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How Novelty Ruined The Novel

The much-acclaimed “The Nix” shows the irritating flaws in today’s “comic” novels…

Last summer, though you may not have known it, the literary world was raving about a novel called The Nix. One reviewer had only gotten ten pages into the book when he flipped to the dust jacket to see what author Nathan Hill’s photo looked like. “I was thinking to myself, Jesus, this guy is gonna be famous,” the reviewer gushed. “I wanna see what he looks like.”

Critics from major publications were united in their praise. They agreed not merely that The Nix was good, but that it was breathtakingly good. Said The Independent: “Reading The Nix—all 620 pages of it—is an experience of complete unadulterated pleasure.” Said The New York Times: “Hill has so much talent to burn that he can pull off just about any style, imagine himself into any person and convincingly portray any place or time… the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story.” Said The Guardian: “Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist—the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative.” Booklist compared Nathan Hill to John Irving. John Irving compared Nathan Hill to Charles Dickens.

Literary critics, as we all know, are the Virgils sent to guide us through the gruesome hellscape of modern publishing. So with all this lavish praise being bandied about, what could I do but read The Nix for myself? After all, I had been assured, I was going to laugh until I cried. Every chapter was going to be mesmerizing, every sentence musical. I would travel through time! I would inhabit the consciousnesses of a dizzying range of fully-realized characters! A world of unadulterated pleasure awaited me!

Now, let me begin by saying, I don’t like to knock other people’s favorite novels. All right, fine, that’s a lie. I love knocking other people’s favorite novels. Sometimes, however, I feel bad about it afterwards. After all, life is short, and people ought to read whatever books bring them pleasure, whether or not they’re “well-written” by some other person’s standards. That said, the world of literary criticism is about as low-stakes as it gets, enabling me to pronounce my cruel opinions with great confidence and little consequence to anybody. Reader, I read The Nix—all 620 pages of it.

In the interests of sparing you the trouble of reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll summarize the plot briefly for you here. The Nix is the story of a sexually frustrated academic who despises his students. Most of the first part of the book is an extended flashback to the time in his childhood when his mother abandoned him. Cut to his mother. She has an extended flashback to the time in her college days when she was peripherally involved in some anti-Vietnam protesting. There is a longish interlude about a kinky affair between a police officer and the mother’s college roommate, who enjoys being choked. The mom and the son have some cursory present-day interactions for the purposes of linking the two storylines together. There is a shocking twist at the end where you find out that one minor character is actually a different minor character. The end.

Oh, wait, there was also another plotline where the academic is in love with a violinist but her soldier brother sends the academic a deathbed letter from Iraq telling him not to have sex with his sister, so he doesn’t. Also a malnourished recluse named Pwnage nearly dies of a blood clot after playing a video game for too long. This is described at considerable length and has more or less nothing to do with any other part of the plot. The end.

All told, The Nix is not the most extravagantly awful critically-acclaimed novel I’ve ever read—that would probably be one of Cormac McCarthy’s or Don DeLillo’s howlers. It’s just not very good. The plot is a real mess, with contrived framing devices, jittery narrative focus, and little forward momentum. On a sentence level, Hill dutifully sprinkles unusual metaphors throughout his text in order to demonstrate that he is a serious literary stylist. A luxuriously wealthy home, for example, is described as having “Corinthian columns that were so intricately detailed at the top they looked like muskets that had backfired and been torn apart.” (Intricately-carved scroll-and-leaf stonework that looks just like a piece of metal that’s been randomly blown apart—yes, I can definitely picture those exotic Corinthian columns now, thank you.) The way a man feels when he’s in love, meanwhile, is “like his chest and guts are held together by a single wooden clothespin that she could remove by simply not showing up.” (Apparently she is going to summon the clothespin from afar, with one of those Accio! spells from Harry Potter.) All depicted sexual activity is either pornographically implausible or skin-crawlingly awkward. There are pointless experimental elements that do nothing to make the book more interesting: for example, there is a single sentence that is sixty-two pages long, though it feels much, much longer than that. Additionally, in homage to the main character’s childhood love of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, several chapters of the novel are formatted in the manner of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, except that—get this—there end up being no choices at the end.

The Nix is, in addition, awfully self-satisfied about its own inaccessibility. At one point, the sexually frustrated academic’s editor says scornfully of the academic’s planned novel, “So it’s going to be like six hundred pages and ten people will read it? Congratulations.” “That’s not why I’m writing,” the academic declares. The mercenary editor assures the brave academic that his disinterested artistic integrity is career suicide: “In today’s market, most readers want books with accessible, linear narratives that rely on big concepts and easy life lessons.”

The peculiar irony is that The Nix’s narrative may not be linear, out of sheer laziness, but it offers up easy life lessons in spades. There’s a hamfistedly moralizing tone to a lot of the writing, which, to me, was its only moderately endearing quality. Hill is not taking any chances that somebody might misunderstand the narrative themes he is trying to convey. Characters are always dramatically announcing things like “Every memory is really a scar” and “the things you love the most can hurt you the worst,” and the narrator frequently butts in to double-check that you, the simple-minded reader, are fully appreciating the emotional arc of his characters: “What Faye won’t understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.” I do not mean to scorn simplicity—accurate truisms and sincere aphorisms have their place in life—but The Nix’s desperation to be aloof and clever, and its equally clumsy attempts to be earnest, simply cancel each other out. Its tired conceit falls slowly (so, so slowly) between two stools.

So why has this dreary novel received so much adulatory attention from the critical establishment? Well, aside from the possibility of a highly concerted behind-the-scenes wining-and-dining campaign by Nathan Hill’s agent, my only explanation is that literary critics are trained to respond to certain cues that signal to the reader that a given book is A Serious Work Of Postmodern Literature. Over recent decades there has been a hiving-off of books into lowbrow “genre novels”—mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance, and the like—and “literary novels,” which are all self-consciously vying for an immortal place in the Great Books canon.

But just as mystery novels have their locked rooms and romance novels their kilted Scotsmen, the literary novel is a genre like any other, with predictable tropes and a predetermined range of narrative possibilities. Postmodern writing has a very strong focus on literary style: it prioritizes conveying a mood rather than telling a story, and writing a “striking” descriptive sentence over presenting a fully-realized three-dimensional character. The art of the short story, being easier to read and grade, is more highly-prized by MFA instructors, and consequently the novels produced by MFA-trained writers have a cobbled-together feel of multiple short stories mashed into something of a novel-length. So-called experimental elements, such as unusual text formatting, have long since ceased to be experimental: they are now well-established formulas.

One thing I find truly irritating is that reviewers and other literary sophisticates are forever insisting that postmodern novels are funny. I can’t tell you how many times a back-of-book blurb has assured me that some unlikely tome is, in reality, a comic masterpiece. Nathan Hill, for example, has been hailed a “major new comic novelist”; one reviewer promised me that The Nix was going to be “so intelligently funny,” though it provided no textual examples to back this up. (For fellow Arrested Development fans—seasons 1-3—think “Footage Not Found.”) Another reviewer declared that The Nix “swaps the masks of comedy and tragedy so deftly you can’t always be sure which is which.” I confess I was so bamboozled by the deftness of this tragicomic bait-and-switch routine that I failed to laugh even once. Perhaps the reviewers were referring to scintillatingly witty dialogue like this:

“‘But here’s the thing,’ Periwinkle continues, his eyes all aglow, ‘even the things we do to break the routine become routine. Even the things we do to escape the sadness of our lives have themselves become sad. What this ad acknowledges is that you’ve been eating all these snacks and yet you are not happy, and you’ve been watching all these shows and yet you still feel lonely, and you’ve been seeing all this news and yet the world makes no sense, and you’ve been playing all these games and yet the melancholy sinks deeper and deeper into you. How do you escape?”

‘You buy a new chip.’

‘You buy a missile-shaped chip! That’s the answer. What this ad does is admit something you already deeply suspect and existentially fear: that consumerism is a failure and you will never find any meaning there no matter how much money you spend.’”

This sidesplitting exchange is an excellent example of what B.R. Meyers, in a famously crotchety (and mostly correct) 2001 essay entitled A Reader’s Manifesto, described as the plague of “Consumerland” humorists: writers who believe that lists of winky brand-names and interminable musing on the emptiness of consumer culture are slyly entertaining, rather than trite and dull. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a novel that doesn’t have jokes in it: humor writing is hard, and the small number of people these days who could theoretically have written really good comic prose have probably just gone into TV instead. But I am not sure why literary reviewers persist in forcing themselves to laugh at things that simply are not funny. It cannot possibly be good for their health.

Perhaps I have systematically chosen exactly the wrong novels to try, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a critically-feted contemporary novel I’ve read in recent years that has made any distinct emotional impression on me. For example, I know I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but I can’t remember a damn thing that happened in it, except that a bunch of people cheated on their partners, and at one point someone was dissecting a freshly-laid turd in a frantic search for an accidentally-swallowed wedding ring. (I believe this was intended to be one of the Funny Scenes that make for a Great Comic Novel.) David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out. Junot Díaz, of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fame, at least knows how to keep a plot moving, but his complete dehumanization of women—pardon, his narrator’s complete dehumanization of women, let’s make sure to be clear—makes for exhausting and depressing reading. None of these are books I could envision returning to, for comfort and guidance, in the way I usually return to books that move me.

I think there is a certain prevailing notion that everything has already been written, which—in a society that often places a premium on originality over quality—drives ambitious authors to write books with ironic footnotes and eccentric formatting, in the hopes of drawing some critic’s attention. But these postmodern gimmicks are not at all innovative, really: one has only to read Don Quixote (1605) or Tristram Shandy (1759) to see that self-referential surrealism and experimental plot-framing structures—albeit with much better jokes—have been around since the dawn of what we call the novel. In reality, the postmodern novel, with all its elaborate metafictional conceits, is simply doing consciously what epistolary and comic novelists of earlier times did unpretentiously as a matter of course. Postmodernism is nothing new, except in its prickly joylessness.

The really innovative moment in the history of literature, in fact, was not modernism, or postmodernism: it was the nineteenth-century novel, what we often call the “classic” novel. The word “classic” makes the nineteenth-century novel sound timeless, and thus does a disservice to what was truly a peculiar and unprecedented moment in the history of human language. The nineteenth century saw a lot of ghastly things in the way of colonialism, warfare, and exploitation, but it also saw the novel evolve into a literary form that delved intensely into individual psychologies, and examined webs of relationships between interconnected groups of people, and situated the small-scale experiences of characters in relation to larger historical trends and deep existential questions. All this while actually bothering to have a coherent central plot! And what’s more, the nineteenth-century novel was not a type of “high” art only intended to be intelligible to a cabal of elites: it was a popular form that was serialized in magazines ands newspapers. There had never been anything quite like it in the history of human art.

The greatest nineteenth-century novels are remarkable for their combination of depth and accessibility. Of course, there were plenty of bad novels written in the nineteenth century too, and certainly I don’t mean to say that a book must be written along expansive, morally serious lines in order to be worth reading. Nevertheless, when I am going about my ordinary life, trying to figure out how to do the right thing, or how to better understand other people, the sort of novels that naturally spring into my head are George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central characters of these novels are people who want to be good, and learn that the world is a much darker and harder place than they had imagined, and who still nevertheless want to be good. These books are realistic about human ugliness, in all its horrible grotesquerie, in all its pitiable banality, but they were not cynical. They have a powerful redemptive undercurrent, in the best possible sense. George Eliot, probably the greatest English-language novelist of the nineteenth century, writes about the inner lives of sociopaths, hypocrites, and charlatans with as much uncompromising honesty as any disaffected modern author. But her narrative universe refuses to be absorbed by them; she does not dwell on them with morbid fascination (as does the contemporary cult of the antihero), but nonetheless inhabits their thoughts with great subtlety and sympathy. Authors of this sort were brave: they did not throw up their hands in the face of the complexity of life, but endeavored to make works of art that were sufficiently intricate and robust that the problems of real human existence could be slightly better-understood through them. Compare, for example, The Nix’s banal narratorial pronouncements and tedious pseudo-comedic patter about the absurdities of consumerism, to this brief bit from Middlemarch:

“That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

This passage kicks me in the gut every time I read it. It’s a deceptively simple, deeply troubling sentiment, expressed in clear and beautiful language. The great routine of human suffering makes us less able to empathize with the unremitting sorrows of thousands upon thousands of others: perhaps we should be grateful, in a curious way, to have been spared such an intensity of empathy in a world of pain, but we must also be humble, because no matter how clever and perceptive we are, we all fail to care for each other constantly. This is the kind of lesson that, if we remembered it more often, would undoubtedly make the world a kinder place.

And in that sense, I think books like Middlemarch took seriously the idea that novels had the power to transform human life, not merely—as seems to be the goal of a lot of postmodern novels—to riff off its foibles for the purpose of making the author look clever. The novels of Charles Dickens are credited with helping galvanize labor and judicial reform movements, because he succeeded in awakening public empathy through narrative, showing that literature has the power to affect change on a societal scale when you have a sufficiently large and engaged readership. In most other contexts, it might simply be that a line, or a scene, or a character pops into your head at a felicitous moment during your day—when you’re about to speak harshly to somebody, maybe—and makes you think twice about what you’re doing.

I think there’s a real need to try to create books of comparable depth in the twenty-first century idiom, because the nineteenth-century novel is now increasingly less accessible to ordinary people, due to our distance from the context and language of the period. Our era urgently need books of a similar generosity and subtlety, all the more so because nineteenth-century literature had massive blind spots adjacent to issues of race, class, culture, and gender: our collective consciousness now encompasses more things and more people, and if the better world we hope for is ever to come to pass, we must do the hard work of learning how to love every part of it. We need writers who are not so obsessed with being thought intelligent, and terrified of being thought sentimental, writers who believe the central purpose of their writing is to help readers become gentler and wiser. A return to the bread-and-butter task of telling good stories is clearly warranted. Contemporary writers have tried their damnedest to convince the world that writing a book with an easily-intelligible plot is easy, and that “breaking” the rules of plotting is actually innovative and edgy. This is all a lie. Plot is harder than anything else in writing. Serialization may have been part of the reason why the nineteenth-century novel was, on average, so much better at plotting: writing (or at least revising and publishing) in installments, which the reading public will read and react to, makes the process of creating a novel more communal and feedback-oriented, rather than a prolonged labor of total solitude. This is closer to the original nature of human storytelling, and something we probably ought to return to.

ff the top of my head, I can think of at least one contemporary author who probably has the skill and imagination to write a great novel on the ambitious scale that I, a random reader, am imperiously demanding. The most enjoyable novel I have read recently is George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which is an odd historical ghost-story about Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham, and his attempts to escape purgatory after his untimely death. Saunders’s writing is beautifully irradiated by affection for human beings: unlike a lot of contemporary writers, he is not terrified of being laughed off as a sap, and as a result, he has, over a lengthy short-story career, honed his ability to write with great emotional force. I find that he always knows how to prick my heart in a tender place. Saunders’s greatest short story, Tenth of December, is a tightly-constructed and profoundly moving tale of an encounter between a small boy and a cancer patient contemplating suicide; Saunders brings a similar sensibility to Lincoln in the Bardo, his first-ever novel, which focuses largely on grief, longing, and the powerful but terrifyingly ephemeral nature of human connection. As the fictional Abraham Lincoln muses:

“One feels such love for the little ones, such anticipation that all that is lovely in life will be known by them, such fondness for that set of attributes manifested uniquely in each: mannerisms of bravado, of vulnerability, habits of speech and mispronouncement and so forth; the smell of the hair and head, the feel of the tiny hand in yours—and then the little one is gone! Taken! One is thunderstruck that such a brutal violation has occurred in what had previously seemed a benevolent world. From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.”

Saunders’s writing is so good that I suspect I am petty to be dissatisfied with his novel. But nevertheless I am dissatisfied, or not-quite-satisfied. I feel like Saunders has the talent to write a twenty-first novel on the level of a Middlemarch. But instead he’s writing the kind of self-consciously experimental, vaguely difficult-to-read novel that is the one of a slate of very limited options available to MFA types. Lincoln in the Bardo’s disorienting opening chapters, its arcane central conceit drawn from non-mainstream Buddhist theology, and its frequent, unexplained incorporation of textual snippets from Civil War scholarship means that this book will likely be read and enjoyed by only a small number of readers. In this respect, Saunders is, to me, like the chef who makes little artistic tastes when you want a full, rib-sticking plate of savory food. (If George Saunders has any interest in rebutting this criticism by serializing a groundbreaking, world-healing work of fiction in Current Affairs, we will be willing to receive his pitch in our inbox.)

All in all, there is room on earth for every sort of book: my own list of favorite novels includes everything from P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith (which is not at all serious) to James Joyce’s Ulysses (which is not exactly accessible) to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which—well, see the preceding article in this issue for why this is Not Entirely A Good Thing). There may even exist people outside the literary critical establishment who are genuinely moved and edified by godawful garbage like Blood Meridian, or White Noise, or The Nix. Humans are peculiar creatures, after all. My only plea is that authors should think carefully about why they are writing the books they are writing, and take seriously their responsibility to promote the universal brotherhood of man, in ways great and small. Literature is not only a delightful form of entertainment: it is also perhaps the most significant means of inculcating empathy that our species has ever developed. Sometimes it is harder to write a simple thing than a complicated one; sometimes it is harder to portray goodness than selfishness; sometimes it is harder to nourish readers spiritually than to simply impress them with clever tricks. I wish that more authors would try to do the things that are hard. But until they get it all sorted out, I will probably go back to rereading books by dead people. 

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