Wellness by Nathan Hill review – American storytelling at its era-spanning best | Fiction

Wellness by Nathan Hill review – American storytelling at its era-spanning best | Fiction

When The Nix, Nathan Hill’s debut novel, hit the bookshops in 2016, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath. How could any writer produce such a multilayered, time-jumping, character-hopping, consistently funny 200,000-word tale at his first attempt? Wisely, the wunderkind has taken his time to produce the next: at 600 or so close-typed pages, Wellness is barely shorter and no less shy of leaps across time and space. An equally remarkable panorama of American life, this new novel invites the reader to sink into a deep, demanding, constantly wrong-footing story of millennial lives misdirected and decisions catastrophically made. It is American storytelling at its best. While The Nix tackled America’s lost legacy of 1960s radicalism, Wellness zeroes in on a smaller, more intimate canvas, while still tackling a few big questions. What is truth? What is love? And therefore, inevitably, what is true love?

Jack and Elizabeth could not have met in more romantic circumstances. A pair of lonely university students in Chicago, each observes the other in his/her apartment across an unlit alley. It’s 1993 and, long before dating apps, the facing windows might be analogue phone screens: as each sits in darkness watching the other, both are longing to swipe right. When the two finally collide in a local bar, it’s bound to be love at first (closeup) sight. Their “origin story” powers them speedily into marriage, then parenting and finally a downpayment on their first condo. Except that now, after 20 years together, these “soulmates” find themselves at “the bottom of life’s U-shaped curve”. And when Elizabeth designs “separate master bedrooms” for their new apartment, Jack has to confront the possibility that the temporary chill may have turned to permanent frost.

But this isn’t a simple Updikean story of marital inertia: both characters are surrounded by stories, rabbit holes, misbeliefs and downright huckstering, and this is what they must confront as adults. Among the many post-truths of 2014 is the cult of health hacks and in fact Wellness is the name Elizabeth has adopted for her nondescript health consultancy in a Chicago suburb. As a post-doc, she worked at the university’s Institute of Placebo Studies, helping her professor debunk faddish health cures by running careful, double-blind studies. And, inevitably, when tested, the SlimSkirt or the Master Cleanse or the Smartshake performed no better than a placebo.

And that’s when Elizabeth has her eureka moment: as soon as the professor retires, she reverse engineers Wellness into offering cures by placebo. Of course, the first rule of wellness is that you never talk about placebos: the ritualised story behind their harmless tablets or salt water nasal sprays is exactly what generates the patient’s self-healing belief.

But this is just one strand in a novel that gradually elaborates its many threads to create the web of myth-making in which Jack and Elizabeth are inevitably enmeshed. So many truths and untruths – whether it’s Jack’s false belief (spun by his hyper-miserable parents) that he is to blame for a family tragedy or the burden of truth that underlies Elizabeth’s family’s wealth, the best of it derived from evicting illiterate homesteaders, the worst from selling white cotton to the KKK.

Some writers might stagger and cave under the weight of so many ideas and possibilities, but not Hill. The quiet genius of his writing is that he takes the reader effortlessly into every one of these worlds – from Jack and Elizabeth’s doomed night in a polyamorous sex club to Elizabeth’s grandfather’s initial bafflement on the docks of Nagasaki via Jack’s childhood self-erasure, isolated on a Kansas prairie. Each new section comes effortlessly alive within moments of its opening – with time as the novel’s third protagonist, the structure would simply not function if Hill could not pull this off. But the result is utterly immersive: you simply have to turn the page, unravel more.

And in the end, do Jack and Elizabeth find a second act in this new America? You can only hope they take – as we all should – Elizabeth’s professor’s parting advice: “Believe what you’re going to believe, but believe it with humility. Believe with curiosity.”

Wellness by Nathan Hill is published by Picador (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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