“The Nix” by Nathan Hill -abandoned at 41% (nine hours)

Beautifully written, wonderfully narrated, filled with keen observations and credible interior monologues.

Abandoned because it’s too painful to watch the broken people and learn about the things that broke them.

“The Nix” is the first book of my “20 for 20 reading Size Matterschallenge” :

To Read twenty books from my TBR pile that are 600 pages/20 hours long or more

Books this long (two or three times as long as the typical novel) are a significant investment of time, emotion and imagination, so I promised myself I wouldn’t persist with any book in the challenge that had become a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading more of.

Sadly, “The Nix” failed that test today.

It’s very well written. The narrator delivers a wonderful performance. The book is stacked high with believable people and astonishingly well-observed interior monologues. I’m abandoning it because Nathan Hill seems to like to cripple his characters and make me watch. I’ve decided not to watch any more.

You may feel differently about this book. It has a lot to recommend it. So I’m sharing the reaction I had to each of the first four parts of the book as I went along, to give you the flavour or the book and my experience of it.

Part 1 Like watching a UHD TV

I’ve just finished part one of this book, which was mostly spent establishing the character of the son, Samuel, whose mother, Faye, has been arrested for throwing gravel at a particularly obnoxious ex-State Governer and with setting the tone for the novel.

It’s the tone that I find both most engaging and most difficult to deal with. 

This is a book that doesn’t have a narrative thrust so much as a slow roll down a gradually steepening slope which instinct tells me is going to accelerate gradually but inexorably until it hits something, probably with a loud bang.

It’s a book of scenes that are primarily focused on the interior monologue of the main character in a scene. None of these scenes is tackled quickly. They go on and on and as they go on things get worse and worse and you want it to stop but you know that it won’t and you read on anyway.

The scenes could be sketches in a standup comedy: their acutely observed and focus on behaviour that makes you cringe because it’s as familiar as it is embarrassing. Except that where a stand-up comedian would be fast, using his or her wit to impale their subject in a flash of verbal steel, “The Nix” is slow and relentless, flaying the subject inch by bleeding, painful inch. 

There’s the scene where a character. in the process of falling into sleep after a disappointing day, rehearses all the reasons why, day after day, he fails to change his life, sort out his house, start his new diet, break free of his obsessive behaviour and be the person he wants to be. It’s a mixture of hope, regret, self-reproach and self-deception that I’m sure most of us have experienced and it’s there in all its unforgettable technicolour glory.

There’s another scene, that goes on and on, in which Samuel, a professor of English at a minor school, tells a student that he’s failing her for plagiarism and finds himself on the receiving end of false argument after false argument about why he can’t do this until his rage overtakes him and he says something that he shouldn’t. This slow but predictable loss of control in the face of faux-outrage is all very familiar to me.

So, I know it’s meant, probably, on some level, to be funny. The problem is that it is too true to be funny. Tragic. Masochistic. Nightmarish. Any of these words can be made to fit but not funny. 

I feel as I do when I see those huge Ultra High Definition TV screens showing programs in the showrooms of electronics stores: overwhelmed and disoriented. The image I’m looking at is SO detailed and SO clear that it feels like a distortion. I NEVER see the real world with that level of clarity, so the television’s accuracy is disquieting.

I’m going to continue with “The NIx” because I’m fascinated by the ability to sustain this hellish but familiar view of life and because I want to be there when the rate of roll of the plot reaches its highest velocity.

Part 2: The book as a hologram

This is one of those books where the idea of moving through the story from beginning to end is treated as a bizarre idea that the reader must abandon early to avoid frustration.

At one point, Samuel’s agent explains that those who think publishing is about books are obsessing about the container when they should be focusing on the content.

“The Nix” is more like a hologram than a book. The author uses the text to turn the content in the light, letting the reader see it from different angles. The “it” is not really a story, it’s a person, our hero. It’s who is, who he was, who he will become but it’s all of those things at the same time. The hologram is his identity. Although changing the angle at which the reader sees the hologram shows up different aspects of the hologram, the thing itself is there in its entirety and unchanging from the first page to the last.

This means that, although Part 1 ends with Samuel meeting his beleaguered mother for the first time in more than two decades, Part 2 takes us backwards, not forwards, to Samuel’s childhood and because I know something of the man he now is, I see the boy he was differently than if I had met the boy first. The man is not the outcome of the boy, the boy is the outcome of the man.

This may sound weird but it feels normal and easy to understand when I’m reading the book, partly because the author takes this approach to narrative entirely for granted.

What does seem weird is the description of American High Schools in the 1980s. Where they really so authoritarian? Did they really issue passes, that constituted a contract about required behaviour before allowing eleven-year-olds to go to the toilet during class? And did the students really comply? It’s described with such forceful clarity that I’m inclined to believe it but it feels very alien to me.

Part 2 continued: Thank you for making me confront this about myself

I’ve finished part two of the book, set in Samuel’s childhood. It was intense, vividly described and mostly unpleasant. 

Part of the unpleasantness is something I’m generating. 

Here’s this sensitive, vulnerable eleven-year-old kid that I ought to feel sorry for or at least feel some empathy for. He’s puzzled by his enigmatic, secretive, often distant mother. He’s afraid of everything. He cries uncontrollably at the slightest provocation and can do nothing to stop himself. He feels abandoned, alone and afraid.

And I don’t like him.

I don’t like spending time in his head.

His snivelling anxiety fills me with a slow-burning anger.

I want him to either grow up or shut up but I know that he’s going to grow up to be a man riddled with anxiety and fear and a sense of being owed something because he was damaged and it wasn’t his fault and his life isn’t what it should be and he isn’t who he should be and none of that is his fault either.

And instead of sympathising or sharing his pain, I just want to tell him to get over himself and take care of what’s in front of him.

I don’t like this response. I’d like to be nicer than that but I’m not. So thank you, Nathan Hill, for making me confront that about myself.

I really, really hope this is all going somewhere and won’t just end with “Ain’t life awful?”

Part 3: some very well done character pieces

Part three had some great scenes in it,

The girl who keeps justifying why she can’t and shouldn’t need to read Hamlet and how successful she’s going to be in business because of her social media presence.

The way in which the grandfather remembers Norway and his youth there and how this is interwoven with dementia.

The strange lawyer who speaks as if he were a legal text, denying or defining reality and sweating relentlessly.

I still don’t like the main character but I’m keeping reading because the next part is about his mother’s youth and she seems interesting.

Part 4: Why does he keep doing this to his characters?

Part four initially re-engaged me with the novel. It goes further back in time and focuses on Faye’s Highschool years. I liked Faye. I’m meant to like her.

Once that’s accomplished, once I care about her, Nathan Hill cripples her.

He imposes severe anxiety attacks on her that turn her into someone morbidly afraid of failing at anything. She excels at every task she takes on and avoids any task or social situation in which she might fail. She’s about to escape to a scholarship in Chicago but I know Nathan Hill’s pattern now, he pulls off his character’s wings before they’re able to fly, so I know something cruel is about to happen to break Faye further.

I don’t want to watch it happen. I don’t even want to know what it is. So, nine hours into a book that is more than twenty-one hours long, I’m setting it aside to read something where the writer is less cruel to his characters.

2 thoughts on ““The Nix” by Nathan Hill -abandoned at 41% (nine hours)

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