The Nix by Nathan Hill

the nix by nathan hill - book club

The latest book for the Serious Book Club (which is my IRL book club, but I take the conversation from our book club discussion and write about here, that way you can “join” too!) was The Nix by Nathan Hill. Consider yourself warned — this is a discussion of the book so if you haven’t read it and don’t want any of the plot lines to be uncovered, don’t read further.

This book was long. Personally, there were a few parts that felt slow, but otherwise I was into the story enough to keep going.

The overall consensus at book club was there there were two gals who loved it and three of us that just liked it. There were a lot of story lines in one book. At times some of us thought that parts felt contrived. An example, Bethany just happening to be divorced just felt a little too convenient.

We also agreed that the flow of the book was a little off. At first it was good, albeit a little confusing, the middle was a little slow, and the end was super fast. While off, we did feel like the writing was cinematic and can absolutely see it in film or TV series form.

Several of us were confused about a few things — at first I couldn’t tell the difference between Pwnage and Samuel. I thought the video-gaming character was the same person for a while.

We all agreed that there were some character flaws. Although when I say the term “character flaw” it makes me wonder if sometimes characters have to be on the dramatic/unbelievable side to make it interesting enough? I personally thought that Judge Brown’s character seemed way too unbelievable. The amount of hate he had toward Faye seemed like too much to me. Many of us also didn’t like that Sebastian ended up being Guy Periwinkle. The personalities didn’t seem to match up.

An interesting thing one of the gals brought up was how much she loved the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure part of the book, and that spurred a discussion about how those books were popular when we were younger, and how possibly people who grew up at a different time wouldn’t even know that reference.

That discussion got us on the Gen X/Millennial discussion and how many of us feel like we aren’t in either generation, or how we might technically be in the very early Millennial but we don’t identify with Millennials. Which reiterates my thoughts from this post about the micro generation — Xennial — born between 1977-1983, although I argue this could extend to some of my younger friends born in 1984-1985.

We were the micro generation that grew up without email, Internet was in its infancy, there was no social media, you didn’t get a cell phone until you could drive (if you were lucky) and it was ONLY for emergencies because it was so expensive. You could play outside without your parents worrying about you. Usually they told you not to come home until it was dark. At the same time, we had the beginnings of technology and were quick to pick it up, understand it, and use it in our daily lives as soon as possible. Half of our jobs are new or vastly different than they were before us because of computers.

I say all of this, and pointed this out at book club, because while we were sitting on a rooftop drinking wine, eating hummus, and discussing the book — none of us had our phones out, or even knew where they were. We didn’t care. Having grown up in the time of no phones, we appreciate what life was like before them, and we love to go back to those moments whenever possible. We are the last generation to know what it’s like to be fully present without a technology distraction. Our parents let us be bored and we had to entertain ourselves. At the same time we appreciate what the technology gives us, the conveniences it affords us, the jobs it gives us.

On another note, we felt like the political themes in this book strongly paralleled what is going on today even though this book came out last year and was written well before what is currently going on in politics.

Usually at the end of book club we discuss other books we’ve read or want to read. One of the gals said she wasn’t a fan of Fates and Furies (like me) and neither of us could understand why so many people loved it, including Barak Obama. I’m still convinced I’m missing something. I’ll have to reread it in a few years.

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Personally, I liked the book, but didn’t love it. While I preferred some story lines over others I thought the writing was good and there were multiple brilliant passage (some below). But I almost always like a book more after discussing it and reading interviews with the author and I’d say that was true in the case of this book as it was for Swing Time as well. For it to be Hill’s first book, I do feel like it’s impressive. He is a very good writer. Worth reading, yes. but I wouldn’t put it on the top of my recommendation list.

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A few passages that stood out to me (page numbers are from the paperback version):

Page 123

This is what you get in the suburbs, his mother said, the satisfaction of small desires. The getting of things you didn’t even know you wanted. An even larger grocery store. A fourth lane. A bigger, better parking lot. A new sandwich shop or video-rental store. A McDonald’s slightly closer than the other McDonald’s. A McDonald’s next door to a Burger King, across the street from a Hardee’s, in the same lot as a Steak ‘n Shake and a Bonanza and a Ponderosa all-you-can-eat smorgasbord thing. What you get, in other words, is choice.

Or rather, the illusion of choice, she said, all these restaurants offering substantially the same menu, some slight variation on potatoes and beef. Like at the grocery store, when she stood in the pasta aisle looking at the eighteen different brands of spaghetti. She couldn’t understand. “Why do we need eighteen spaghettis?”

Page 237

“There used to be a difference between authentic music and sellout music. I’m talking about when I was young, in the sixties. Back then we knew there was a soullessness to the sellouts, and we wanted to be on the side of the artists. But now? Being a sellout is the authentic thing. When Molly Miller says ‘I’m just being real,’ what she means is that everyone wants money and fame and any artist who claims otherwise is lying. The only fundamental truth is greed, and the only question is who is up front about this. That’s the new authenticity. Molly Miller can never be accused of selling out because selling out was her goal all along.”

“The point of her song seems to be, like, be rich, have fun.”

“She’s appealing to her audience’s latent greed and telling them it’s okay. Janis Joplin tried to inspire you to be a better person. Molly Miller tells you it’s okay to be the horrible person you already are.”

Page 253

“There are things you might not want to know about. Children don’t have to know everything about their parents.”

Page 285

Every life has a moment like this, a trauma that breaks you into brand-new pieces.

Page 452

For Alice, the small true part of her was that she wanted something that deserved her faith and devotion. When she was young, she saw families retreat into their homes and ignore the greater problems of the world and she hated them: bourgeois cogs in the machine, unthinking sheeplike masses, selfish bastards who couldn’t see beyond their own property lines. Their souls, she thought, must have been small and shrunken things.

But then she grew up and bought a house and found a lover and got some dogs and stewarded her land and tried to fill her home with love and life and she realized her earlier error: that these things did not make you small. In fact, these things seemed to enlarge her. That by choosing a few very private concerns and pouring herself into them, she had never felt so expanded. That, paradoxically, narrowing her concerns had made her more capable of love and generosity and empathy and, yes, even peace and justice. It was the difference between loving something out of duty—because the movement required it of you—and loving something you actually loved. Love—real, genuine, unasked-for love—made room for more of itself, it turned out. Love, when freely given, duplicates and multiplies. 

Page 483

There was some great dialogue about empathy on this page. I didn’t include the excerpt because it’s long, but wanted to point it out.

Page 553

…the thing they never mentioned about traveling in your retirement is that in order for it to work you must, at the very least, be able to endure the person you’re traveling with. And he imagined all that time together—on planes, in restaurants, in hotel rooms. They couldn’t escape each other, he and his wife.

Page 635

And maybe that is the story. Not that thousands are protesting but that millions are not. Maybe to achieve the balance CBS is looking for they should take a crew to the northern Polish neighborhoods and western Greek neighborhoods and southern black neighborhoods and film nothing happening. To show how this protest is a pinprick of light in a much larger and gathering darkness.

Would this make sense to the TV audience? That a thing like a protest expands and draws everything into it. He wants to tell his audience that the reality they are seeing on television is not Reality. Imagine a single drop of water: that is the protest. Now put that drop of water into a bucket: that is the protest movement. Now drop that bucket into Lake Michigan: that’s Reality. But old Cronkite knows the danger of television is that people begin seeing the entire world through that single drop of water. How that one drop refracts the light becomes the whole picture. For many people, whatever they see tonight will cement in place everything they think about a protest and peace and the sixties. And he feels, pressingly, that it’s his job to prevent this closure.

Page 709

“What’s true? What’s false? In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll all agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It’s very hip right now.”

“This sounds awful.”

“We are more politically fanatical than ever before, more religiously zealous, more rigid in our thinking, less capable of empathy. The way we see the world is totalizing and unbreakable. We are completely avoiding the problems that diversity and worldwide communication imply. Thus, nobody cares about antique ideas like true or false.”

Page 726

…Samuel had grown so comfortable being angry. Anger was such an easy emotion to feel, the refuge of someone who didn’t want to work too hard. Because his life in the summer of 2011 had been unfulfilling and going nowhere and he was so angry about it. Angry at his mother for leaving, angry at Bethany for not loving him, angry at his students for being uneducatable. He’d settled into the anger because the anger was so much easier than the work required to escape it. Blaming Bethany for not loving him was so much easier than the introspection needed to understand what he was doing that made him unlovable. Blaming his students for being uninspired was so much easier than doing the work required to inspire them. And on any given day, it was so much easier to settle in front of his computer than to face this stagnant life, to actually face in a real way the hole inside him that his mother left when she abandoned him, and if you make the easy choice every day, then it becomes a pattern, and your patterns become your life.

Page 730

Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.

Page 731

But Faye’s opinion is that sometimes a crisis is not really a crisis at all—just a new beginning. Because one thing she’s learned through all this is that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid.

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If you’ve read The Nix, please tell me what you think in the comments! Next month we are reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery if you want to join in!

A few interviews to read with Nathan Hill on Slate, The New York Times, and BookBrowse.

See all of my posts about books here, all of the book club posts here, and see my bookshelf here.

Editor’s note: When I write about books, I’m simply writing my opinion but with immense respect for the authors. Writing any sort of book is hard! I respect all authors and books even if I didn’t like them or didn’t understand them just on the simple fact that they were written by someone. Someone passionate enough to actually write and finish writing a book, whether I think it’s good or bad, I still respect the work it takes to write a book. Personally I think it would be so hard to write a book, especially fiction! So everything I say, I say constructively and as an opinion, and with respect.

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Photo by Emma Weiss

I dubbed this book club the Serious Book Club because we seriously read the books and seriously discuss them, not because we only read serious books!