Nathan Hill’s ‘The Nix’ flirts with made-for-tv characterization

The TV adaptation will likely be less nuanced.
Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

The Nix By Nathan Hill, $28

Sometimes in the course of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, you sense you’re reading a film script, only in past tense (mostly) and without camera angles. That’s because Hill’s sharp dialogue sculpts characters—and to some extent situations and settings—while the narration often set-dresses, prescribing what should be scattered around a room more than describing what’s in it.

The book also has a colorfully populated, episodic narrative line that shifts among a near-present of 2011, when a failed-novelist English professor’s long-lost mother becomes a cross-media meme after hurling gravel at a populist politician; the 1980s childhood of Samuel, who cries a lot, in hurricane-force levels; and his mother’s haunting 1950s childhood. Faye is another reliable staple, particularly from those times, the girl who married her sweetheart and then discovered that suburban life with a frozen-foods executive was soul-sapping. And no less so with a chronically weepy child: “He was so stupidly fragile. He was like the skin of a grape …

She did not like to see her own failures reflected back at her so clearly.”

If Hill’s characters seem a little made-for-TV, it will not be surprising to learn that Meryl Streep and J.J. Abrams are co-producing The Nix for Warner Bros. television, with Streep starring and Abrams perhaps directing.

None of this is to say that the novel is a weak series script—just that it’s easy to see how it lends itself to adaptation into what will likely be a less nuanced series. Hill’s cinematic narration has the offhand flair and attention to ironic detail you find in Kurt Vonnegut or George Saunders, the bemused gaze on cruelties like subdivisions named for the animals and landscapes they destroy, and on the crudeness of life lived in modern media’s banal blare. And Hill can be at times both comic and poignant, with a feel for how psyches either function or collapse in each mode. Some of that is bound to flatten on the screen, along with some of the novel’s more troubling scenes, involving a friend of incipient novelist Samuel.

Choose Your Own Adventure is the title of a series Samuel enjoyed as a child. But when he tries it as a writer, it complicates his life’s adventure, and it makes him recognize both the finality of choices and the almost inevitable selfishness that the past’s torments can create in even the most self-aware.

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