Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The introductory epigraph, rather a longish one, contains the Utterances of a Buddha about blind men who had to touch an elephant and then report their findings to the king. Different parts of the elephant is touched by each man, resulting in different opinions of what the elephant is. This 'utterance' establishes the purpose, content and intent of this novel. It also allows different kind of readers to react differently to the elephant.

This complex autobiographical novel puts the spotlight on society as baggage from the previous century, inherited by generations who are dressed up with nowhere to go. It is written as social satire, or a tragicomedy in a way. It shoots straight into the concepts of true or false; the chaotic society as it is established in the postmodern ideology; a freedom demanded which throws any possibility for a structured society out; a democratic establishment so out of control that nothing can be accomplished - too many processes to hinder any final decision on anything. 

It is the postapocolypse of social implosion; a prologue to the survival of the fittest in a post-democratic nix(nothing; denial or refusal; put an end to or cancel): pseudonyms - nadazilchzero. It leaves the possibility of a renaissance in question.

The country is falling apart around us. This is plain even to the pay-no-attention-at-all crowd, even to the low-information undecided-voter segment. It’s all crumbling right in front of our eyes. People lose their jobs, their pensions disappear overnight, they keep getting those quarterly statements showing their retirement funds are worth ten percent less for the sixth quarter in a row, and their houses are worth half what they paid for them, and their bosses can’t get a loan to make payroll, and Washington is a circus, and they have homes full of interesting technology and they look at their smartphones and wonder ‘How could a world that produces something as amazing as this be such a shitty world?’

Two events triggered the plot. The 1968 protests in Chicago, and the 2011 protests in New York. The former was attended by a mother, prior to her marriage, and the latter by her son, many years after she disappeared.

The story opens in 2011 when the mother is arrested for throwing rocks/stones/pebbles at a presidential candidate. The size of the 'missiles' is irrelevant. It is the perceptions of the press, politicians and public that turns the events into the truth as they see it (the touching of the elephant).

"The story began as a family drama about an estranged mother and son, but over the years it morphed into a sprawling tale about politics, online gaming, academia, Norwegian mythology, social media, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the 1960s counterculture.

“The Nix” centers on a washed-up writer named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, who, after failing to live up to his early promise, has succumbed to a soul-crushing job as an adjunct professor of literature in a Chicago suburb. To escape the suffocating sense of failure, Samuel spends 40 hours a week playing the role of Dodger the Elven Thief in an online game called World of Elfscape, where he goes on dragon- and orc-slaying quests with his guild.

He’s pulled back into his traumatic past when he learns that his mother, Faye, who abandoned the family when he was 11, faces assault charges for throwing rocks at a politician." (Source:New York Times (Aug. 26, 2016))

The Nisse, derived from the Norwegian Mythology, is established in different aspects of the tale.

A nisse,” he said, and she nodded. She loved the weird names her father gave his ghosts: nisse, nix, gangferd, draug.

The 682-page novel reminds me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in scope, although many other authors are thrown into the mix, such as John Irving, Charles Dickens, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, and Tom Wolfe to describe this debut author's work. The Kirkus Reviews noted “hints of Pynchon”.

The New York Times describes the novel as prickly social satire, which takes aim at academia, politics, publishing and social media.

The novel also reminds me of The Politically Correct Ultimate Storybook: Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Gardner. 

A big bowl of reality with a dollop of mythology and fairy-fun added to it. Top it off with a hint of stand-up comedy and a very strong storyline. The book was so autobiographical that the author had to promise his mom that she was not the character Faye in the book. 

One of the most striking and emotionally-charged metaphors in the book, for me, was when Sam's mom, Faye, told him to choose nine toys and arrange them in his toy wagon to go for a walk. While they were out strolling on the street, they passed trees in which one lonely maniacal leaf near the top of the tree was standing up, dancing in the wind, flopping around like a fish, while the rest hung quietly in the dead air. (Pathetic fallacy at work here?)

Faye pointed out the leaf and the significance of it. "A ghost", she said." "Someone not good enough to go to heaven but not bad enough to go to hell. He's in between."

..."He's restless, she said. "He wants to move on..."

Sam started crying again. He did not want to be that leaf. Faye turned around and took him home, told him to put his toys away. Faye told Sam that he should have brought all nine toys, and not only eight. He should have paid more attention. 

Little did she realize that he counted the wagon as the ninth toy...

That was a few months before she disappeared, leaving a marriage in which a spoon tried to love garbage disposal forever...

It all depends on which part of the elephant you have touched to interpret this monumental tale. It can be sensational, thrilling, gripping, informative, thought-provoking, witty, funny, sad, or whatever you need from this literary masterpiece. A journalistic reality worked into a mythical mystery. An icon of our times. A good one.

So by the way, who remembers the longest paragraph I have ever encountered in a book in my entire life? Pages and pages! Guinness Book of Records material. In the last section of the book.

Quotes from the book:

Pwnage once told Samuel that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps...

...So instead of looking for answers, he’d begun simply writing her story, thinking that if he could see the world the way she saw it, maybe he’d achieve something greater than mere answers: Maybe he’d achieve understanding, empathy, forgiveness. So he wrote about her childhood, about growing up in Iowa, about going to Chicago for college, about the protest in 1968, about that final month she was with the family before she disappeared, and the more he wrote the more expansive the story became. Samuel wrote about his mother and father and grandfather, he wrote about Bishop and Bethany and the headmaster, he wrote about Alice and the judge and Pwnage—he was trying to understand them, trying to see the things he was too self-absorbed to see the first time through. Even Laura Pottsdam, vicious Laura Pottsdam, Samuel tried to locate a little sympathy for her...

...What Faye won’t understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones...

...You don’t once consider how Bethany or Bishop might feel about this violation of their privacy. You are so blinded by your desire to impress and dazzle and awe the people who left you that you say yes. Yes, absolutely...

...This is not something you tell your teacher. This is something you carry on the inside, in a cavity filled with every true thing about you so that there is nothing true left on the outside. The morning your mother disappeared, especially, is stuffed way down deep, your mother asking you what you wanted to be when you grew up...

...You’d be amazed at the facts people are willing to set aside to believe that life is, indeed, great...

...then she grew up and came to a new conclusion, which she told Samuel in the month before leaving the family. She told him the same story but added her own moral: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst...

...Everyone knew this, so they suffered the headmaster’s long and vivid descriptions of medical procedures and bodily effluence because they thought of it as a kind of investment in their child’s education and future...'s way easier to ignore all data that doesn't fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we'll agree to disagree. It's liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It's very hip right now.

Nathan Hill’s literary career almost ended before it started.
Like so many optimistic young M.F.A. graduates, Mr. Hill moved to New York City in his 20s with a hard drive full of short stories, hoping to land an agent and a publisher.
Perhaps predictably, things didn’t go according to plan. His early overtures to literary agents brought rejections. Then one day in the summer of 2004, when he was moving out of a house in Queens where he lived with 11 other guys, his car was broken into. He lost all of his possessions, including his computer and his backup drive. All of his work in progress vanished.
He sulked for a while and played lots of World of Warcraft, an online fantasy game. Eventually, though, he started something new. The story began as a family drama about an estranged mother and son, but over the years it morphed into a sprawling tale about politics, online gaming, academia, Norwegian mythology, social media, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the 1960s counterculture.
Now, 12 years later, that novel, “The Nix,” is being published by Alfred A. Knopf...
Source: New York Times

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