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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

Hill's debut novel, named after a creature from Norwegian mythology, is an impressive mix of satire, political commentary, folklore, MMORPG gaming, and family relationships.  Samuel, a supposed writer and bored professor, is suddenly thrust back into the life of the mother who abandoned him when she apparently commits an act of political violence.  I must admit as much as the novel held my attention from the very first page, early on I thought Hill was venturing into tired academic and romantic cliches.  I should have trusted him -- he always veered away from the obvious and did something new and smart instead.  The result is a cynical yet somehow big-hearted novel that embraces the messiness of people.

Hill is particularly astute at recognizing the futility of trying to control one's life. The primary characters think that if they make the right choices their lives will unfold perfectly:  Samuel visualizes his life like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Faye thinks that if she does the right thing, follows all the rules, and uses all the right products, she will meet society's expectations and be happy.  Pwnage has grandiose plans of everything he is going to do differently tomorrow, which will solve all his problems and bring back his wife.  But that's not how life works, and there is no such thing as the perfect life -- sometimes fate or coincidence intervenes, sometimes the actions of others screw everything up (or give an unexpected boost), sometimes there are second chances, sometimes things stay unresolved, and sometimes big decisions don't actually matter too much in the long run. So Samuel stagnates, Faye hides from the truth of herself, and Pwnage sinks into fantasy and the illusion of choice, until they are finally able, each in their own way, to break free of their expectations and live life.

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