Here’s the truth: I’m 25 and I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’m teaching English Literature and Composition to high school students, but I like to think of myself as someone who will eventually be writer or, at the very least, a critic. I’m one of those scoffed at idealists, consistently feeling angry that the world is not as it should be. I spend a lot of my job-time wishing I was writing. At the same time, I spend a lot of my free-time not writing. It’s a vicious circle that, as it turns out, is entirely escapable if I truly care to make tough choices. Yet, to make tough choices is to act against the world that has built up around you. Perhaps Orwell would hate my using this term, but the world around a person is plastic. It shapes and hardens, but not to the point of being impossible to break or remold. Plastic doesn’t ever go away, but once it is changed it never regains its previous form.
John William’s Stoner can be quickly described as a novel in which a man lives his entire life letting the world push him without having to worry about his pushing back. At the end of the novel when Stoner dies, he is holding the only thing he really has to show for his life: a book that no one really read. He is emotionally alone and cynical. His wife and daughter do not care about him. In short, his existence became completely forgettable. Stoner’s lesson to its readers could be understood as a warning to not become William Stoner. That the only hope we idealists have in avoiding becoming lonely and cynical is to push back against a world that is set up to repeatedly shove us like a childhood bully. And in a way, this is the lesson of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix.
The Nix is the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a college professor who finds himself boxed in; surrounded by terrible students, a university with an approach to education which declares that everything must be quantifiable, an unfinished novel that he has been expected to write for 10 years, a failed love-life, and a relationship to his mother and father that is, at best, strained, and at worst, nonexistent. Samuel’s response to this is escapism into video games furnished by American consumer culture. It is not until Samuel’s mother commits an act of “terrorism” by throwing rocks at the Right’s newest “fascist” candidate that Samuel is forced to rejoin reality and speak with his mother for the first time since she left him when he was eleven.
Samuel’s relationship to his mother, even before she left, was turbulent. The Nix, moving from 1968, to 1988, to 2011, gives the reader a broad picture of just why Faye Andresen, Samuel’s mother, has become the person Samuel believes her to be. More than anything else, Faye is cold to Samuel because her father was cold to her. Just as the title of the novel would suggest, she routinely tells Norwegian folk-tales and ghost stories to Samuel, as her father did to her. While some overlap between the monsters and spirits of these tales exist, we primarily focus on two: the Nix and the Nisse.
The Nix is a monster that takes many forms, but primarily appears as a beautiful white horse that attracts children to climb upon its back. It takes the child places and shows off its beauty, but then the child realizes that s/he cannot get off the horse’s back. It begins galloping, and in fear the child grabs the mane and anything else on the horse s/he can, causing her/him to become even more tangled in the stickiness of the Nix. At a full sprint, the Nix reaches a cliff and leaps off into the ocean. If the child is not killed by the impact of hitting the sea, s/he is drowned by the waves.
Yet, while Faye is always on the lookout for the Nix, it is the Nisse who she feels cursed by. The Nisse is a house-spirit that lives in the basement. Beyond any other personality trait, what the Nisse can be described as is temperamental, even vengeful. Hill writes of a young girl who’s mother instructed her to take a bowl of porridge to the Nisse who lived in their basement. On the way down the stairs, the child becomes hungry and she eats the porridge, setting the bowl at the bottom of the steps so that the Nisse may lick up the scraps. Before she can even turn around, the Nisse is upon her and grabs her. Music begins to play and the Nisse violently dances with her, dragging her feet harshly across the room, faster and faster, laughing as he goes. Finally he drops her; her feet nothing but bloody stubs. Do not insult the Nisse, Faye’s father tells her.
Hill’s ability to tell these folk-tales is nothing short of harrowing. They are genuinely frightening and effectively convey the spirit of the relationship between not only Samuel and Faye, but Faye and her father. Yet what makes these tales even more enchanting is Hill’s ability to weave them seamlessly into the spirit of American culture. Make no mistake, this is a quintessentially American novel; and the use of these tales goes to further the illusion that Hill believes consumer culture creates. As one character states near the end of the novel:
“What this ad does is admit something you already deeply suspect and existentially fear: that consumerism is a failure and you will never find any meaning there no matter how much money you spend. So the great challenge for people like me is to convince people like you that the problem is not systemic. It’s not that snacks leave you feeling empty, it’s that you haven’t found the right snack yet.”
Nathan Hill, The Nix.
What is the Nix? It is the appearance of the supposed solution to all your problems. The way everything is going to finally be fixed. In real life, we see Nixes daily and we attach to them without thought. Combine that with petty jealously and the inability to be satisfied and we have a perpetuating vicious state of existence.
The solution? If Samuel is to be our guide through the colorful wasteland then we must follow his lead: burning down everything in his life that walls him in and pushes him down. We must push back and follow our goals and dreams. Samuel chooses to no longer be an unacting part of the culture around him. His choices become meaningful. For Samuel, it is as if the temptation to give in and be comfortable with escapism is both too real and too easy. Worse, it doesn’t solve anything. Instead making the escapist nothing more than a jaded cynic, a sellout. The difficult choice is the one we pretend isn’t an option: starting over, pushing back for once.
The Nix is another book in the tradition of novels that must be read not for their aesthetic or the gracefulness of their prose, but instead for their ability to practice truth-telling. The Nix is not a novel that will sweep you away with its narrative. It is a novel that becomes a reader’s Nisse, haunting them with the acute awareness it brings to every decision they have made or will make.
Recommended to: Those looking to shine a light on their hidden psyche.
Avoid as if trading for Robert Griffin III in Fantasy Football: Those who will dismiss a book for not having the utterly rapturous prose of Umberto Eco or Italo Calvino.