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Fictional Facts

In an age of fake news and 'alternative' truth, novels like Nathan Hill's 'The Nix' are striking a chord

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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 says. "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.

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