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  • Mark Brafield

The Nix - living with choices

I have recently finished reading 'The Nix' by Nathan Hill, an exceptional book - wise, artful, psychologically profound, huge in scope, immensely readable and often very funny.

One of the many themes of the book concerns the number of people we find inside ourselves. Which is the true self, and what happens when we try to be something we are not ?

One of the main characters, Faye, reviews her life during the course of the book, trying to get to the bottom of why she so often felt that she was not 'being herself', that somehow she had lost her true self and was living a lie, playing itself out in an empty marriage that she leaves during the early part of the book. As the story unfolds, she re-traces her story back from her own life to that of her father who had always appeared distant and critical.

As a child, she resolved to protect herself from his criticism by being top of the class, the best at everything she undertook, only for this to generate attacks of anxiety - 'Moments when she failed in front of other people, or moments when she felt the potential to fail in front of people - these could trigger an attack. Not every time, but sometimes. Frequent enough that she had adopted a certain self-protective behaviour; she became a person who never screwed up.

A person who never failed at anything. ...

It was, Faye knew, all an elaborate mental game. She knew that way down deep she was a phony, just your average normal girl...the real Faye was a failure ...So she never failed. And the distance between the real Faye and the fake Faye, in her mind, kept widening,like a ship leaving the dock and slowly losing sight of home'.

As a student she gets caught up in the Chicago protest of 1968. She is badly injured but the day ends with an impetuous sexual encounter which leaves her feeling passionately alive. Having to choose a future in conflicting circumstances, however, she resolves to settle down to a 'normal' life with her steady but dull childhood sweetheart (a middle manager in frozen food ready meals) only to find that this marriage feels dead by comparison. She punishes herself endlessly for having given up her 'true' self (the passionate student) in order to live as her 'false' self (the bored suburban housewife).

The narrator, however, suggests that it might not be such a binary choice;

'...there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones'.

We are not told whether Faye ever comes to this realisation; for the time being she remains locked in her illusion; '...the more she believes she only has one true self, the more she flees to find it. She's like someone trapped in quicksand whose efforts to escape only make her drown faster'. (Part 9, Chapter 34)

Meanwhile, the main character in the story, Samuel, is following a similar path and at one point faces a literal crossroads, whether to walk through a bedroom door to be with his childhood love Bethany (who is about to marry someone else), or walk out the door and out of her life. I won't spoil this crucial turning point in the novel by telling you what happens, save to say that for years afterwards he also feels he made the wrong choice.

But towards the end of the novel he finds a sense of reconciliation. He comes to realise that -

'His relationship with Bethany is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book. So instead he will do this; He will clarify it, illuminate it, try to understand it better. He can prevent his past from swallowing his present. So he's trying to be in the moment, trying not to let the moment get all discoloured by his fantasies of what the moment ought to be'. (Part 10, Chapter 5)

And what is 'The Nix' and why the white horse ? Well, you will just have to read the book yourself to find out. You have a treat in store.

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