Reading good novels can be challenging. At points they may be tough to get through, even if they are still gripping and engaging. Those points eventually make the ending that much more meaningful and poignant. Such is the case with Nathan Hill’s The Nix.
Your average familial and political novel has all the hallmarks of real life. There are struggles with identity, mental illness, belonging, friendship, coming of age, and what it means to love and be loved by others. Yet, through these struggles, there is an underpinning of tragicomedy. In The Nix, characters Pwnage and Guy Periwinkle provide a sense of comic relief from the drama-filled lives of dual protagonists Faye and Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a mother and her son.
It is this mastery of understanding real life that makes Nathan Hill an author who is sure to go far in his career. His writing comes across with the casual grace of an astute observer of the human condition. This is seen most clearly with how familiar the events in the book feel. Although mainly set in Chicago in 1968 and 2011, there is a clear relation to the America of right now.
Though the novel is a complex political drama that spans decades, it is the journey of self-discovery and familial understanding that makes The Nix a powerful statement from this new writer. It doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, or a needlessly destructive one — though by definition the end is “happy,” it does not feel like a classic happy ending. Like real life, it is full of meaning yet lacks closure. The characters continue on past the stopping point of the novel; there will be more successes and failures in their lives, save for the parts of their lives that became entangled with the political end.
The first page of the book is a passage from Inspired Utterances of the Buddha: a famous tale that focuses on blind men describing an elephant to a king. Each man feels different parts of the animal, create different meanings from each part, and defend their descriptions to the end. The Nix is the elephant, and we as readers are the blind men grasping onto whatever meanings we draw from the novel’s 620 pages. This is what makes Hill a great author: he gave us an elephant, and we can take away whatever meaning we choose from it.