Yesterday I didn’t write because I was finishing The Nix, a big, fat american novel by first time novelist Nathan Hill.
A test of a great book for me is ‘Would I pass this over to Brian Nellist?’ The answer for The Nix is no. BN is too choosy, too old-fashioned for this. Gilead yes, Home, absolutely, Housekeeping, yes: everything by Marilynne Robinson (humane, religious, serious about people ) suits him. I tried to get him into George Saunders and no. No. George Saunders is superb, is serious, but not for the Nellibobs.
Shall we cut to the chase? Here’s the ‘no’ bit of my own qualified ‘yes’.
Too plotted, too long, too many strands, too anxious to get in every possibly thing that could be got in. In some places a bit silly, a bit thin. All of which I ignored because it’s a first novel, and he’s been writing it a very long time, and it’s easy to see how hard it is to let go and – to the point – some of this is good. And that’s where I would like to concentrate my attention.
Samuel Anderson is a Professor of Literature in a small time college and his life is a mess. So for me this novel places itself in an american novel tradition: Malamud’s A New Life and Bellow’s Herzog are both (magnificent) precursors. Anderson’s real life takes place in an internet game, and his students’ main thoughts about Hamlet are that it is way too long. Samuel, living through World of Elfscape, is not very strongly present in reality. And while not fully present, Samuel Anderson, like Levin in A New Life, must deal with a student who doesn’t like the way he has marked her work.;
This was an Introduction to Literature course, but she cared less about literature than she did about points. It wasn’t the topic of the course that mattered to her; what mattered was the currency…Laura thought only about the bottom line, her grade, the only thing that mattered.
Samuel used to mark up their papers – a with a red pen, even. He used to teach them the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’, or when to use ‘that and when to use ‘which’, or how ‘affect’ is difference from ‘effect’, how ‘then’ is different from ‘than’. All that stuff. But then one day he was filling up his car at the gas station just outside campus – it’s called the EZ-Kum-In-‘n-Go – and he looked at the sign and thought, What is the point?
Really, honestly, why would they ever need to know Hamlet?
He gave a quiz and ended class thirty minutes early. He was tired. He was standing in front of that disinterested crowd and he began to feel like Hamlet in the first soliloquy: insubstantial. He wanted to disappear. He wanted his flesh to melt into a dew. This was happening a lot lately: he was feeling smaller than his body, as if his spirit had shrunk, always giving up his armrests on airplanes, always the one to move out if the way on sidewalks.
Yet Samuel himself does need Hamlet or something like it, even as he spends forty hours a week on World of Elfscape:
Why am I here? he wonders, even as he is crushed by the dragon’s tail and Axman is impaled by a falling stalactite and the healer burns to ash in a lava crevice and so the only elf remaining is Pwnage and the only way they are going to win is if Pwnage can stay alive, and the guild cheers through their headsets and the dragon’s health ticks down to four percent, three percent, two percent…
Samuel wonders, even now, so close to victory, What is the point?
There are parts where the writing is funny, superficial and clever and parts where it is deep and simple and moving. I liked that. I liked Nathan Hill’s ability to switch around. And I like the breadth – like The Goldfinch – it gives the novel a brilliant modern-Dickensian quality. I like modern-dickensian but it’s got to keep moving and you’ve got care about some of the people. Dickens makes you cry. That matters.
Samuel was abandoned by his mother at the age of eight and the unravelling of the mystery of why is the central thread of the novel. Here he is meeting her, with a lawyer present, for the first time in twenty years:
‘But that’s not why you’re here. Ask your real question. The thing you came here to find out.’
‘ I came here to write a letter to the judge.’
‘You did not. Go ahead. Ask your question.’
‘It’s not relevant.’
‘Just ask. Do it.’
‘It’s not important. It’s nothing -‘
‘I’d agree with that!’ the lawyer cut in. ‘Immaterial.’
‘Shut up, Simon,’ Faye said, then leveled her eyes at Samuel. ‘This question is everything. It’s why you are here. Now why don’t you stop lying and ask it.’
‘Okay. Fine. I want to know. Why did you leave me?’
And Samuel could feel the cry coming almost as soon as he said it: Why did you leave me? The question that had tormented his adolescence. He used to tell people she was dead. when they would ask about his mother it was easier to say she’d died. Because when he told them the truth, they’d wonder why she left and where she’d gone and why he didn’t know. Then they’d look at him funny, like it was his fault. Why did she leave him? It was the question that kept him awake night after night until he learned to swallow it and deny it. But asking the question now let it break back out – the shame and the loneliness and self-pity washed over the question so that he was barely able to pronounce the last word before his throat tightened and he could feel himself on the verge of crying.
The answer takes us back the the Chicago anti-Vietnam protests of 1968. And further back still. ‘Every memory is really a scar,’ Faye says to her son.
You’ll visit a brilliant 1950 Home Ec. room, see Alan Ginsberg chanting, understand the feeling of being crushed in a demo, see northern Norway, and feel the power of community in of World of Elfscape. Yes, there’s a wacky panorama of time and space, but the best things were little confused moments inside people, such as when teenage Faye makes a connection with a line of Ginsberg poetry, ‘Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?’ Faye’s life as a troubled ordinary small town teenage girl is one of the best things in the book. I also lovedthe World of Elfscape stuff – written from the heart and hopeful for humans.
There are not many contemporary novels I can finish – I’m not glad about that. At 600-odd pages this was a long one, but it kept me with it through to the end. Looking forward to whatever Nathan Hill does next.