A solid 4 out of 5 stars.
“We are more politically fanatical than ever before, more religiously zealous, more rigid in our thinking, less capable of empathy. The way we see the world is totalizing and unbreakable. We are completely avoiding the problems that diversity and worldwide communication imply. Thus, nobody cares about antique ideas like true or false.”
Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix was one of my favorite reads of 2016. The novel follows two story lines: Samuel’s and his mother Faye’s. Samuel’s story is set in present day. It details his rather sad life as a burnt-out college professor, an online fantasy game addict, and a stalled writer. Faye’s story is mostly set in 1960s Chicago and details her involvement in the counterculture movement.
Samuel’s mother, Faye Andreson, left him and his father when Samuel was a child. She recently committed a politically-motivated crime against a senator, bringing her back into Samuel’s life and also exposing her past political activism. In a last effort to save his writing career, Samuel agrees to write a book about his mother, a woman he actually barely knows but starts to learn more about as he digs further into his research for the book. His publisher agrees to give Samuel this one last chance because he sees the possibility of cashing in on Faye’s recent fame. Samuel’s acceptance of the book assignment sets him on a path that brings him back into contact with his mother and forces him to address issues that have plagued him since even before she abandoned him. Faye’s story is also a self-searching one. As an adult, Faye still seems to be searching for a sense of identity. It takes bringing Samuel and Faye back together, as well as some further soul-searching, to bring Faye the closure that her entire family has so desperately been seeking for generations.
“But Faye’s opinion is that sometimes a crisis is not really a crisis at all—just a new beginning. Because one thing she’s learned through all this is that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid.”
Of the two story lines, I enjoyed Faye’s much more than I did Samuel’s. Samuel’s did have some funny and emotionally touching parts, but I just loved the 1960s Chicago environment that Hill so vividly illustrated. In addition to being beautifully written, the novel holds much relevance in our current climate. It speaks to fundamental issues about the media, influence, and facts and how all of these can be manipulated to achieve different ends.
“That no such plans were ever actually considered was irrelevant. He had learned something important: What was printed became the truth.”
I also really enjoyed the important role that literature played in this novel. Young Faye is an admirer of the poet Allen Ginsberg. She decides to attend the University of Illinois in Chicago because she heard that Ginsberg will be a visiting professor. Hill intersperses lines from Ginsberg’s poetry throughout the book and I felt like this really added to the message. In this way, and in his mixing of historical fact and fiction, Hill gives substance to Faye’s story and Samuel’s story and makes them resonate with historical and present reality.
“[i]f you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”
I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a fictional escape that still holds relevance in the current climate. If you want to learn about the 1960s counterculture movement, this is a fascinating read. If you’d like to think about how media has been and is being manipulated this is an excellent book to inspire critical thinking.
My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for helping me get a copy of this book.