American politics writ large with wit
Short title, long novel. A total of 620 pages is, literally, a big ask. What does this urge among contemporary American novelists to produce big books signify? Think of Annie Proulx’s prolix Barkskins at 714; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am at 570; and the Big Daddy of them all, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which clocks in at an almost infinite 1080 pages. But what do these instances suggest?
Can it all be the responsibility of that urAmerica novel Moby-Dick (1851), with its definitive encyclopedism and massive scope? Can it be that the sheer size and complexity of the US (“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” as Robert Frost put it) demands novels of a comparable size and complexity?
Are we confronted with some northern version of the Borgesian fable wherein the map of the territory is coextensive with the territory itself? Walt Whitman put it concisely in his preface to the gigantic Leaves of Grass (1855-92): “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
Nathan Hill’s The Nix is American and it is big. But what is a Nix? One of the central characters is Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a blocked novelist, bored freshman literature teacher at a college where students prefer to neither read nor study, obsessive fan of online video games, abandoned son of a mother who is an unwitting member of the generation of 68. Another central character is his mother.
“Samuel’s mother told him about the Nix. Another of her father’s ghosts. The scariest one. The Nix, she said, was a spirit of the water who flew up and down the coastline looking for children, especially adventurous children out walking alone. When it found one, the Nix would appear to the child as a large white horse. Unsaddled, but friendly and tame.” But then …
It is a Norwegian myth, for Grandpa Frank had quit Norway for America but carried his legends with him. He told his daughter, Faye, that the moral was: “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.”
When Faye tells the tale to Samuel, she interpolates: “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst.”
The Nix gives Hill’s novel its title and a dominant theme. Its action is located between late summer 1968 and late summer 2011 in Iowa (where the author was born), Chicago and Manhattan. The Chicago National Democratic convention of 1968 and the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011 are crucial focuses of the plot.
The novel begins in 2011 dramatically enough: “The headline appears one afternoon on several news websites almost simul- taneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!” Faye, Samuel’s mother, is dubbed by an ever-witty press: “The Packer Attacker”. But there is much more to this than meets the eye. Packer was not always the governor. Indeed, back in the dramatic days of 1968, he was a violent, venal policeman, part of the infamous mayor Richard Daley’s shock troops at the Democratic National Convention and its attendant protests. The essentially passive Faye mortally offended him, all those years ago, well before Samuel was born.
The 1968 Chicago convention, behind which loomed the war in Vietnam, was a watershed in American politics and literature. Esquire magazine, choosing not to prosecute conventional reportage, sent as its press team William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch), Terry Southern ( Dr Strangelove) and Frenchman Jean Genet ( The Maids; Our Lady of the Flowers). Strange days, indeed. Norman Mailer in his “nonfiction novel” Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) is credited with establishing a fresh literary form, in which the novelist-asparticipant, novelist-as-character is crucial.
The Nix is testimony to the emptiness of claims that, after Mailer’s, and Tom Wolfe’s, and Joan Didion’s work, the novel would, could never be the same again. The traditional novel survives in Hill’s maiden effort, as it does throughout the oeuvre of John Irving ( The World According to Garp) who provides the front-cover endorsement for The Nix.
The ironies of 1968 were not only literary but political. Who profited from all that demonstrating, from those violent confrontations between hippies and pigs, so to speak? Why, the 37th president of the US, Richard M. Nixon, no less.
The Nix, which might be seen as a Quest for the Mother, has done well in the US, critically and in sales. As well it might. It is sufficiently traditional to be easily consumed, witty against itself and, though about the US’s recent political past, surely relevant to today.
As Samuel’s manipulative publisher, the ludicrously name Periwinkle, says in the days of Occupy Wall Street: “The country is falling apart around us. 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.” He is neither blue of collar nor red of neck, but it’s a safe bet he’d vote for Donald Trump.
There is more than one Sophoclean irony to appeal to the reader, enough delayed revelations to delight. But it could surely have been briefer. Much of the stuff of adolescent love and its debased language, of computer games and their non-language, might with profit have been trimmed. Let us not forget that some of the greatest American novels are short. Take The Great Gatsby, Fiesta, The Scarlet Letter. taught American literature at the University of Sydney for 30 years.
A protester confronts National Guardsmen during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago