The Nix by Nathan Hill

Any kind of comparison to John Irving? Lock me in. An endorsement from John Irving? Sign me up. It’s how I came to read The Nix by Nathan Hill.

At 640 pages, there’s a lot to The Nix but essentially, it is the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson and his mother, Faye. Shifting between the present (Samuel is a stalled writer, bored teacher at a local college, and obsessive player of an online video game, Elfscape); Samuel’s childhood; and Faye’s college years, the story unravels why Faye walked out on Samuel when he was a child. Having known nothing about her whereabouts for years, Faye shows up on the evening news, throwing rocks at a presidential candidate. The media paints her as a militant radical with a sordid past, quite different to what Samuel remembers.

It’s easy to see the parallels between The Nix and Irving’s work – big, sprawling stories where the main character (a male) has a ‘mother issue’, and intimately understands abandonment. There’s humour and a little heartbreak. There’s a superb sense of time and place – in The Nix, it’s the tumultuous politics of the sixties, and the carefully created online world of Elfscape. Like Irving, Hill provides detailed back-stories that, while aren’t critical to the story, are enjoyable.

The title of the book, The Nix, is taken from a story in Norse mythology. As Faye explains to Samuel, “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst…The Nix doesn’t appear as a horse anymore…it usually appears as a person. Usually it’s someone you think you love.” Hill uses the Nix as a guiding metaphor and although it could have been heavy-handed, the inclusion of other themes, particularly how we form memories, instead creates interesting connections between Samuel’s real life, what he desires, and his parallel Elfscape world.

Any problem you face in a video game or in life is one of four things: an enemy, obstacle, puzzle, or trap. That’s it. Everyone you meet in life is one of those four things.

Hill switches between intelligently funny and wise with ease. The voice of Elfscape gamer, Pwnage, is a highlight –

Because he knew in some way the game was all false and illusionary and the places he ‘remembered’ didn’t really exist except as digital code stored on his computer’s hard drive. But then he thought about this time he climbed to the top of a mountain on the northern edge of Elfscape’s western continent and watched the moon rise over the horizon, watched the moonlight sparkle off the snow, and he thought it was beautiful, and he thought about how people talked about feeling transported by works of art…and he decided there was really no difference between their experience and his experience. Sure, the mountain wasn’t real, the moonlight wasn’t real, but the beauty? And his memory of it? That was real.

The problem with a John Irving comparison is just that – it’s hard to match Irving. And yes, I know some of his more recent stuff isn’t like his earlier work but his stories stay in my heart. Will The Nix stay in my heart? Not in the same way as Owen Meany but there’s so many elements of this book that will.

4/5 It’s not Irving but it’s very, very good.

I received my copy of The Nix from the publisher, Pan Macmillan, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

A waitress came, and Pwnage asked for a beer and something called the ‘Double-D Nachos, extra super loaded.’ “Interesting place,” Samuel said after the waitress had gone.
“It’s the only bar within walking distance of my house,” Pwnage said. “I like to walk. For the exercise. I’m starting a new diet soon. It’s called the Pleisto Diet… It’s the one where you eat like they did in the Pleistocene. Specifically, the Tarantian epoch… You eat like a caveman, minus the mastodons. Plus it’s gluten-free? The key is tricking your body into thinking you’ve gone back in time, before the invention of agriculture”

7 responses

    • In principle, I agree – I don’t want to read about video games. However, because they were done as reflections of what was happening in real life, they were fascinating. And funny!

  1. I’m glad it came close to Irving for you. Love at first sight for me. I had to give myself a severe talking to when I first saw it in Berlin at the start of a train holiday, helped along by my partner who was appalled at the prospect of adding it to our luggage.

  2. Pingback: 2019: What I Read | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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