Literature becomes “classic literature” when it includes two things:
1. Timeless themes that transcend culture, period, and setting.
2. A penetrating view of the current culture, period, and setting.
It seems like these should be opposites. How can a book be firmly entrenched in its time, yet also transcend that time? Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix (Knopf, 2016) is a stunning example of this seemingly intractable dichotomy. In fact, it is the exploration of the current time period, not the universal themes, that elevates a novel to the status of future classic.
First, if you haven’t read this book yet, you’re missing out. Buy it here. This post will contain some spoilers, so if that’s important to you, check out the original text first. Also, find other great reads on my list of Books That Demand to Be Read.
The book follows Samuel, a college English professor who learns his estranged mother has become a national sensation by throwing rocks at a presidential candidate. Samuel owes his publisher a book he never finished, so he decides to write a scathing breakdown of his mother’s life as a means of fulfilling his contract while getting back at the woman who abandoned him as a child.
Immediately we see the timeless themes: betrayal, abandonment, parent-child relationships, anger toward the government, and ethical dilemmas. All of these and more are explored as the novel progresses.
These are a necessary component of what makes the novel work. They allow the reader to empathize with the characters and consider their own life in relation to the moral questions raised by the book. However, such themes are hardly unique in literature; in fact, every book must include them, or nobody will read it. Any given novel, from the classic to the dollar-store romance paperback, aims to touch the reader through some sort of timeless, emotional theme. The Nix handles these themes very well, but that alone is not enough to elevate it to the status of future classic.
So what does?
Samuel and his mother play out their story against the rich landscape of the present-day United States. The book also follows other characters such as Pwnage*, a friend of Samuel’s who is addicted to the online game World of Elfscape, and Laura Pottsdam, a narcissistic student in one of Samuel’s classes. Together these characters provide insightful glimpses into the little details that define our present time. Pwnage wants to remodel his kitchen, start eating healthier, and win back his ex-wife, but remains so glued to his chosen form of media addiction that he continually puts real life off. Laura believes she is destined for greatness in a high-level marketing position, despite possessing no skills and cheating in all of her classes. They and the other characters provide implicit commentary on mindsets and belief systems that have become endemic in 21st century society.
* As a side note, Pwnage is my favorite character in this book. His initial chapter made me laugh until my sides hurt, and then weep uncontrollably. The book segues between comedy and tragedy, often in the space of a single line, with impressive grace.**
** As a side-side note, I was also heavily pregnant while reading this, so some of my reaction may have been hormonal.
The book also pokes fun at other ubiquitous elements of modern society. The fast pace of our technology-driven economy. Shrinking attention spans. Manipulative politics. News networks’ desperation to inflate non-events into mega-disasters. (Here’s a hilarious video from The Onion about that last theme.) Such references permeate the book, and readers will find themselves nodding and laughing as they recognize their own foibles as well as those of society at large.
These details provide insights and prompt analysis of how we live. Yet this literary diorama of the present time doesn’t make the book a classic on its own, either.
The rise to the level of classic literature comes through the way the modern milieu is used to illustrate the timelessness of the universal themes.
Throughout the book, modern cultural issues (the Occupy Wall Street protest, for example) are shown to be repetitions of clashes that have played out again and again throughout history. We spend time in the late sixties, in Samuel’s mother’s time, and also in the eighties and nineties during Samuel’s childhood. In each time period, there is a protest. There are family estrangements. There are secrets. There are identity conflicts, liars, and cheats. The more things change in the cultural milieu, the more they stay the same in the larger themes being explored.
The interplay of present and universal is what makes this book a future classic. Decades from now, its larger themes will still be understandable across borders and centuries, while its detailed time period will illuminate how we lived in the here and now, and how those themes affected our lives.
Much of the cultural richness of the book will probably be lost on readers in the future. They won’t intuitively grasp the aggravation of a millennial college student expecting greatness while refusing to do any work, the tragedy of a game-addicted man failing to make something of his life, or the humor of an extreme eating TV show being taken as a serious sport. They’ll see the artistry used to present these situations, but it will take some study of our current time period for them to see the nuances of meaning that we understand and relate to automatically.
We see the same cultural divide with other great classics. For example, I just read Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. The wordplay is clever, but the play is so steeped in its time period that many of the jokes and character parodies are impenetrable without extensive research.
Will the cultural references in The Nix be understandable to readers in 2416? I can’t say for certain. A lot will depend on how much things change. Even with a good understanding of historical context, the book won’t resonate with future readers on the same level that it does for those of us living it out every day. There will always be an added layer of distance. Yet as The Nix shows us, the distance of time is not so hard to bridge when enough stays the same.