The Everyday Inferno: An Appreciation of Nathan Hill’s “The Nix”

by Sam Buntz

In 2016, a truly realistic writer is, inevitably, also a satirist. It is impossible to squarely depict today’s reality without exploring the richly hued and giddily horrifying dimensions of contemporary chaos—in other words, without charting how the world seems to be satirizing itself. Norms and standards of character, social conventions and order—none of these customary features of Henry James’ cosmos seem to draw near the heart of the matter in the 21st Century.  They are but so many china tea cups patterned over with delicate designs, all cracked beyond repair, disposed casually in the gutter beside an empty package of Jacked Jalapeno Doritos.  A grotesque age, manufacturing grotesque (yet somehow still empathetic) characters on an awesome scale, demands a less circumscribed mode of representation. Only the all-out, the full-on, the unchained, can satisfy.

Nathan Hill has integrated that chaos into an exquisitely crafted book, plotted with all the care of a 19th Century novel. On all levels, The Nix satisfies. It has the world-building and attentive workmanship of Charles Dickens and John Irving (as reviewers have already noted), mixed with a strangely intimate approach to character, unexpectedly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf (one of Hill’s favorite authors, according to a recent interview).  Hill doesn’t use Woolf’s steam-of-consciousness technique, and his book has more momentum and sparkling oddity than the volumes of the Woolfian canon—yet, like Woolf, he places the reader scarily close to the minds of characters who would normally, under the impress of a less-skilled author’s pen, slip across the page as objects of momentary ridicule.  (Among these are the video game addict “Pwnage” and the colossally bratty student/plagiarist Laura Pottsdam). First and foremost, however, Hill’s saga is extremely funny.

The Nix tells the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, an English professor and non-writing writer at a college outside Chicago, and Faye, the mother who abandoned him when he was eleven years old. When Faye shows up on the news, having thrown gravel at the Republican governor of Wyoming (an apparent amalgamation of George W., Ted Cruz, and Trump), Samuel agrees to help her while actually plotting to write a searing tell-all about his mother, this “maestro of being awful.”

Of course, Samuel’s plans regarding the tell-all don’t proceed as expected, and he finds himself the subject of an academic witch-hunt led by the aforementioned Laura, while receiving aid in his quest from “Pwnage,” a comrade from a World of Warcraft-esque computer game entitled World of Elfscape. (Hill was once addicted to Warcraft and the harrowingly comic details of gaming addiction ring with authenticity—an awful rock-bottom realness). Samuel’s search for the truth about his mother’s life eventually leads him back to the riots at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and beyond. Along the way, we see how long pursued objects of desire can grow in illusory intensity—a problem besetting both Samuel and Faye—and note that perpetual national outrage distorts the truth and destroys the possibility of empathy.

Hill’s primary characters, Samuel and Faye, are sympathetic and carefully developed: in the end, they have the reader’s heart. Yet a spirited madness overtakes Hill when he draws his secondary characters. Sublimely outrageous, they tend to glow in our memories, outlined brightly. Laura, for one, brings a negative gusto to the book, an admirable zeal in her badness. Both a hyper-modern idiot and a strange kind of genius, she is cartoonishly entitled, yet doesn’t read like a flat caricature—Hill throws in odd details that grant her an unexpected four-dimensionality.

We learn about Laura’s byzantine schemes for cheating her way though school, and grasp her dismal psychology: “She never felt as secure as she did in dressing rooms rejecting clothes for not being good enough for her, breathing in the deep, gluey smell of the mall.” (There is indeed something “gluey” about the odor of malls). But, suddenly, Hill will throw a detail at the reader which makes Laura’s character open up, like a moment in which Laura sits throwing paper clips up in the air, watching them scatter across a small patch of the floor: “She thought if she could practice this enough she could achieve perfect paper-clip symmetry. She could toss them in such a way that they’d go up and down as a single aggregate lump.” Somehow, within the aggregation of damning details about Laura, this makes her one of us. Her instant of distracted humanity—playing the kind of silly personal game we nearly all invent in vacant moments—makes it clear that she isn’t just a cartoon.  Laura is simultaneously a hilarious and disturbing character because she appears both exaggerated and totally life-like.  It’s a disconcertingly familiar sensation when you live in America these days: whether on TV or in the street, we confront personalities that are both wildly grotesque and recognizably human.

The Nix’s observations on the contemporary media landscape are especially cutting. After Faye assaults the governor, cable news recklessly magnifies the fiasco: “A logo is made: Terror in Chicago.  It whooshes to a spot next to the anchor’s ear and flaps like a flag in the wind […] The news displays a map of Grant Park on a massive touch-screen television in what has become a commonplace of modern newscasting: someone on television communicating via another television, standing in front of the television and controlling the screen by pinching it with his hands and zooming in and out in super-high definition. It all looks really cool.” This sounds fairly satirical, yet it’s the literal truth. (Tune into Shepard Smith’s show on Fox News, 3 P.M. every weekday). Hill has a gift for seeing modern absurdity afresh, for showing us its features outside of their accustomed light.

But the book does much more than satirize entitled students, the chronic glibness of social media, and Caligulan entertainments like the show Man vs. Food. It offers up all of this insanity in order to reckon with it—which is a nice change of pace from the all-too-common tendency to wallow in meaninglessness. If one is permitted to offer real wisdom and insight in a novel in the 2010s—and one ought to be—I would suggest that The Nix manages this feat.

The key lies in the book’s epigraph, the famous Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant: a king orders a group of blind men to touch an elephant and then explain what they think it is. Each man touches a different part of the elephant—trunk, leg, ear, and so on—which leads them to fight about their varying interpretations. In a novel that deals with our pervasive cultural outrage, the perspective implied by this opening quote couldn’t be more appropriate and necessary.  It suggests that our perspectives on reality—whether channeled through the blinders of a specific ideology or a personal wound or obsession—are limited, but that we can sense, if we make a patient effort, the contours of the whole. Beyond this ceaseless turmoil, Hill suggests that something as small as uprooting an invasive mustard plant—engaging in a local effort towards the Good—might point the path towards peace.  (To find out what this mustard plant bit is about, you’ll need to read the book).

In some ways, his perspective is similar to George Saunders’, though expressed on a much larger canvas than that of the Saunders miniature: corrosive observations mingle wondrously with compassion. While the book has been compared frequently and understandably to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I found Hill’s observations and insights to be more profound and less narrowly targeted. Franzen wrote an ambitious and well-crafted novel on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but his characters seemed to be essentially the same person, whether bird-watcher or rock star: the unsympathetic sufferer drowning in viscous national malaise.  (Albeit, Franzen probably intended this; nevertheless, it fatally undercut his openly Tolstoyan ambitions).  By contrast, Hill’s characters are distinct—and, while they suffer, they suffer extraordinarily and colorfully, transforming under the pressure in ways that seem uniquely fitting and true. The ending of Freedom did not seem quite so true, I think (though the scene with a wedding ring encased in a turd has a grisly way of getting itself remembered).

I note all this not to digressively bash Franzen—not the world’s worst writer, by any means—but to indicate The Nix’s unique strengths and place it correctly within the landscape of contemporary literature. It didn’t strike me as a mere “promising debut,” but as a fully achieved work and, if I may be so bold as to venture a prediction, a modern classic. Its craftsmanship, characters, and societal scope should earn it the same sort of massive acclaim that The World According to Garp received upon its release.

At one point, a character in The Nix jokes about writing a 600 page novel that only ten people will read. But the book has already garnered more readers than that. It is rightly calibrated for our time and for all-time, giving us a means of following up on Italo Calvino’s advice in Invisible Cities: “The inferno of the living […] is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

This is the quest of The Nix: to navigate the Inferno, to give its characters space, to teach them to endure.  Whether they learn this lesson will be left, of course, for the reader to discover—yet, the book manages to give us space, in the process, and aid us in our attempts to reckon with our world and see its madness plain.  In an age in which much of our attention is lost to this hectic inferno of distraction, reading The Nix provides an island of stillness and sanity in the midst of the waste.