The Nix is an ambitious book that moves from 1968 to 2011 and from character to character. The heart of the story is the relationship, or lack thereof, between Samuel Anderson and his mother Faye Andresen Anderson. For some reason she left him and his father in 1988, an event that opens the novel with this haunting sentence. “If Samuel had known his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention.” He might have done something differently. He might have made himself a child worth staying for.
Samuel did not hear from her again until 2011 when her lawyer calls and asks him to be a character witness for her in her upcoming trial. He discovers she is the infamous Packer Attacker, the radical Sixties activist accused of attacking a rightwing demagogue who is running for president. He had no idea his mother had every been anything but a suburban wife and mother and radical activist sounds nothing like the woman who haunts his memory.
Faye is haunted as well, by a ghost from her childhood. Her father often told her folk tales from his native Norway, including the story of the Nix, a shape-shifting water spirit that carries people away into the ocean. Her ghost, her father says, cannot be eliminated, it can only be taken home. Her father’s stories reminded me of a story I was told as a child about the Nissen, a Swedish mischief-maker. In the story I was told, the Nissen was constantly causing trouble in the village, provoking squabbles, hiding tools, and tripping people as they went about their work. IT got so bad, the community decided to pack up everything they own and move to another place. So they do, and when they get to their new home and unpack, the lid of a basket pops up and there the Nissen, saying “It’s a fine day for moving.” Although this story is not told in The Nix, Faye does learn that you carry your ghosts, your problems with you no matter how far you move.
Samuel has troubles of his own. In one of the funniest passages I have read in a long time, he offends an entitled college sophomore who has made an art of argument and has committed herself never doing an honest minute of work in her college career. He is also long overdue delivering on a book contract and his publisher wants their money back or a memoir exposing his mother, a biography from the son she abandoned. He also has a friend, Pwnage, an elite player of ElfScape, a Massively Multiplayer Online game, who provides some highly comic stream of consciousness, if you can call it that when his consciousness is damaged by marathon gaming, malnutrition, pain and gaming addiction.
This is the strangest book to evaluate and review. There are sections of The Nix that were so outstanding, I was in awe. That Chapter 4 had me wanting to call people up and say listen to this. Seriously, Chapter 4 should be enshrined in the Smithsonian. There were descriptions that were so fresh I would stop and read them again and again. For example, this description of a man’s death in an explosion in Iraq when the force of the bomb propelled him
“into the air where for a moment everything was quiet and cold and the feeling of being inside the bomb’s blast was like being inside one of his mother’s snow globes, everything around him moving as though through thick liquid, hanging there, suspended, in its way beautiful, before the bomb shattered everything inside him and all his senses went dark…”
That description reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s stunning The Things They Carried and the starkly beautiful death of Curt Lemon. When Hill described aging corn on the cob that should have been cooked already as “shriveled roughly into the shape of a diseased human molar” I can see it exactly. I did not see that before, I will always see that in the future.
Considering the events of this election, there’s a bitter sort of humor in the prescient Governor Packer storyline and the recognition of the state of journalism today. “It’s the great flaw of journalism. The more something happens, the less newsworthy it is.”
But then there are parts of the book when the relentless stream of consciousness, the run-on sentences, and the endless listing became monotonous. They can often be funny, but still, in the end, monotonous. I actually fell asleep several times while reading an interesting book because of the monologues. The book swings from a 5-star masterpiece to a 1-star failure. This is frustrating for someone who really wants to love this book unreservedly.
In the end, though, this is a great book despite its flaws. I have one huge problem with this book, though, and that is the final chapter. Don’t worry, I am not going to spoil a thing. My problem is not with the plot or the resolution. My criticism is that it feels like a different person wrote that final chapter, not the comic, acerbic Nathan Hill who wrote The Nix, but some self-help Nathaniel Hill, a modern day Aesop writing “and the moral of the story is…”