The Nix

I really didn’t want to read Nathan Hill’s 620 page novel this summer; I think the nix made me do it.

shopping    A Nix is a Norwegian mischief maker, a mythical spirit character who can be dangerous.  In Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix, a house spirit from Norwegian folktales is only the seasoning adding to the overall flavor of his expansive examination of pretty much everything politically and socially in the 1960s leading to an overwhelming examination of what is wrong with today, politically and socially.  The “meat” of his story, however, is about how people overcome their fears and guilt, relate to one another, and are never, ever, who you think they are.

Although Hill’s long Faulkner-like paragraphs ramble to include every detail of scenes I often did not want to know so much about,  his  characters are funny, human, pathetic, happy, and miserable – all at once – reminiscent of John Updike or Philip Roth.   His ability to suddenly jolt with information through switchbacks from the late 1960s to the almost present kept me riveted.  His surprises came at times just when I was about to stop reading, but then could not.

What was the book about?  So many reviews have been written, some as rambling as the novel itself.  In his review for NPR, Jason Sheehan encapsulated the plot:

Hill’s novel is the story of Samuel. Of the boy who became him and the man that he is in 2011, in an Occupy Wall Street America, where he is obsessed with an online videogame called World Of Elfscape and failing at pretty much everything else. But when his vanished mother suddenly reappears on every TV screen in America — this forgotten ’60s hippie radical now emerging as a viral sensation with a handful of gravel and no good explanation — he is given a chance to write a book about her. A hatchet-job in which he, the abandoned son, is contractually obligated to savage his own mother in lurid, tell-all fashion…

The Nix is about a lot of things — about politics and online gaming, about the tenuous friendships of adult men and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It is a vicious, black-hearted and beautiful satire of youth and middle-age, feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and social media. But more than anything, it is a treatise on the ways that the past molds us and breaks us and never lets us go. How it haunts us all.

Read Sheehan’s complete review here  

Not everyone will agree that reading a novel over 600 pages is worth the time – remember The Goldfinch?  I liked that book too. But, for me, The Nix became a book I had to finish – not only to find out how lives finally resolved, but just to catch more of the humor and wisdom between the lines.  Not for everyone, but I’m glad I listened to a fellow reader and fell in.


The Last Letter from Your Lover

Mad Men making money and depending on trophy wives to entertain and stand decorously and quietly by their sides  – does true love have a chance? Channeling Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter,” Jojo Moyes affirms that each person has a soul mate – not necessarily a spouse.  In The Last Letter from Your Lover, Moyes carries an intense relationship from the sixties to present day, with so many interruptions and separations, it must be true love.

The dates are important – and Moyes conveniently notes them at the beginning of chapters as she flits back and forth to establish and then flashback on the action.  Jennifer, recovering from a car accident, has no memory but uneasy feelings, as her husband escorts her back to their well-appointed mansion to recover.  Something – or someone – is missing, and she cannot remember – until she accidentally finds a love letter (not written by her husband) addressed to her.

Eventually,  her lover, Anthony (nicknamed Boot) appears, disappears, and then reappears – throughout the story.  Boot is a journalist and knows how to write a good letter.  Moyes repeats them several times in the storyline, and they become the tangible pieces to an ephemeral affair.  Circumstances, fear of losing what they have, and misunderstandings tear them apart again and again.  And just when the story seems over, Moyes jump starts it again with a new catalyst.

One of Boot’s letters reappears forty years letter in the newspaper archives, and Ellie Haworth, a young journalist at the paper – who is struggling with her own relationship with a married man – decides to investigate, with hope of finding a juicy feature story. She finds more letters and a post office box that lead her to Jennifer Sterling and the mysterious author of the letters.

Despite the contrived plot and the shallow characters, the story has the redeeming theme of love conquers all – easy to read once you get the rhythm of the time zones, and Moyes instills enough twists to keep it compelling.  One of those romances, with lovely British phrasing, that is predictable but still pleasurable – book candy.