Amer­i­can pol­i­tics writ large with wit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

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

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