As reviewers go, I am easy. I give lots of five-star ratings. Maybe it’s because seeing a book all the way through to its finish feels like being in a relationship to me, and just as I’d stick up for a friend or a partner, I want to applaud a book for all the things it’s done well to get me safely to this important moment. Kind of like a kid tying his shoes for the first time, or going off to college: some things are really hard, and when someone gets the job done, you just want to support.
It’s also true that the last few books I’ve read–Lincoln in the Bardo, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Still Life with Tornado–have been genuine five-star winners. So there’s that. It’s not that I’m a total pushover.That said, The Nix made me wish I could give six stars. I’m a teacher, and the way I felt when I finished this book was how I feel when I give, say, a ten-point assignment to the whole class and one kid just goes so far above and beyond in her answer that I want to give her eleven points just for being amazing, even though I know that’s probably not exactly fair to the rest of the group. The book took me on such a journey from its earliest stories–Samuel as a child, telling his mother he was going to be a writer; Faye committing that first fateful act that wasn’t at all what we thought it was; Laura Pollard throwing her first hysterical fit about the Hamlet paper she “owned”–that when Hill wove each one of these strands into book’s masterful close, it came as a genuine surprise to me to be reminded that those first stories of Samuel, his mother, and his student, were even part of this specific volume. We–the characters and I–had grown so much that it was hard to remember who we’d all been at the start of our journey together.
Nathan Hill is a phenomenal writer. The side-splitting humor of so many scenes and the all-too-apt descriptions of so many characters; the choose your own adventure section and the rhetorical fallacy section; the life truths that catch you unawares and force you to reconsider a page you just swallowed whole: it all swirls into the mix of 700+ pages of wit and wisdom that could have been twice as long and just as readable. I have to tell you a story, then I’ll share some tidbits:
I turned, one morning, to page 570 in my edition: Chapter 3 of Search and Seizure. “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape,” it began. Ahhh….Pwnage was back. It had been a while since he’d eaten those greasy nachos with Samuel and taught him his philosophy of life and video games: “Enemy, Obstacle, Puzzle, Trap.” I couldn’t help but notice that the coming paragraphs seemed awfully….long…. I turned a page….turned another page….and another….and realized to my horror that I was looking at a 13 page long paragraph. No–a 13 page long SENTENCE. I can’t hold my breath that long! It took three tries before I could even bring myself to plunge in and tackle the thing. But here’s what happened: I kind of just gave myself to the prose. I let it carry me along with it through the events of the chapter, coming to understand relatively quickly why it had to be written exactly like that, and by the time I reached the end I was so breathless I had to pull students aside to tell them what had just happened in my reading and in the book. Truly, it was an extraordinary experience. In some ways it reminded me of Saramago’s Blindness and McCarthy’s The Road, both of which play intentionally with sentence length and structure to make specific points for their books. The Nix is full of intentional and exciting writing moves like that.
Here’s a fave passage to tickle your fancy:
“Faye…knew that way down deep she was a phony, just your average normal girl. If it seemed like she had abilities that no one else did, it was only because she worked harder, she thought, and all it would take for the rest of the world to see the real Faye, the true Faye, was one failure. So she never failed. And the distance between the real Faye and the fake Faye, in her mind, kept widening, like a ship leaving the dock and slowly losing sight of home.
“This was not without cost.
“The flip side of being a person who never fails at anything is that you never do anything you could fail at. You never do anything risky. There’s a certain essential lack of courage among people who seem to be good at everything.”
How true is that?
There’s a description of one of the characters, Bethany, playing the Bruch violin concert (page 165) that comes as close to music as it’s possible for words to come. Check that out.
The book tells us, at one point, that “something does not have to happen for it to feel real.” The Nix is about as real as fiction gets. Six stars, for sure.