Roxanne Tellier: A Quick Scribble dee dee …
I’m now one week away from leaving the house I entered so joyously, seventeen years ago last July. The last three months have been an education, in so many ways.
So I can’t stay long. BUT – I do want to share some insights I found about life in general in a book I finished reading, just this morning. It’s over 600 pages, so most of you will not ever find the time to get through it. It took me three weeks, just grabbing idle moments as they came, to get to the end, and I’m a speed reader!
The book is called “The Nix,” by Nathan Hill.
The Nix is a spirit from Norwegian folklore who sometimes appears as a white horse that steals small children away.
The book is a long walk through the motivations and lives of several key characters, with the main protagonist, Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer, secret player of role playing games – being the lynchpin that holds the stories together. Set in 2011, the narrative careens backwards and forwards in time, exploring the characters’ motivations, as their tales unfold.
I first read about this book in a Lefsetz letter, in which he teased a few of the lines and paragraphs that spoke to him, and lauded the insights he’d gleaned himself.
” Now if I hid behind a pseudonym, if I fictionalized this, you could accept it. But the messenger becomes the enemy so most of America is unwilling to testify. Which is why our greatest truth is in cartoons, from “The Simpsons” to “South Park.” And Pixar’s “Wall-E” told us more about the human condition than any live action film. You see we’re all posing.
So “The Nix” is a story of a mother and a son. A first novel that is overwritten, with too much unnecessary description. But then come the insights and you sit there and smile, you tingle, BECAUSE SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS YOU!
We all want to be understood, made to feel so not alone. But today art makes you feel inadequate. You’re just not connected enough, not rich enough, you can buy some merch but you can never get close.
“This was the price of hope, he realized, this shattering disappointment.””
For me, struggling to make sense of the horrors of 2016, from the perspective of someone who’s supposedly seen it all before, there were other insights, other moments when I felt a kindred spirit. Who amongst us has never dreamed idly of being able to time travel back to a moment in time, to circumvent bad decisions made in the heat of the moment? And how far back would you have to go?
“Yes, he’d like to go back to that night and make a different decision. He’d like to erase these last several years – years that, as he sees them now, are long and indistinguishable and monotonous and angry. or maybe he’d go further back than that, back far enough to see Bishop again, or help him. Or to convince his mom not to leave. But even that wouldn’t be enough to recover whatever it is he lost, whatever he sacrificed to his mother’s brutal influence, that real part of him that was buried when he started trying to please her. What kind of person would he have become had his instincts not been screaming at him that his mother was moments from leaving? Was he ever free of that weight? Was he ever authentically himself?
These were the questions you ask when you’re cracking up. When you suddenly recognise that not only are you living a life you never intended to lead, but also that you are feeling assimilated and punished by the life you have. You begin searching for those early wrong turns. What moment led you into the maze?”
Samuel’s mother, Faye, had lived her life, in the sixties, as a ‘good girl,’ who tried to keep everyone around her happy. Especially her stern, Norwegian father, who’s own past had made him rigid and emotionally unbending. Her fear of screwing up develops into crippling panic attacks. She protects herself the only way she knows – by only doing those things at which she can excel.
“A person who never failed at anything.
It was easy: The more afraid Faye felt on the inside, the more perfect she was on the outside. She blunted any possible criticism by being beyond reproach. She remained in people’s good graces by being exactly who they wanted her to be.
The flip side of being a person who never fails at anything is that you never do anything you could fail at. You never do anything risky. There’s a certain essential lack of courage among people who seem to be good at everything. “
And she feels the Sunflower poem was written just for her, to jolt her out of her stupor.
“When had she forgotten that she was capable of bold things? When had she forgotten that bold things bubbled constantly inside her?”
These musings lead her to a college in Chicago, where she is inexorably caught up in a time when America was struggling with the concepts of feminism and the hippie invasion. And then – as now, “Good middle-class kids were becoming queers, dopers, dropouts, beatniks. It was true. Heard it on Cronkite. Politicians needed to get tough. They blamed the pill, permissive liberal parents, the climbing divorce rate, raunchy movies, go-go clubs, atheism. People shook their heads, appalled at youth run amuck, and then set out looking for more tawdry stories, found them, and read every word.
The barometer for the health of the country seemed to be what middle-aged men thought about the behaviour of college girls.”
She is accidentally drawn into the chaos of the student protest in August 1968, as 10,000 students attempted to peacefully protest the Democratic Convention to select a new presidential nominee. They were met with the full force of a militarized police – 23,000 police and National Guardsmen, who removed their badges and name tags, and flipped down their visors, so that the vicious brutality they displayed could not be used against them.
” Rioting took place between the Chicago Police Department, who were assisted by the Illinois National Guard, and peaceful demonstrators. The disturbances were well publicized by the mass media, with some journalists and reporters being caught up in the violence. Network newsmen Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Edwin Newman were assaulted by the Chicago police while inside the halls of the Democratic Convention” – Wikipedia.com
The writer ascribes these thoughts to commentator Walter Cronkite. “He wants to tell his audience that the reality they are seeing on the television is not Reality. Imagine a single drop of water; that’s the protest. Now put that drop of water into a bucket; that’s the protest movement. Now drop that bucket into Lake Michigan; that’s Reality. But old Cronkite knows the danger of television is that people begin seeing the entire world through that single drop of water. how that one drop refracts the light becomes the whole picture. For many people, whatever they see tonight will cement in place everything they think about protest and peace and the sixties. And he feels, pressingly, that’s it his job to prevent this closure. But how to say it right?”
Forward and back we flip. In 2011, an older Faye is arrested for tossing small stones at a former governor known for his law and order platform, who is now aiming for the presidency. She is arrested, and the charges quickly escalate, as her path once again crosses with the people and events of 1968. Ultimately, she is branded a domestic terrorist, and is herself terrorized by the force of the law. While she is out, her apartment is completely demolished by a SWAT team.
“Basically,” he said, “the police can send a SWAT team, whenever they want, and we have no way to stop it, prevent it, countermand it, or redress it.”
“It’s procedure, sir. Since your mother is being charged with domestic terrorism, they’re allowed to do this. So they did it.”
“She’s not a terrorist.”
“Yes, but since she’s being charged under a statue designed for sleeper-cell al-Qaeda agents, they have to treat her as if she might actually be one.”
“The law was written at a time when folks were not that interested in the Fourth Amendment. Or the Fifth Amendment, for that matter. Or, actually, the Sixth.” He chortled lightly to himself. “Or the Eighth.”
“Don’t they need some kind of specific reason to search the house?” Samuel asked.
“They do, sir, but they keep it a secret.”
“Don’t they need a warrant?”
“Yes, but it’s sealed.”
“Who gives them permission?”
“And is there anyone watching over all of this? Anyone we can appeal to?”
“There is a sort of habeas process, but it’s classified. National security reasons. Mostly sir, we’re meant to trust that the government has our best interests in mind. I should note that this kind of search isn’t actually mandatory. It’s at the court’s discretion. They didn’t HAVE to do this. And I know for a fact the prosecutor didn’t ask for it.
Yes, it is a very long book. But the insights are timeless, and the characters memorable. As a university professor, Samuel contends with a young student whose intent to succeed in life has been bolstered by her family’s contention that she has not only the right, but the mandate, to lie, cheat and do anything necessary to attain that success. And that anyone daring to stand in her way must be definitively destroyed.
Samuel also interacts with a group of role-playing fanatics, one of whom becomes another empathetic character as his passion leads to a dramatic conclusion.
His publisher, Guy Periwinkle, comments wittily and succinctly on the amalgamation of media, and what that has meant to the public.
A pair of twin siblings he meets in his youth play a major role in his future, and time reveals the horrible secret that one of them hid from the world, leading eventually to many lives ruined.
One reviewer called The Nix “a Great American Novel. The Nix is culturally relevant, politically charged, historically sweeping, sad, full of yearning, sometimes dark, but mostly hilarious.”
And I would agree. And I’ve spent an awful lot of time typing up these words – I must get back to the sorting and packing and dirt and aches of moving. But I’ll leave you with one more passage, one that, to my mind, sums up the general disposition of the public in these troubling times.
“Samuel does not miss teaching students like Laura Pottsdam, but he does regret how he taught them. he winces at it now, how much he looked down on them. How eventually he could only see their flaws and weaknesses and shortcomings, the way they did not live up to his standards. standards that shifted so that the student would never meet them, because Samuel had gown so comfortable being angry. Anger was such an easy emotion to feel, the refuge of someone who didn’t want to work too hard. Because his life in the summer of 2011 had been unfulfilling and going nowhere and he was so angry about it. Angry at his mother for leaving, angry at Bethany for not loving him, angry at his students for being uneducatable. he’d settled into the anger because the anger was so much easier than the work required to escape it. Blaming Bethany for not loving him was so much easier than the introspection needed to understand what he was doing that made him unlovable. Blaming his students for being uninspired was so much easier than doing the work required to inspire them. And on any given day, it was much easier to settle in front of his computer than to face his stagnant life, to actually face in a real way the hole inside him that his mother left when she abandoned him, and if you make the easy choice every day, then it becomes a pattern, and your patterns become your life. He sank in to Elfscape like a shipwreck into the water. Years can go by in this manner.”
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.