The Nix by Nathan Hill, book review: Complete unadulterated pleasure, all 620 pages of it

This debut novel is about an English professor, who searches for the truth about his estranged mother, accused of domestic terrorism, in a tell-all book he agrees to write for his publisher, instead of the novel he can't finish

Lucy Scholes
Wednesday 18 January 2017 16:48
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The intergenerational multi-stranded mystery that Nathan Hill spins in his debut novel The Nix begins in 2011 when an apparently unprovoked attack on a Republican presidential candidate makes national news. The culprit is named as “terrorist radical hippy prostitute”, 61-year-old Faye Andresen-Anderson, information about her that comes as a surprise to her estranged son, Samuel, whom she walked out on when he was 11.

Samuel was once a bright young writer with a huge advance for a much-anticipated novel, but that was 10 years ago. Now he’s a bored English professor, about to be sued for not delivering his manuscript. Salvation arrives in the form of his mother’s infamy – write a warts-and-all exposé on her instead, his publisher tells him, and they’ll be quits. Thus Samuel sets out to learn the truth about his mother’s apparently chequered past.

Reading The Nix – all 620 pages of it – is an experience of complete unadulterated pleasure. It could have been shorter, but would that have made it more enjoyable? No. It’s an admirably accomplished novel. Hill is a most sensitive writer, able to oscillate between scenes of witty hilarity and deep tragedy with a satisfyingly sonorous rhythm, but his talent shines through most strongly in the striking way in which each and every of its multifarious storylines feels completely integral to the overall whole.

“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting character’s in someone else’s,” Faye realises towards the end of the book. We, as readers, have learnt this already. Hill draws each and every character with the same precision, regardless of how peripheral they are to the central story unfolding between mother and son, whether it’s for the entirety of one of the book’s 10 parts, a single chapter of which, or merely a page or two of action, each has a life and identity of their own.

No tangents from the main plot felt like digressions. Not the uproarious encounter between Samuel and an entitled student he catches cheating, and certainly not the delicately drawn depiction of his childhood friend Bishop and his sister Bethany. If anything, each is a little gem of a short story nestling inside the larger novel; not dissimilar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books Samuel devoured as a child, that “forked this way or that, then forked again, and then again, and that each story was in the end a unified narrative whole – many stories in one”.

Initially, this apparent insistence of including each and every idea Hill’s ever had smacks of first-time writing – of an author who hasn’t yet learnt that what you choose to leave out is as important a decision as what you choose to leave in; or one infused with the fear that this will be his one and only chance to make a mark. Hill, however, is an unusually talented enough storyteller to break the rules.

'The Nix' by Nathan Hill is published by Picador, £16.99

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