Nathan Hill’s 2016 debut novel, The Nix, is often spoken of being a “great american novel”. That is a very heavy statement to give, especially for a debut novel. While I can’t personally grant it such a sweeping title, I can understand the reasoning behind it. There isn’t anything seemingly classic or timeless in Nathan Hill’s prose that makes me think of it as a great american novel or modern classic, but The Nix does explore american themes. The biggest themes delved into are: protest culture, isolation, and how media shapes individual perspective. With these concepts The Nix is able to smoothly bridge the two eras the novel takes place in, 1968 and 2011.
Protest is the most overt connection between the two eras. The chapters set in 1968 detail Faye Andreson’s involvement with a Vietnam War protest in Chicago and how the events she experienced affected the course of her life. In the more recent setting of the 2000s in the novel, the protests are held at Republican conventions against the war in the Middle East. The author’s political bias was obvious and at times too heavy handed, seeming cartoonish (i.e. the Republican candidate Sheldon Packer). The best quality of the protest storyline was the use of multiple perspectives narrating the events. It gave a deeper understanding of the different motivations behind law enforcement and protesters alike as well as different characters involved. Simply calling The Nix a protest novel would be only scratching the surface.
The Nix also reads as a social commentary on how the media shapes our perception of the world. This is arguably its strongest quality. Hill’s novel does an excellent job showing how the media speculation of an event can vastly differ from what really occurred. In the novel, the media covers political topics much like it does in reality. The ridicule over Governor Packer is probably the most obvious example. Samuel confronts the fact that much about his false idea of Faye had been caused by media and other speculative sources. The media driven theme in The Nix is best emulated in a conversation between Samuel and his publishing editor near the close of the novel. Samuel’s editor tells him, “In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark age denialism” (709).
With that passage, Nathan Hill makes a very perceptive statement about how we, as people, allow our biases to be fueled with data that supports it whether or not contrasting data exists. For me, that was the deepest truth running within the novel that have The Nix great real world significance.
Finally, on a more personal level, The Nix is a novel about isolation. Whether it’s self imposed isolation or caused by the actions of others. The Nix explores the way it’s widely separated narrators begin alone, but, through circumstances, are able to break from their isolation and connect with one another. The most obvious example could be Samuel meeting his online friend from World of Elfscape in real life when he needs information on finding Faye. Samuel and Pwnage had known each other for years through their avatars of the online fantasy game, but Faye’s reappearance in Samuel’s life causes him to leave his quiet, isolated lifestyle in search of answers from her.
In Faye’s case, her attacking Governor Packer brings her back into Samuel’s orbit and presents a chance for her to reconnect with her son and atone for her sins. Samuel’s pursuit of Faye forces her to confront her choices and their consequences. An argument could be made that while Samuel is the presumed protagonist, Faye is truly at the center of the story. All of her actions and decisions directly affect the lives of the other characters. Without Faye the other stories have no driving motive to progress. Catapulting herself from isolation to the forefront of media scrutiny creates a ripple effect through the lives of every other character. Faye remains the catalyst for their actions, but for Samuel most importantly.
Nathan Hill’s debut has some weaknesses in its thinly veiled biases and somewhat plain writing style. I can’t agree that it deserves to be called the next “great american novel”. I can, however, say that it does explore american themes. Namely the significance of protest in our political history, the media’s influence in american life, and how people isolate themselves. One of the best aspects of The Nix is its cast of original and entertaining characters. The story of Faye and Samuel is in turns both comic and moving. The Nix is a novel that as you read it you find ways it relates to your world and it becomes real.