Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'The Nix' Cleverly Mixes Politics and a Troubled Mother-Son Relationship

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'The Nix' Cleverly Mixes Politics and a Troubled Mother-Son Relationship

Article excerpt

Nathan Hill has remarkable timing. He started writing his debut novel, The Nix, 12 years ago, but it's hard to imagine it could have been more topical if he'd begun 12 weeks ago.

In 2011, a woman flings some rocks at an anti-immigrant politician, Governor Packer, whose career is fueled by "an antielitist populism and found a receptive audience especially among blue-collar white conservatives put out by the current recession." The Packer Attacker, as she's dubbed in the media, is soon decried as a "terrorist, radical, hippie, prostitute teacher."

Professor Samuel Andreson-Anderson knows her by a different name: Mom. And he hasn't seen her since she walked out on him and his dad when he was 11.

Samuel was left with questions about his mom's "acres of secrets" and a collection of Norwegian ghost stories his mother used to terrify him with at bedtime. One of those was the title character, "The Nix," a spirit that would appear to children as a white horse. When the child got on its back, it would run faster and faster until it leaped off cliffs into the sea. When Faye's father told her the story, "he said the moral was: Don't trust things that are too good to be true." For her part, Faye told Samuel the moral was, "The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst." (She also told him "every memory is a scar." "And they all lived happily ever after" was apparently not in the Andreson-Anderson family vocabulary.)

While he has a four-piece, matching set of emotional baggage he's been lugging around since he was a pre-teen, Anderson claims to be preoccupied with his current troubles. Once, he was a "promising" writer who won acclaim and a book contract on the strength of the first - and, it turns out only - short story he published. Now an English professor, he's tangling with a student, Laura Pottsdam, who turned in the same plagiarized term paper on "Hamlet" she used in high school. (This recycled cheating actually seems like uncharacteristic sloppiness from Laura, a budding CEO-type and social media maven, who has delegated all of her pesky "work" to various besotted minions.)

She certainly isn't going to allow a rude professor to stigmatize her by calling her a "cheater" and destroy her career over "Hamlet," which she's never going to need in the future anyway. College is supposed to be a "safe space," isn't it? While "The Nix" isn't a campus novel like Richard Russo's "Straight Man" or Francine Prose's "Blue Angel, Hill deftly satirizes academia over the course of a tour de force sequence of arguments. Here's just one: "Writing a paper for Professor Anderson triggers negative feelings of stress and vulnerability. It feels oppressive. If I write a paper using my own words, he'll give me a bad grade and I'll feel bad about myself. Do you think I should have to feel bad about myself in order to get a degree? …

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