by Nathan Hill, 2016
I am not sure what I expected of The Nix, but wow, was this more than I ever thought it could be. This is a prime example of exactly the sort of multi-generational, multi-viewpoint story I love. What starts as the story of mediocre Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his unfulfilling life as a would-be-author-cum-teacher becomes the sweeping tale of Samuel’s mother, her college compatriots, his grandfather, the neighbors Samuel grew up with, and the friends he makes in an online role-playing game. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt utterly absorbed by a story, eager to get back to it at every possible chance, but that is exactly how I felt about The Nix.
Abandoned by his mother as a young boy, Samuel hears nothing from or about Faye Andresen until she’s seen on the news throwing gravel at the governor of Wyoming. Quickly tapped by the publisher of his erstwhile failed novel, Samuel embarks on a mission to find his mother and learn what caused her actions. His job is to demonize her and paint her past as one filled with political activism and protests, but Samuel can’t help but attempt to figure out why she left him and his father all those years ago. For Faye, the answer isn’t a simple one and we’re drawn all the way back to her childhood and her Norwegian father who cautioned her against pride and told her stories of his homeland’s spirits. This is where we get the book’s title, the Nix being one of these spirits that, the harder you love it, the more it endeavors to drown you. It’s an apt metaphor for all of these characters’ lives and how they love.
Forbidden to leave Iowa when she’s accepted to the University of Illinois at Chicago, a misunderstanding causes Faye to be thrown out of her house and disowned by her father. As Samuel attempts to get to truth behind this previously unknown to him period of his mother’s life, he’s introduced to Faye’s college friend Alice who makes the most accurate observation of human behavior I’ve ever read. After learning that the judge in Faye’s case will be someone from their past, Alice warns Samuel that he’s “the most dangerous species of American there is: a white heterosexual male who didn’t get what he wanted.” Through Alice we learn all about Faye’s politically-minded past, the man she fell in love with, and how all of that is inextricably tied to her recent actions. It is winding and tumultuous and I loved reading every bit of it.
Adding to the cast of characters is student Laura Pottsdam, “Elfscape” companion Pwnage, and childhood friends Bishop and Bethany Fall. Though they don’t add much in terms of Samuel and Faye’s direct story, they serve to enrich the environment and add to our overall understanding of Samuel as a generally weak person, prone to crying fits and escaping into video games. He is the antithesis of Bishop, who stood up not only to the school’s largest bully but also defied the principal’s corporal punishment policy, and he is hopelessly in love with Bethany, though he seemingly lacks the nerve to tell her so. In his inability to stand out and make himself heard, he is more like his mother than he realizes.
It is difficult to sum up all the aspects of this story because the novel is so rich and full of descriptive emotion. I thoroughly enjoyed losing myself in these pages and discovering the truth behind Faye’s actions, how Samuel came to be who he is, and how the two plan to move forward after reconnecting. For they are all haunted, not just by ancient spirits, but by their own past actions and they are all struggling to free themselves of their ghosts.