Better Late than Never: The Nix by Nathan Hill

I was wary of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, as I always am of big ol’ books. Six hundred and twenty pages of small print: was it going to be worth it? Luckily, the answer was a resounding yes. If you’ve loved The World According to Garp, City on Fire, The Goldfinch, and/or Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you should pick this one up right away. From the first few pages onwards, I was impressed by Hill’s carefully honed sentences. He mixes up the paragraph arrangement in a particularly effective way, such that long thoughts are punctuated by a killer one-liner given a paragraph of its own. Here’s one: “How easily a simple façade can become your life, can become the truth of your life.”

In 2011 Samuel Anderson and his estranged mother, Faye, find themselves in strange situations. Samuel is an assistant English professor at a small suburban Chicago college. Once the Next Big Thing, feted by Granta for a brilliant short story, he has never delivered his contracted novel and spends more time in the World of Elfscape online game than he does engaging in real life. Now Laura Pottsdam, a student he caught plagiarizing a Hamlet essay, is on a mission to take Samuel down. Meanwhile Faye is awaiting trial for throwing rocks at Governor Packer, a conservative presidential hopeful from Wyoming. It’s been 23 years since Faye walked out on Samuel and his father, but her lawyer still hopes Samuel will be willing to write a character reference to be used in her defense, prompting their awkward reunion.

This is a rich, multi-layered story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Along with 2011, the two main time periods are 1968, when Faye was a would-be radical caught up in student violence; and 1988, the summer before Faye left, when Samuel met twins Bishop and Bethany Fall, two friends who would still be having an impact on his life decades later even though they moved away after a few months. Although most of the action takes place in Iowa and Chicago, there’s also a brief interlude set in Norway when Faye tries to track down the ghosts of her father’s homeland. He’d told her stories of the nisse and the Nix, a house spirit and a water spirit in the form of a giant horse: both lead greedy children to their doom, a terrifying prospect for an anxious girl like Faye.

Political protest is a thread running all through the novel, though it never drowns out the centrality of the mother–son relationship: the 1968 Grant Park protest Faye attends in Chicago, the anti-Iraq War march Samuel and Bethany go on in 2004, the Occupy demonstrations taking place in 2011, and Faye’s odd transformation into the Packer Attacker. Hill makes cogent comments on contemporary America, where the “pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.” Young people parcel emotions into easy categories for social media, which also markets ready-made heroes (pop singer Molly Miller) and villains (Faye).

Hill is a funny and inventive writer; a few of his more virtuosic moments include an argument with headings indicating its logical fallacies, a relationship presented as a Choose Your Own Adventure story, and a nearly-eleven-page sentence in which a character has a health crisis. These sections are almost too long – Come now, you’re just showing off, I thought. But changing up the structure like that does mean that the novel is never boring, and its reflections on self-knowledge and how we get lost, stuck in patterns of our own creating, made me think deeply. This is one debut that really does live up to the hype; look out for it, and for the upcoming television adaptation directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Meryl Streep.

My rating:


First published in August 2016, The Nix was released in the UK in paperback on September 21st. My thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

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25 thoughts on “Better Late than Never: The Nix by Nathan Hill

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I thought it was a triumph. Each time Hill switches from one of his three timelines to another he manages to snag his reader’s attention, a smart trick to pull off. I’d not heard that there was to be a TV adaptation. Fingers crossed it’s as good as the book.

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  2. I had avoided this because long books don’t fit well into my schedule but if it is playing around with narrative structure then I really must read it because that is my research area. I shall talk one of my reading groups into putting it on their calendar and then it will have to go into the schedule.

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  3. This sounds like just the book I wouldn’t like, which is useful, thank you. I mentioned it to my husband as it sounded his kind of thing and he already has it on his Audible wishlist!

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    1. Ha ha! Glad to be of service. What about The Nix puts you off? My husband’s taste tends to be a subset of mine rather than different to mine (except when it comes to silly stuff like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams — he loves it; I don’t get its appeal).

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      1. I’m not massively keen on experimental forms and cleverness in novels, and the sweep of history type ones usually leave me a little cold. Matthew’s taste is quite different to mine, much more sci fi and great american novelly, though we have quite a lot of overlap..

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  4. With a variety of forms and styles in a book like this, I seem to either think it’s the best thing ever or the most annoying thing ever. I’d like to say it has something to do with the author’s skill but it’s probably more a matter of my reading mood (as I am a moody reader – perhaps we all are). This sounds really good though (even with that massive sentence) and I’d like to give it a try. Did you find that it read quickly, a la Goldfinch? Or was it simply a long book that was worth it but still a long book?

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    1. This felt very similar to The Goldfinch for me. I parcelled it out into 40-page daily chunks so I’d get through it in time, and even though the type is very small the reading seemed to pass quickly and was never a chore.

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  5. I love big books that come with an enthusiastic stamp of approval! I’ll have to make an effort to get to this one.
    I like your chunkster-a-month idea. I might think about adopting it for myself, with some major alterations… like maybe 2 a year. Ha!

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