By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Nathan Hill
Narrated by: Ari Fliakos
Nathan Hill models the mythology of tricksters in his latest novel, “The Nix”. In Hill’s story, “The Nix” is everyone’s companion; sometimes acknowledged—sometimes not, but always there. It plagues life with uncertainty. As an amoral spirit and seer, it carries the experience of generations. It carries the past; interferes with the present, and manipulates the future.
The purpose of “The Nix” in one’s life is to manipulate the future. “The Nix” plays with human lives. “The Nix” compels humans to hurt those who are closest to them.
Hill pictures “The Nix” as a ghost that follows a Norwegian immigrant to America. The Norwegian marries, finds work at a napalm producing corporation, and parents a daughter who becomes the Nix’s new human plaything. The Norwegian father loves his daughter but fails to express his love constructively. He is hyper-critical of his daughter’s accomplishments.
The father frightens his daughter with a story of “The Nix” who lived with him in Norway, traveled with him to America, and now lives in the basement of their mid-west home. He explains how one may inadvertently anger “The Nix” by accidentally spilling water that trickles down into the basement.
The daughter constantly struggles to impress her father. She fails to live up to her own expectations. She becomes psychologically paralyzed by concern for what her father thinks. To add to her woes, she presumes she has offended “The Nix”. She acquires a melancholy and romantic view of life that ruins her future marriage and scars her only son.
Hill captures the trials of four generations; i.e. millennials, the “Greatest Generation”, “Gen-Xers”, and the “baby-boom generation”. Hill describes interests, obsessions, and consequences of living in the age of technology, WWII, and Vietnam. He ties each generation to the luck and circumstance of life with the presence of every one’s “…Nix”. He shows how history does not repeat but shows how it rhymes (as Mark Twain once noted). We become like our parents because we carry markers of their past. We inherit a trickster, a ghostly companion called “The Nix”.
Hill’s story begins with an abandoned eleven-year-old boy and his father. A young mother and wife leaves her young son and husband to re-invent herself. She is a part of the “baby boom” generation.
Though she loves her eleven year old son, she feels driven to return to Chicago. Though she is now in her thirties, she wishes to recapture feelings she had when she started college. Her attendance was at the time of the Democratic Convention; i.e. when Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democrats for President of the United States. Richard J. Daley was the Mayor of Chicago at that time.
After high school, she received a college scholarship. She became embroiled in the youth movement that disrupts the nominating convention in Chicago with marches against America’s role in Vietnam. “The Nix” compels this mother-to-be to drop out of college and return to her mid-western roots. However, in her thirties, she is determined to return to her remembered life of first independence.
At the convention in 1968 she experienced her first conversation with “The Nix”. She is arrested by a troubled and angry police officer. She is thrown into jail. She prays to her God to release her from her predicament. In her dreams, she is visited by “The Nix”. She makes a bargain with “The Nix” to return to her father’s home in the Midwest, and marry her hometown boyfriend if she is released from jail.
“Her deliverance from jail and the clutches of the troubled cop comes from a fellow protester. She falls in lust, if not love, with the protester. Her romantic encounter stays with her; even when she marries her hometown boyfriend who she thinks she does not love.
The Nix” bargains with her in a way that determines her future; i.e. the abandonment of her son and husband, and a search for her father’s past in Norway. Upon release from jail, she drops out of college and returns to her home town.
Though her future husband is not aware of her pregnancy, the proximate time of her marriage makes the boy’s birth seem either her hometown boyfriend’s or the protester’s offspring.
Hill cleverly reaches back and forth in history to show the son growing into an adult; becoming a college professor, and by luck and circumstance, becoming re-acquainted with his mother after her thirty-year absence. In this re-acquaintance, the theme of Hill’s story is crystallized.
Along the way, listener/readers are introduced to the millennial and Gen-X generations. One is struck by the millennial generation’s grasp of technology and what becomes a perception of the moral and ethical behavior of these new generations. Obsession with gaming, self-imposed isolation, and entitlement are characterized as endemic characteristics of both millennials and Gen-Xers.
A mystery surrounds the abandoning mother’s father and what he did when he lived in Norway. His life experience is a reflection on the “Greatest Generation”; i.e. those who lived through WWII. The secrets of his life in Norway are revealed toward the end of Hill’s story. It speaks to what some of the “Greatest Generation” did not do that gave them such an exalted title.
This is a story that exposes weaknesses in every generation. There is plenty of immoral and unethical behavior to go around. Hill implies it is because of the presence of “The Nix” in everyone’s life.
Good and evil are two faces of “The Nix”. It inhabits everyone’s life. Humans have free will which can turn to either good and/or evil (as noted in Kierkegaard’s “Either, Or”).
Another implied meaning in Hill’s story is that no one is perfect and everyone has life experience that influences who we are and who we become. A cliché Hill infers is “…don’t be critical of another when you have not walked in their shoes”. Understanding another’s experience changes everything one thinks they know of whom they are judging.
With some criticism of the author’s use of too many clichés, “The Nix” is a clever and thoughtful reflection on mythology, history, and human behavior. One of Hill’s clever analogies about “History” is the example of the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. He describes the historical event as a drip of water, in a bucket of water, dropped into Lake Michigan. The 1968 convention is like every event in history. One historical event is a part of a vast picture so big it cannot be seen whole; let alone, understood. The context of history is too big for any human being to understand. The idea of the “…Nix” encompasses a much larger picture than one historical event. “The Nix” implies every historical event is subjective. In other words, history never repeats, but it does rhyme.