I have mixed feelings about this novel but I blame it on the election. So, I picked up The Nix from my college’s library (No fines for faculty for overdue books! No fines! No fines!) back in late October after reading a couple of reviews and hearing the author on NPR (I can’t remember which program). It seemed like it could be a sprawling, intriguing mess, in the vein of The Goldfinch, which I enjoyed. However, it took me over a month to finish this, partly because I went through a period where I couldn’t read anything but New York Times and Washington Post articles and despairing Facebook posts by Dan Rather and Robert Reich. Then when I could pick up a book again, I was distracted by some YA fare, including the amazing The Sun is Also a Star.
On the surface, there was a lot to like about this novel, which reminded me of a mix of John Irving and Richard Russo, with a small pinch of Carl Hiassen absurdity. The main plot of this novel involves a 30-something English professor, Samuel Andreson-Anderson, who is still feeling the effects of his mom’s abandonment, which happened when he was a kid. He is uninspired by his work, unable to complete the novel he was commissioned to write several years ago and escapes by playing an online role-playing game, World of Elfscape. However, he discovers his mother’s whereabouts when she makes the national news by throwing rocks at a rising star in the Republican party, Sheldon Packer. The conservative governor from Wyoming, with presidential aspirations, is in Chicago, walking through Grant Park when Sam’s mom, Faye, “attacks” him. Suddenly, reporters are digging into the history of the “Packer Attacker” and saying things about Faye’s past that Samuel never knew. As far as he knew, his mother spent the 1960’s in Iowa, waiting for his father to come home from Vietnam and didn’t leave until 1988, when she walked out of the door of the family home and never returned. However, reporters discovered that Faye was arrested during the 1968 riots in Chicago.
The novel spends a fair amount of time with Samuel, as he reconnects with his mother but also attempts to discover the truth about her past in order to write a tell-all book, a way to get his publisher off his back. However, we also get Faye’s story/perspective; how she goes from small-town Iowa to Chicago and UIC (in all its late 60’s cement glory) and back again is the most compelling part of the book for me. There are some side characters—an entitled college sophomore who is miffed when Samuel accuses her of plagiarism as well as Samuel’s “online” friend, Pwnage, a genius player of World of Elfscape, who has become a hermit and is slowly neglecting all his bodily needs. There are also the twins, Bethany and Bishop, who grow up with Samuel in the 80’s, whose stories intertwine with his.
Again, when I look at most of the parts of this novel, I’m a fan. The early chapter where Laura Pottsdam and “habitual, perpetual cheater” (31) sits in Samuel’s office and tries to wiggle out from under her punishment is classic satire—complete with headings noting rhetorical moves and logical fallacies. The story of Samuel and Bishop’s friendship was riveting and complex. Additionally, I could have read a novel just about Faye. That said, this novel didn’t benefit from being read so slowly and in such fits and starts. I got annoyed at the side story involving Pwnage even though I see intellectually how it fits. There were parts that I appreciated with my brain and parts that I appreciated with my heart and the novel worked best when both organs were engaged—which luckily happened frequently in the back half.
This novel is worth reading but if you’re NOT a fan of sprawling multi-character stories with shifting senses of tone than you might want to keep walking.