The second novel by the author of “The Nix” follows a young Chicago couple’s trajectory from pre-internet optimism to 21st-century ennui.
WELLNESS, by Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill’s novels are, among other things, feats of narrative architecture. “My projects are vast creatures of shocking complexity,” a real-estate developer none-too-humbly notes early in Hill’s new novel, “Wellness” — “intricate, unruly, asynchronous, a little baroque.” Given the vastness of the 600-page book that follows, one can’t help imagining the author is supplying a would-be ars poetica of his own.
Compared with Hill’s kaleidoscopic, best-selling debut, “The Nix,” with its dives into 1960s radicalism, gaming culture and contemporary campus politics, “Wellness” seems at first to promise something more grounded and lived-in. Set in 2015, it chronicles the mid-marriage malaise of Jack and Elizabeth, he a photographer and adjunct art professor, she the proprietor of, well, Wellness, a company once dedicated to debunking fad diets and other health scams but now in the business of tricking people into happier lives through the deployment of placebos. (Her signature product is a fake love potion that claims to improve troubled marriages.) The couple’s sex life has stagnated; they’ve spent their savings on a fancy, as-yet-unbuilt condo in the Chicago suburbs; and their 8-year-old son Toby’s struggles with socializing and impulse control are stressing them out.
The ingredients are in place for a Franzen-esque exploration of The Way We Live Now, and, at least for a while, this is what the book delivers. Elizabeth befriends a younger mother at Toby’s school who evangelizes for polyamory in terms that will be familiar to readers of Esther Perel; another new friend leads a group dedicated to the law of attraction and the practice of manifesting their desires. Jack argues with his father about Ebola conspiracy theories on Facebook and is subjected at his university to an only-just-implausible new regime in which a professor’s pay is tied to the amount of social media engagement he generates.
Hill’s treatment of various forms of contemporary groupthink approaches but isn’t quite parody (except in the case of the law of attraction group, who are soon unmasked as vicious, and oddly moralistic, idiots). The novel reproduces at great length many of the most irritating aspects of contemporary white-collar life — teeth-grinding human-resources jargon and tech speak, vapid behavioral psychology — sometimes to poke mild fun at it, but often in seeming earnest. “So the brain — which is still operating a Paleolithic simulation set atop our 21st-century world — does a cost-benefit analysis: It will only spend the energy needed to cure you when it is certain there is enough energy to go around, when it is certain you are safe from harm,” Elizabeth’s mentor explains. After another page of this, Elizabeth deduces: “Information overload is the new hungry lion.” Hill cites his sources in an extensive bibliography at the end — pages and pages of books and articles both popular and academic, from “Sex at Dawn” and Jaron Lanier to a wide array of scientific studies about picky eating among infants and toddlers, as though he’s anxious we might think he’s making any of this up.
It’s a tall order to wrestle so much secondhand material into something emotionally resonant, and, intentionally or not, the same pop psychology Hill examines — with its tendency toward simple, all-encompassing solutions — pervades the novel’s own logic. Franzen’s moralism can be irritating, but at least his pervasive skepticism gives him a solid foundation from which to critique the culture he writes about. Hill’s disposition is fundamentally sanguine — if one’s pay gets linked to social media hits, the solution is to go viral.
As in “The Nix,” though, Hill is less interested in getting to the bottom of the modern predicament than he is in constructing an elaborate, back-story-laden plot machine that will, after hundreds of pages, solve all its characters’ problems with a series of satisfying clicks. In both novels, Hill intertwines past and present with militaristic precision, revealing the ways his characters’ histories come to bear inexorably, unambiguously on their present lives. “Every life has a moment like this, a trauma that breaks you into brand-new pieces,” Hill writes in “The Nix,” and though I have my doubts about the truth of this credo, his work consistently bears it out. If you indirectly cause a police officer to become grievously injured in the 1968 Chicago police riots, you better believe he’s going to be a judge in your case after you throw rocks at a presidential candidate in 2011.
In “Wellness,” despite the gestures toward a broader analysis of the world’s workings (as in a breathless summation of Elizabeth’s family’s rapacious and racist wealth accumulation, or a chapter explaining how social media algorithms work), the character’s lives are governed almost entirely by coincidences and misunderstandings. Jack’s obsession with early internet pornography is mistaken for a brilliant art project; Toby reveals that he failed the famed “marshmallow test” on purpose in a misguided attempt to please his mother. In Hill’s philosophy, Occam’s razor is never applied.
The eternally looming progenitor of this kind of simultaneously mechanistic and sentimental storytelling is, of course, Dickens. But despite creaky (often deeply pleasurable) formal conventions, the great 19th-century novelists ushered in the modern novel by imbuing their narratives with psychological ambiguities that can’t be fully resolved, even by the revelations that superficially conclude their plots.
Hill, on the other hand, is so dogged about connecting narrative dots that he loses sight of the messiness of lived reality. As in serialized television, or movies like “Babel” and “Crash,” the suspense in his books is generated almost entirely by the withholding of important information about characters’ pasts and motivations, often at the expense of psychological plausibility, like when an important long-term relationship is revealed to have begun, unbeknown to one of partners, as a sociological experiment. Hill’s use of this form of narrative trickery is especially egregious given the novel’s roving third-person narration, which purports to access both Jack and Elizabeth’s perspectives.
There are lovely passages in “Wellness” that prove Hill capable of clear, intelligent writing — as when Jack visits the Art Institute of Chicago and close-reads Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and an obscure painting called “The Prairie on Fire,” “a scene from the Kansas prairie painted by someone who had never been to Kansas, based on a novel by someone who had also never been to Kansas.” Hill’s storytelling abilities are impressive, if maddening, and underneath all the moving parts, his novels vividly capture lonely Midwestern childhoods and real yearning for connection and understanding.
What’s frustrating is that, characteristically, even this moment of artistic appreciation turns out to have an ulterior motive. Jack’s trauma, it appears, involves both a reproduction of “American Gothic” and … a prairie fire. The reader feels as Elizabeth does upon realizing she’s recreating her toxic dynamic with her father in her marriage. “How elegant,” she thinks. “How perfectly, stupidly, dreadfully elegant.”
Andrew Martin is the author of the novel “Early Work” and the story collection “Cool for America.”
WELLNESS | By Nathan Hill | 608 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30