A lot of people liked Nathan Hill’s The Nix. And there are a lot of reasons to like it. There are moments of laugh out loud humour; the writing is sharp and immersive; the range of fully realized characters is impressive; it has something to say about American political activism, partisan politics and the role of an impartial judiciary (*cough* nothing relevant about those themes). Some of the scenes of academic life (and the corollary days spent absorbed by video games) resonated pitch-perfect.
I can’t, however, in good conscience recommend it. My rationale isn’t great. It has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the novel, but more that it read as longer than it needed to be. Whoa! Ease up! I am not – at all – making a case against long novels. There are so many (so many!) great long novels that we’d all be better for reading (*cough* A Little Life…). Just that this particular novel had no business clocking in at 600+ pages (a joke the book itself makes toward the end in one of the less subtle metafictional moments).
How can I argue for something like reduced length? Doesn’t a novel (like baking a pie) need exactly as long as it needs? Well… yes and no. (It’s rare, I’ll admit, that I can be found arguing a novel should have been longer – but I do!) Yes this novel needed to spool out the lives of our protagonists Samuel Anderson and his mother Faye. And the historical moments of each: the 2008 financial collapse and 1968 Chicago. And the layers and details of their lives and these settings do give a fullness and richness to the thematic questions of familial obligation, responsibilities for individual political engagement and the possibility of choice in a media/technology/advertising saturated life. But it certainly did not need to give the same depth and breadth to supporting character roles. The deep backstory of a childhood girlfriend. The intimate thoughts and preoccupations of a student in Samuel’s class. The various grocery lists and cleaning habits of a fellow video gamer. While these stories are in and of themselves brilliantly written and fully realized, they offer very little to the heart of the novel. They serve instead – as so much does in our particular moment – as bright, shiny things that both distract and irritate. This distraction didn’t read as intentional, however, but rather like Hill couldn’t bear to part with characters he’d spent so much time exploring, with scenes he knew to be funny and fun (and they are! just also… irrelevant).
It’s a question then, I suppose, of how much a novel and a reader needs and how much they want. And in this case I needed the central thread in all its great writing, humour and vivid detail. Samuel may read and write Choose Your Own Adventure novels; but in this case, I didn’t need the alternate veins nearly as much as Hill seemed to want me to.