I’ve been struggling to come up with a coherent response to this book since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I mentioned in my March Wrap Up that with both this and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, I felt like I needed some time to process them before I could talk about them. With The Mothers, I thought about it a lot and came to the conclusion that I loved it and I had a lot to say about it. My review of that has gone up and I feel like I could write a totally new one about it and have totally new things to say – it’s a book that I keep thinking about and reacting to.
That hasn’t really been the case with The Nix. As I was reading the two books, I would have said I was enjoying them equally, they were both engaging and compelling to read, but in the aftermath, I’ve come to the conclusion that my thoughts about The Nix are incoherent because The Nix is a bit incoherent.
Nathan Hill is undoubtedly a strong writer. It’s sharp and witty and clever, and he experiments to great success in places. The book is very entertaining, and despite being pretty chunky, it doesn’t feel long (although at one point the protagonist’s publisher tells him that only 10 people will read his 600-page novel, a moment of self-awareness which I loved). At one point, the incredible physical decline of a man addicted to an online game is described in a single sentence which lasts around ten pages, and yet manages not to lose its thread.
The problem is that I couldn’t tell you what it’s about. It feels like Hill has put every single idea he has ever had for a novel into his debut, and while I loved his writing and will eagerly read whatever he publishes next, I have no idea whether he’ll be able to given the number of things covered in this one book. Student protests in the sixties, motherhood, child abuse, the Iraq War, the entitlement of American youth, online gaming addiction, childhood grief, police brutality, media bullshitting, social media, a bit of unrequited love, guilt… I could go on. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in it, when you take a step back from the book, it’s a bit of a mess.
Hill is trying for a sweeping epic, but the multiple strands don’t weave together very much, and where they do it feels a little ham-fisted. Certain characters feel like they didn’t add anything at all to the story, and for my money if the book is going to be this long, you have to earn every page.
In principle, it’s about Samuel, an academic and struggling writer, who finds himself back in contact with the mother who abandoned him when she assaults a presidential candidate. Her lawyer wants Samuel to vouch for her character, but meanwhile Samuel’s publisher, threatening to sue him for the advance on a book he never finished, sees the opportunity for a tell-all book. The main plot is about Samuel and his mother’s lives, what lead her to leave and what the impact of that has been on him. But there is so much extra flab around that plot that it gets lost in the crowd of subplots. The depth and nuance with which Hill is able to treat an enormous cast of characters is impressive, but ultimately doesn’t add an awful lot to the reading experience.
I honestly did like the book, and as I said, I will be keen to read anything else he writes. It’s just a little too much, in every sense. There is constantly a little more than there needs to be, too many characters given a moment in the spotlight, too many subplots with no clear logic, too many words used. It’s a clever book, but I’m not sure that it’s a good one. There are the bones of an incredible book in there, but it’s a little hard to find them under all the flab.