By Steve Kettmann
It’s been building a while, the sense that the novel, far from being exiled indefinitely from the hurly-burly of relevance, was tacking back into the mix, recovered from the fashion consciousness of campus influence and other existential threats, ready to stand and be counted.
Now, as we peer through the lurid gloom of life in the Trump era, it’s clear that journalists and nonfiction writers, chained to the ascendancy of “facts” in an era when fewer and fewer of us really believe in them anymore, cannot compete with the power of a go-for-broke novelist with a light touch, an ear for comedy and human foible, and the sheer stamina and grit to cobble together a great yarn over years of effort.
This is the era of writers like Nathan Hill, whose hit novel The Nix skewers millennial entitlement, boomer self-importance and everything in between, but above all retrieves the recent past and in so doing reanimates the present and the future. In other words, the book unlocks a gate through which many others can and should surge forth.
If nothing else, the giddy praise Hill has earned—“In my opinion he is the best new writer of fiction in America,” John Irving proclaimed—ought to inspire young writers to ponder his example, and it’s a good one to consider. The best part about Hill is his insistence that his dazzling literary success owes mostly to his having decided on a philosophy of essentially saying “Fuck it!” He opted out of the all-too-common syndrome of worrying too much about what anyone else thinks of your writing. Instead, he went for it and spent 10 years writing a novel mostly for himself, the way one dives into gardening.
The acclaimed novel was one of last year’s most talked-about books, with many critics noting its “Trump-like” Republican presidential candidate Gov. Packer—a character Hill created years before Trump ran for office. And its splashy debut came at a time when fiction was showing signs of a new resurgence; in its overview of 2016 book trends, the Los Angeles Times declared, “Long-form nonfiction is in peril.” The sudden rise of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 to bestseller lists was widely noted, but the Atlantic and the BBC looked deeper into the trend to discover that the Trump era seemed to be elevating sales of other fiction, as well.
Before that, Hill had been living in Queens, toiling away on short stories to land the usual prestige publication credits, when he decided to move to Florida and start fresh. Writers need other writers, but squeeze too many of them into your consciousness and it’s like packing an elevator with too many overdressed men who have hit the man-perfume way too hard. Getting away clearly did wonders for Hill’s talent.
“The stuff I was doing in New York really wasn’t that good,” Hill said in a recent phone conversation, just after he’d returned from a trip to France to promote the roughly 719th foreign edition of his novel. “I was writing for all the wrong reasons. I’d moved to New York with a bunch of people from my MFA program [at UMass Amherst]. I was very careerist, thinking about editors and Paris Review parties and who was getting published where—thinking about everything but the actual writing. I was trying to be popular in New York. I wasn’t writing any particular truth.”
When Hill’s apartment was broken into, his computer was stolen—and along with it, years of writing vanished into thin air, gone as surely as the carbons of early short stories that Ernest Hemingway’s first wife famously lost. With Hill, as with Hemingway and most any other writer, this was surely a good thing. Not until Hill moved to Florida to be near the bassoonist who would become his wife did his work on the novel that became The Nix really open up in a new direction.
“Even more than getting all the stuff stolen, it was that early failure, kind of a global failure—going to New York City but not becoming the writer I thought I was going to become, or really finding any success at all—that led me in a different direction,” he says. “I started to write The Nix for really different reasons. When that kicked in, the writing just opened up.
“I stopped sending stuff out to agents and editors and magazines,” he continues. “I stopped giving my work to writing friends who I went to school with.”
Years of feedback from writing classes and groups had been helpful, but for his writing to take off he had to hit the mute button on all that. “There comes a point where you have to do something that’s idiosyncratic, that’s just you,” he says. “You have to tune out all those voices, no matter how well-meaning and helpful they might be.”
Not everyone would feel comfortable building a 625-page novel around a main character, Samuel Andresen-Anderson, who is just sort of there. He’s no hero, no anti-hero, and the main things we know about him are that even into adulthood he lives in constant mortified terror of slipping into a crying jag, which he breaks down into categories like storms; that he teaches, but kind of hates it; and that his mother abandoned him when he was young. Oh, and he’s a writer, or sort of a writer.
Samuel feels like the buddy you have at college without ever knowing why, since you don’t really like each other all that much, but his life opens up to us in a way that makes it impossible not to care. We’re particularly pulled in by his account of twins he knew in his youth: Violin-playing Bethany, who will define beauty for Samuel his whole life, and her brother Bishop, pulled prematurely into adulthood in a way that touches Samuel as well. As I wrote in my review of The Nix for the San Francisco Chronicle last year: “This is a novel about an understanding taking years to unfold.”
“She’d decided that about eighty percent of what you believe about yourself when you’re 20 turns out to be wrong,” a character observes. “The problem is you don’t know what your small true part is until much later.”
Much as Northern California writer Emma Cline used her novel The Girls to breathe new life into our understanding of one aspect of the 1960s—the charismatic allure of a Charles Manson–type figure—Hill uses this story about a son in search of a vanished mother to papier-mâché together a shockingly vivid reimagining of the famous clubbing of protesters by overzealous Chicago police that will always be associated with the 1968 Democratic Convention. Hill slows down time in a way that mesmerizes. He takes a reader used to thinking about shorter attention spans and quietly changes the subject. For the right book, page count doesn’t matter; quality does.
Hill has a secret, and it’s one worth emulating. He likes his characters. He loves his characters. They are all flawed, they all have their sorrows, but even when they’re being hilariously over-the-top awful, he’s smiling to share with us their over-the-top awfulness. There are important lessons here. When one of the Trump
sons, looking like a bad-hair outcast from a remake of the cheeseball TV show Dynasty, went on Fox News in early June to share the opinion that, to him, Democrats are “not even people,’ the natural first reaction was to snicker at the sheltered cluelessness of this son of a son of privilege, this epic lack of understanding of anything other than his deranged father’s rants.
But actually, the quote was a rare case of a Trump speaking for many people, not just the tiny sliver of the country that supports this reckless presidency. Eric Trump’s words should make us all think. Too many people of too many viewpoints have been so riled, so addled with pent-up frustration and rage, they too have come to think of others as “not even people,” which is a trend probably as toxic to real democracy as the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision equating political contributions to free speech.
It does no good to write off whole swaths of the country as rubes, simple and easy to sway, even if the Trump wave did pull along all sorts of people who ought to have known better. It does no good to assume we understand everything about them. Far better to take the crisis afflicting the country and use it as a prod to try anew to understand people from all regions of the country, from all viewpoints, up to and including hate-mongers. The question is: How do we do this? We could use a Studs Terkel, interviewing everyone and panning for gold. But journalism can only make so much headway in this direction. Fiction holds far more potential.
This, I think, is the ultimate thrill of reading Nathan Hill: Having the sense of getting to know people we’d thought were walled off from us. His baton-swinging cop, for example, is a tour de force, human and sad, so much so that I for one almost felt like I was identifying with him even as he slammed protesters in the head with that baton—well, at least for a moment or two. The point is simply to turn back from the glibness of hate or bias to what we are born knowing, that what unites us is stronger and vaster than that which divides us.
Reading Hill, I’m thinking that some young novelist out there with flash and nerve is going to find a way to build a fictional tunnel from the present to 1969 California, when an actor in the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento ordered the National Guard into Berkeley to crack down on protesters who wanted to turn a scruffy little vacant lot owned by the state into a People’s Park. James Rector of San Jose, an innocent bystander, was killed in the melee, and the silent majority rallied behind Reagan and his show of force. He rode the tough-guy-on-a-horse image all the way to the White House. But like Chicago in ’68, it’s all become a cartoon. Only a great novelist can really reclaim that kind of territory for us, as Hill has done in The Nix.
The book was published in hardcover before last November’s election (it’s newly out in paperback), which seems oddly fitting. Post–Trump election, like post 9-11, the fiction writer feels a tidal wave of pressure to try to do something with the flotsam and jetsam of what used to be a culture. It’s overwhelming, which is why if you follow writers’ social media feeds you read much in November and afterward about people who couldn’t get out of bed for days or weeks on end. It was paralyzing.
Hill was in Southern California this spring to receive a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and in accepting the honor, joked that he was glad to get the award—while California “is still part of the country,” showing he was aware of the fledgling movement to get a secession measure on the California ballot.
“If that gets on the ballot, who knows what happens?” Hill told me on the phone.
The joke was also a kind of homage to fellow novelist Michelle Richmond. Back in 2009, when she was working on the project that would become the novel Golden State, Richmond was going for outlandish but not too outlandish when she sat down to write a scene about Californians going to the polls to vote on seceding from the United States.
Talking to Hill on the phone, I read aloud from what Richmond had told me about the novel: “‘In the book, it’s moved from fringe to reality because a new president wants to spend $12 billion of taxpayer money on a border wall with Mexico.’”
“My God!” Hill cut in good-naturedly, loving it.
“‘He wants a war with Iran, he wants to roll back environmental protections and he’s rolling back reproductive and gay rights,’” I continued, quoting Richmond. “‘When I was writing the book, I thought eventually there will be some sort of vote, but that’s far in the future.’”
“That’s amazing,” Hill said. “The Trump-like character in my book, Gov. Packer, was written similarly a long time ago, eight years ago. I took this kind of baseline Tea Party Republican candidate who seemed to be getting popular, and pushed him to absurdity to see what happens.”
It takes years, generally, to create the world-within-a-world of a novel that comes alive enough for characters to talk on their own, leading the writer more than the other way around. As Hill put it to me: “That takes a long time to get to, to feel that the character is speaking to you, not that you’re turning the wrench.”
There is something transcendently important about that commitment of time and energy, that investment of caring and doing, and it’s potentially an important antidote to the pop-off-in-four-seconds-flat culture in which we find ourselves, led of course by the Popper-Off-in-Chief. More even than the beauty, power and importance of his great novel, I’d point a new reader to the following words as an introduction to Hill and what he stands for:
“I really want to take the time with my own political feeling and political thinking,” he told me on the phone. “I don’t want to make snap judgments. For example, as I write my next book, it’s really tempting to try to deal with the age of Trump, but I don’t think that would make a very good book. It’s too new. I don’t have enough distance from it yet. And frankly, I’m not incredibly confident about my own opinions.
“And I’m shocked at how many are extraordinarily confident in their opinions and extraordinarily sure they are right. I’d rather take my time. I don’t even take to Twitter very often, as you might have seen. I don’t want to become a kind of opinion vending machine. I reserve the right to keep my opinions to myself and think about it for a very, very long time. I’m well aware that at any time I could be wrong.”