lessons”.

The Nix refuses to follow this prescriptive structure and is all the better for it. It will be a hard act to follow but, interestingly, the ending is open-ended enough to leave scope for a sequel which, hopefully, will not take another ten years to write.