Book Club Guide—The Nix, by Nathan Hill


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The Nix, a first novel—and surely not the last—from Nathan Hill, weighs in at 600-plus pages, so it is not for book clubs with commitment phobes. If you can get your club to commit to a novel of this length, however, you’ll reap the rewards of endless discussion. This sprawling story starts in 2011, but then looks back at the late 1980s and the late 1960s. It focuses on the relationship between a mother and her son, with a background of politics that makes it particularly timely for the 2016 election cycle. The Nix mixes politics, history, and family drama, managing to be comic, tragic, and thought-provoking at the same time. If you’re wondering how one novel can be all things to all readers, you’ll simply have to pick it up to find out. For a full review, see my post “The Elephant in the Room.” If your club chooses this title, the talk is likely to take off right away. Use the topics below to provide a little more focus for your conversation.

Family Secrets:

What secrets has Faye been hiding? Frank? Samuel? Bishop?

Ironic as it is, college student Laura Potsdam could be one of the few authentic characters in the novel: she is exactly who she seems to be, and she isn’t hiding any secrets about her identity. Describe Laura and her approach to life. Do you think she’ll become a successful adult?

What is The Nix, and how are the main characters haunted by it?

The Perils of Love:

What is the nature of Samuel’s infatuation with Bethany? Did they have a chance of a real relationship when they were younger? Do they have a chance now?

What is the nature of Faye’s attraction to Sebastian? How does she feel about him when she finds out his true role in the political scene on campus and in the Chicago community?

Why is Judge Brown’s vendetta against Faye so intense?

Paths of Self-Discovery:

What does Faye learn on her journey to Norway and her encounter with Freya? Consider what Freya teaches Faye in the following moment: “‘Look around you,’ she says, opening her arms to the house, the land, the animals, to Lillian and the fire she’s building and the Bible with its exhausting family tree. ‘We didn’t need him.’”

Pwnage tells Samuel that one of the lessons he’s learned from the video game Elfquest is that people are one of four types: “enemies, obstacles, puzzles, and traps.” Which type is preferable according to Pwange, and why?

History and Politics:

What parallels can be drawn between our contemporary political scene and the candidacy of Governor Packer? What about the political climate of 1968?

The character of Periwinkle seems a constant commentary on our modern life and our obsession with media and marketing. What are we meant to learn from him—or how does he point out our flaws?

What did you learn about the protests and police riots of 1968? Did Hill’s version of events make you reconsider any of your assumptions or beliefs about that period of American history?

The Story of Ourselves:

Samuel’s favorite reading series as a child was the Choose Your Own Adventure stories. What does this say about his approach to life? How did his mother’s leaving impact him?

“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s,” realizes Faye as she rethinks her views about her father. How does this quote help sum up the issues and conflicts in the novel?