Books

In ‘The Nix,’ Nathan Hill provokes thought, explores relationships

Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill Michael Lionstar

Nathan Hill’s debut novel, “The Nix” (Knopf, 620 pages, $27.95), spans more than 40 years and a broad range of characters and human situations. At more than 600 pages, the book is long, but it feels encompassing rather than sprawling. It’s definitely not a slog: the pacing is crisp, everyone’s stories are interesting and it’s wickedly funny in places, so the pages fly by.

“The first draft was 1,000 pages,” Hill, who will visit Wichita this week, said in a recent interview, “and I knew had to cut. At some point, I knew I was writing a really long book; that’s the shape this book was going to take.”

But in writing a “really long book,” Hill said he was mindful of his readers: “If I’m going to ask someone to read a really long book, it’s my job to show them a good time while they’re reading, so a lot of the humor and the formal gags — the long sentence, the Choose Your Own Adventure book — were intended to break up any tedium.”

Yes, he said “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Readers of a certain age will remember devouring those books in grade school, becoming a space traveler, explorer, detective or other interesting character and making choices (“If you take the left road, turn to Page 86…”) to determine the plot and outcome of the story. The main character in “The Nix,” Samuel, is of that certain age, so it seems perfectly appropriate for one part of his story to be told in that format.

Hill said that when he got to that part of the story, he was trying to find a way to capture Samuel’s feeling of regret and missed opportunity, because even though in the books you could go back and choose a different path, life doesn’t work that way. So, he said that part is “a Choose Your Own Adventure book without any choice — the best way to capture what Samuel was feeling in the moment.”

One of the underlying themes in “The Nix” is where the title came from: A “nix” is one name for a troublemaking Scandinavian spirit, and the folktales about it, Hill said, are “about how the things you treasure the most are what can hurt you the worst.” In his book, what the characters value is what ends up harming them. Sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s things like technology.

The book tells three connected stories: Samuel as a child, right after his mother leaves him and his father; Samuel as an adult in the present day (or near enough), still coming to terms with his relationship with his mother; and Faye, Samuel’s mother, as a young woman in 1968 trying to determine the course of her life. The book moves among the three stories easily, revealing events from the past that help explain the present.

“The material I first started out with was Faye in ’68,” Hill said, “I wrote a lot and then got stuck … It seemed too traditional coming-of-age.” Then he realized that “maybe the story wasn’t entirely Faye’s story, but her story as being retold by Samuel.”

Hill said most of the book was written out of order “because there were certain scenes I didn’t feel talented enough to write yet.” Early on, when he was trying to write the climax of the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago in 1968, he realized he wasn’t ready to do that yet, so he saved it and returned to it later.

“I needed to learn how to write the book in order to write the book,” he said.

As Samuel delves into his mother’s life, his own life becomes even more disarrayed even as he gains clarity about his mother’s motivations. He has trouble with one of his students who plagiarized a paper and he starts an in-real-life acquaintance with a hardcore video gamer he’d previously known only in the online game.

Adult Samuel’s life is where the book weaves in commentary on modern life: the alternate world of video games, living one’s life online, even the entitlement of students and how the modern university deals with that. The commentary is part incisive criticism, part biting satire and part exploration of our love/hate relationship with technology. Hill isn’t preaching, just provoking some thoughts that dovetail with the plot.

One particularly pointed example of this is iFeel, a fictional social network that the plagiarizing student uses. It limits users to 50 standard emotions, and if you don’t feel one of them, you’re out of luck. When she feels “doubt,” she’s flummoxed, because she can’t figure the feeling out at first since it’s not one of her choices.

Hill said he is “deeply suspicious of technology” while still using it himself. We ought to be more cognizant of its effects, he said, and more critical about what these tools are really good for and where we find our own value.

“If we think social media captures us as people, then we’re missing out on part of being human,” he said.

Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at lisa.mclendon@gmail.com.

IF YOU GO

Nathan Hill reading and book-signing

WHO: Nathan Hill, author of “The Nix”

WHAT: Reading and book-signing

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25

WHERE: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas

HOW MUCH: Free

For more information, call 316-682-1181.

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