Chances are, when you’re motoring toward the conclusion of The Nix, a thick, impressive debut novel by Nathan Hill, you’ve forgotten the epigraph that opened the book. But it’s important. So Hill helps by offering a recap in Part 9, where he reimagines the protest-turned-riot that surrounded the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The melee inspires an on-air crisis of faith for TV anchor Walter Cronkite: “Cronkite thought the police were beating innocent people. The mayor’s office told them the police were protecting innocent people. Who was right? It reminded him of that old story: A king once asked a group of blind men to describe an elephant. To one of them, he presented the head of an elephant, to another he presented an ear, a tusk, the trunk, the tail, and so on, saying, This is an elephant.”
As the folktale goes, the king’s experiment doesn’t inspire a proliferation of ideas about the animal; it leads to an all-out fight. So trapped is each man in his own limited perspective—the elephant is just a water jar, a basket, a plowshare, or a storeroom—that he can’t admit the possibility of something bigger.
Moving back and forth between the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2010s, The Nix shows that, though the details have changed, the story remains the same. The public is going to choose which version of reality they want to believe. And the outcome will be—as the folktale foretold—confusion and conflict. Just look at us today, in the midst of elections and conventions, protestors and pundits, perspectives and judgments. The elephant is still in the room, and the blind men are fighting more than ever.
Nathan Hill plays right into our 2016 consciousness, even though the events of the book stop at 2011. We feel we know his fictional Governor Packer, a gun-toting, boot-wearing presidential candidate who has authored a book called The Heart of a True American, who mandated that the Ten Commandments be recited by schoolchildren and teachers every morning in Wyoming schools, and who “compared immigrants taking American jobs to coyotes killing livestock.” And we feel we’ve witnessed the overnight sensation that happens to him when a handful of rocks is tossed in his face—a minor incident but for the viral video that inspires a national scandal. “Terror in Chicago,” one news station declares.
In these sections dated “Late Summer 2011,” The Nix has fun mocking our 21st-century myopia, swayed as we are by media hype, marketing blitzes, and one-dimensional values. But, when it takes us back to 1988, and then further to 1969, we realize that the media’s so-called “Packer Attacker” is a very human character suffering from a more serious case of nearsightedness. And so is her son.
Samuel Andreson-Anderson, a small-time English professor who cloaks his professional failures and paltry life behind a serious addiction to the video game Elfquest, knows almost nothing of the mother that abandoned him when he was 11. And, it turns out, she knew almost nothing of the father that broke ties with her when she was a teen. The many secrets of the Andreson family’s past coalesce in a ghost called the Nix—a Norwegian spirit that encapsulates not just what has been lost, but what was never known.
For these characters, the vision problem is twofold. On the one hand, Samuel, his mother, Faye, and his grandfather, Frank, are all guilty of withholding information, and lots of it. They let others see only so much of themselves, keeping entire lives and selves hidden away. But they also—even Frank, living out his last days in a nursing home—have trouble looking at parts of themselves.
The novel becomes a journey of self-discovery for Samuel and Faye in particular. “Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime,” Faye comes to realize. Prodded by Samuel, she gradually unlocks parts of herself she never knew were there, raising again the specter of that elephant: “Her belief that only one of these [selves] is true obscures the larger truth, which was ultimately the problem with the blind men and the elephant. It wasn’t that they were blind—it’s that they stopped too quickly, and so never knew there was a larger truth to grasp.”
In The Nix, there are larger truths to learn about all of the minor players, too, from Periwinkle to Pwnage, as Hill slowly, steadily pans out to reveal them in all their inglorious history. We learn, for instance—and, don’t worry, I’m not ruining the novel’s many reveals—that Bishop hides a shameful secret that explains his bullying behavior; the love of Faye’s life was once a wolf in counterculture clothes; and the judge on the Packer-Attacker case harbors a surprisingly personal vendetta. Perhaps the most surprising character is Pwnage, an unhealthy, overweight, debt-ridden, dirty, jobless, loveless, and friendless gamer that would be easy to write off as comic relief—until he emerges as something of a prophet. We initially snicker at his belief that the game Elfquest is “way more meaningful than the real world”; but then his life starts to mirror his elven trajectory in mysterious, transformative ways. His philosophy that “‘any problem you face in a video game or in life is one of four things: an enemy, obstacle, puzzle, or trap’” teaches Samuel to value the puzzle people in his own life: “if 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.”
So what kind of novel is The Nix is anyway? Historical fiction, political satire, a character study, a family saga? Yes, it is all of that. And yet The Nix is also, like that old elephant (not worn out just yet), something more than the sum of its parts. If you open it at random, you will find a section written in Choose Your Own Adventure Story style, a conversation between characters styled as a comic compendium of fallacies, and a chapter that is a single Joycean-style sentence long. Somehow, Nathan Hill brings it all together into a book that charms, inspires, teaches, and, ultimately, makes you see a little more clearly.