Did the thing, person, or idea you most believed in let you down? Has virtual reality begun to seem more meaningful to you than the life you are leading? If so, have you thought about trying to sort out those issues — perhaps after you’ve reached the next level in World of Warcraft and swiped through one more round of Candy Crush? Or are you too distracted by the presidential election and your woeful personal finances to hold a thought, much less make a plan? Welcome to the human condition, in the United States of America, circa now.
Not since the 1996 and 1997 double-header of John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral has a novel emerged that presents a more comprehensive and perceptive portrait of the personal and political American psyche than Nathan Hill’s wise, rueful, and scathingly funny début, The Nix. The book is set largely in 2011, as a demoralized midwestern college professor named Samuel Anderson — who wastes upward of forty hours a week slaying dragons and orcs on the MMORGP (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Elfquest — must confront three real-world crises at once. A vacuous slacker student wants to get him fired; his editor has told him that if he doesn’t deliver the novel he was paid to write a decade ago he will be sued (“Declare bankruptcy, move to Jakarta” the editor coldly advises); and, most unsettling of all, Samuel’s mother, Faye, who vanished from his life two decades prior, has reappeared at the eye of a media hurricane, branded a homegrown terrorist.
A month before Faye quit the family in 1988, she had warned Samuel about an ominous sprite she had learned of from her dour Norwegian father. That sprite, the Nix, is an alluring creature that “usually appears as a person” and bewitches young people, whom it carries off to their doom. The moral of the Nix myth, according to Faye, is: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.” Thanks, Mom. Twenty years on, Samuel has no idea of the history his mother carried with her before he was born. But, in the manner of another grim Norse myth Faye shared with him, the “drowning stone,” a fragment of his mother’s past had weighed her down until she succumbed to its force and disappeared. Slowly, her buried history emerges, as the novel dips back into the 1980s, to Samuel’s bereft middle school years, when he became friends with a tough, charismatic kid named Bishop and fell in love with Bishop’s beautiful violin prodigy sister, Bethany; and from there, back to the 1960s. Like a long-exposure photograph, The Nix slowly brings out psychic landmarks that have remained on the national landscape for half a century, asserting their uneroded presence through the blur of change.
The skyscraper among these landmarks — which include the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the Vietnam war, the rise of electronic media, and the precariousness of the middle class — is the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At that convention, Walter Cronkite (who appears as a character in Hill’s novel) was so incensed by the violence against citizen protestors that he said on national news, “The Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state.” Seeing a security officer slug his colleague Dan Rather on the convention floor, Cronkite indignantly exclaimed that the Chicago police were “a bunch of thugs.”
To mollify irate viewers and his bosses, Cronkite had to atone for those remarks by giving a softball interview with “cream-puff questions” to Mayor Richard J. Daley, who supported the cops and abhorred the radicals — as did much of the American public. Cronkite (with an assist from Hill’s imagination) reflects, “It turns out that for every poor kid shown getting his head drubbed by a nightstick, CBS gets ten phone calls in support of whoever held the stick.” The protest is a drop of water in a bucket, the protest movement is that bucket; “Drop that bucket into Lake Michigan: that’s Reality,” he thinks. Samuel’s “quiet and guarded” mother turns out to have been one molecule within that drop, one of the thousands of young people who were attacked in Chicago by cops with billy clubs and tear gas, as the whole world watched. Her parents and relatives were among the watchers who applauded the attackers.
But Hill does not lead with the events of 1968; he begins long after its smolder might be thought to have winkled out, in 2011, with a tiny eruption of the radical protest spirit. A white-haired Chicago schoolteacher in her sixties has been caught on camera flinging a handful of gravel toward a pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant Republican governor (and putative presidential candidate) named Sheldon Packer, as he strolled through Grant Park with his entourage on a “glad-handing, baby-kissing” campaign appearance. Sensationalist copywriters instantly flood media screens with the alarming flag: “TERROR IN CHICAGO” and produce the headline “RADICAL HIPPIE PROSTITUTE TEACHER BLINDS GOV. PACKER IN VICIOUS ATTACK!” During a tense meeting with his editor, Samuel catches this clip on an airport TV, endlessly replaying. Looking up at the screen at the “Packer Attacker,” he recognizes his vanished mother. Soon, a photo from the August 1968 Chicago riots will emerge, his mother front and center. Was his mother a radical hippie? A prostitute?
With the help of an “epic” fellow World of Elfquest player known as Pwnage — a morbidly addicted gamer who subsists off frozen meals from 7-Eleven and prefers Elfquest’s digital snowy mountains to the “real places in his life” — Samuel begins to put together the pieces of mother’s past. If he can reconstruct the puzzle of who she was, Samuel might finally get the closure he needs to forge an authentic life outside of Elfquest (and see what his childhood crush, Bethany, is up to). In the meantime, how can he keep his mother out of prison, now that the media’s 24/7 real-life MMORPG has cast her as an arch-villain more fearsome than any orc? Hill pulls all of these players, these decades, these personalities into an organically unfolding saga that, in its unpretentious, empathetic narration, recalls the voice of John Irving — as in The World According to Garp or The Cider House Rules.
There could be no better moment for a politically concerned American to read The Nix than during this election year. To achieve peak irony, actually, the novel ought to have appeared in time for the recent presidential conventions, since the sustained firepower at its core comes from that other convention, twelve elections ago, where the clash between police and citizenry, and between conservative and progressive Americans, erupted with more fury than it had since the Civil War. Still, as Hill shows in this book, time is more fluid now than ever before, as cameras, screens, digital manipulation, and the Internet have erased the stamp of time, removing the primacy of the “now.”
When he was young, Samuel lost himself in the pages of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories. The Nix liberates him by pushing him to a more exhilarating and arduous task: claiming, and choosing, his actual reality.