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Exclusive Extract from Nathan Hill’s The Nix

We are delighted to have Nathan Hill – NY Times bestselling author of The Nix – doing an event at the shop on the 24th January. And as a special treat we thought we’d procure an exclusive extract of the novel, ahead of UK publication, for you to read before the 24th. Click here for full details about the event and to book tickets.

From the very beginning of The Nix:

 

1

The headline appears one afternoon on several news websites almost simultaneously: governor packer attacked!

Television picks it up moments later, bumping into programming for a Breaking News Alert as the anchor looks gravely into the camera and says, “We’re hearing from our correspondents in Chicago that Governor Sheldon Packer has been attacked.” And that’s all anyone knows for a while, that he was attacked. And for a few dizzying minutes everyone has the same two questions: Is he dead? And: Is there video?

The first word comes from reporters on the scene, who call in with cell phones and are put on the air live. They say Packer was at the Chicago Hilton hosting a dinner and speech. Afterward, he was making his way with his entourage through Grant Park, glad- handing, baby- kissing, doing all your typical populist campaign maneuvers, when suddenly from out of the crowd a person or a group of people began to attack.

“What do you mean attack?” the anchor asks. He sits in a studio with shiny black floors and a lighting scheme of red, white, and blue. His face is smooth as cake fondant. Behind him, people at desks seem to be working. He says: “Could you describe the attack?”

“All I actually know right now,” the reporter says, “is that things were thrown.”

“What things?”

“That is unclear at this time.”

“Was the governor struck by any of the things? Is he injured?”

“I believe he was struck, yes.”

“Did you see the attackers? Were there many of them? Throwing the things?”

“There was a lot of confusion. And some yelling.”

“The things that were thrown, were they big things or small things?”

“I guess I would say small enough to be thrown.”

“Were they larger than baseballs, the thrown things?”

“No, smaller.”

“So golf- ball- size things?”

“Maybe that’s accurate.”

“Were they sharp? Were they heavy?”

“It all happened very fast.”

“Was it premeditated? Or a conspiracy?”

“There are many questions of that sort being asked.”

A logo is made: Terror in Chicago. It whooshes to a spot next to the anchor’s ear and flaps like a flag in the wind. The news displays a map of Grant Park on a massive touch- screen television in what has become a commonplace of modern newscasting: someone on television communicating via another television, standing in front of the television and controlling the screen by pinching it with his hands and zooming in and out in super- high definition. It all looks really cool.

While they wait for new information to surface, they debate whether this incident will help or hurt the governor’s presidential chances. Help, they decide, as his name recognition is pretty low outside of a rabid conservative evangelical following who just loves what he did during his tenure as governor of Wyoming, where he banned abortion outright and required the Ten Commandments to be publicly spoken by children and teachers every morning before the Pledge of Allegiance and made English the official and only legal language of Wyoming and banned anyone not fluent in English from owning property. Also he permitted firearms in every state wildlife refuge. And he issued an executive order requiring state law to supersede federal law in all matters, a move that amounted to, according to constitutional scholars, a fiat secession of Wyoming from the United States. He wore cowboy boots. He held press conferences at his cattle ranch. He carried an actual live real gun, a revolver that dangled in a leather holster at his hip.

At the end of his one term as governor, he declared he was not running for reelection in order to focus on national priorities, and the media naturally took this to mean he was running for president. He perfected a sort of preacher- slash- cowboy pathos and an antielitist populism and found a receptive audience especially among blue- collar white conservatives put out by the current recession. He compared immigrants taking American jobs to coyotes killing livestock, and when he did this he pronounced coyotes pointedly with two syllables: ky- oats. He put an r sound in Washington so it became Warshington. He said bushed instead of tired.

He said yallow for yellow and crick for creek.

Supporters said that’s just how normal, nonelite people from Wyoming talked.

His detractors loved pointing out that since the courts had struck down almost all of his Wyoming initiatives, his legislative record was effectively nil. None of that seemed to matter to the people who continued to pay for his $500- a- plate fund- raisers (which, by the way, he called “grub- downs”) and his $10,000 lecture fees and his $30 hardcover book, The Heart of a True American, loading up his “war chest,” as the reporters liked to call it, for a “future presidential run, maybe.”

And now the governor has been attacked, though nobody seems to know how he’s been attacked, what he’s been attacked with, who he’s been attacked by, or if the attack has injured him. News anchors speculate at the potential damage of taking a ball bearing or marble at high velocity right in the eye. They talk about this for a good ten minutes, with charts showing how a small mass traveling at close to sixty miles per hour could penetrate the eye’s liquid membrane. When this topic wears itself out, they break for commercials. They promote their upcoming documentary on the ten- year anniversary of 9/11: Day of Terror, Decade of War. They wait.

Then something happens to save the news from the state of idleness into which it has drifted: The anchor reappears and announces that a bystander caught the whole spectacular thing on video and has now posted it online.

And so here is the video that’s going to be shown several thousand times on television over the next week, that will collect millions of hits and become the third- most- watched internet clip this month behind the new music video from teen pop singing sensation Molly Miller for her single “You Have Got to Represent,” and a family video of a toddler laughing until he falls over. Here is what happens:

The video begins in whiteness and wind, the sound of wind blowing over an exposed microphone, then fingers fumbling over and pressing into the mic to create seashell- like swooshing sounds as the camera adjusts its aperture to the bright day and the whiteness resolves to a blue sky, indistinct unfocused greenishness that is presumably grass, and then a voice, a man’s voice loud and too close to the mic: “Is it on? I don’t know if it’s on.”

The picture comes into focus just as the man points the camera at his own feet. He says in an annoyed and exasperated way, “Is this even on? How can you tell?” And then a woman’s voice, calmer, melodious, peaceful, says, “You look at the back. What does it say on the back?” And her husband or boyfriend or whoever he is, who cannot manage to keep the picture steady, says “Would you just help me?” in this aggressive and accusatory way that’s meant to communicate that whatever problem he’s having with the camera is her responsibility. The video through all this is a jumpy, dizzying close- up of the man’s shoes. Puffy white high- tops. Extraordinarily white and new- looking. He seems to be standing on top of a picnic table. “What does it say on the back?” the woman asks.

“Where? What back?”

“On the screen.”

“I know that,” he says. “Where on the screen?”

“In the bottom right corner,” she says with perfect equanimity. “What does it say?”

“It says R.

“That means it’s recording. It’s on.”

“That’s stupid,” he says. “Why doesn’t it say On?”

The picture bobs between his shoes and what seems to be a crowd of people in the middle distance.

“There he is! Lookit! That’s him! There he is!” the man shouts. He points the camera forward and, when he finally manages to keep it from trembling, Sheldon Packer comes into view, about thirty yards away and surrounded by campaign staffers and security. There is a light crowd. People in the foreground becoming suddenly aware that something’s happening, that someone famous is nearby. The cameraman is now yelling: “Governor! Governor! Governor! Governor! Governor! Governor! Governor!” The picture begins shaking again, presumably from this guy waving or jumping or both.

“How do you make this thing zoom?” he says.

“You press Zoom,” says the woman. Then the picture begins to zoom, which causes even more focus- and exposure- related problems. In fact, the only reason any of this footage is at all usable on television is because the man eventually hands the camera to his partner, saying, “Here, would you just take this?” He rushes over to shake the governor’s hand.

Later all of this blather will be edited out, so the clip that will be repeated hundreds of times on television will begin here, paused, as the news puts a small red circle around a woman sitting on a park bench on the right side of the screen. “This appears to be the perpetrator,” the anchor says. She’s white- haired, probably sixty, sitting there reading a book, in no way unusual, like an extra in a movie, filling out the frame. She’s wearing a light blue shirt over a tank top, black leggings that look elastic and yoga- inspired. Her short hair is tousled and falls in little spikes over her forehead. She seems to have an athletic compactness to her— thin but also muscular. She notices what’s happening around her. She sees the governor approaching and closes her book and stands and watches. She’s on the edge of the frame seemingly trying to decide what to do. Her hands are on her hips. She’s biting the inside of her mouth. It looks like she’s weighing her options. The question this pose seems to ask is: Should I?

Then she starts walking, quickly, toward the governor. She has discarded her book on the bench and she’s walking, taking these large strides like suburbanites doing laps around the mall. Except her arms stay steady at her sides, her fists in balls. She gets close enough to the governor that she’s within throwing range and, at that moment, fortuitously, the crowd parts, so from the vantage point of our videographer there’s a clear line of sight from this woman to the governor. The woman stands on a gravel path and looks down and bends at her knees and scoops up a handful of rocks. Thus armed, she yells— and this is very clear, as the wind dies down exactly at this moment and the crowd seems to hush, almost as if everyone knows this event is going to happen and so they all do what they can to successfully capture it— she yells, “You pig!” And then she throws the rocks.

At first there’s just confusion as people turn to see where the yelling is coming from, or they wince and flinch away as they are struck by the stones. And then the woman scoops another handful of rocks and throws, and scoops and throws and scoops and throws, like a child in an all- out snowball war. The small crowd ducks for cover and mothers protect their children’s faces and the governor doubles over, his hand covering his right eye. And the woman keeps throwing rocks until the governor’s security guards reach her and tackle her. Or not really tackle but rather embrace her and slump to the ground, like exhausted wrestlers.

And that’s it. The whole video lasts less than a minute. After the broadcast, certain facts become available in short order. The woman’s name is released: Faye Andresen- Anderson, which everyone on the news mistakenly pronounces as “Anderson- Anderson,” making parallels to other infamous double names, notably Sirhan Sirhan. It is quickly discovered that she is a teaching assistant at a local elementary school, which gives ammunition to certain pundits who say it shows how the radical liberal agenda has taken over public education. The headline is updated to teacher attacks gov. packer! for about an hour until someone manages to find an image that allegedly shows the woman attending a protest in 1968. In the photo, she sits in a field with thousands of others, a great indistinct mass of people, many of them holding homemade banners or signs, one of them waving high an American flag. The woman looks at the photographer drowsily from behind her big round eyeglasses. She leans to her right like she might be resting against someone who’s barely out of frame—all that’s visible is a shoulder. To her left, a woman with long hair and an army jacket stares menacingly at the camera over silver aviator shades.

The headline changes to sixties radical attacks gov. packer!

And as if the story isn’t delicious enough already, two things happen near the end of the workday to vault it into the stratosphere, water- cooler- wise. First, it’s reported that Governor Packer is having emergency surgery on his eyeball. And second, a mug shot is unearthed that shows the woman was arrested in 1968— though never officially charged or convicted— for prostitution.

This is just too much. How can one headline possibly gather all these amazing details? radical hippie prostitute teacher blinds gov. packer in vicious attack!

The news plays over and over the part of the video where the governor is struck. They enlarge it so it’s all pixelated and grainy in a valiant effort to show everyone the exact moment that a sharp piece of gravel splashes into his right cornea. Pundits argue about the meaning of the attack and whether it represents a threat to democracy. Some call the woman a terrorist, others say it shows how far our political discourse has fallen, others say the governor pretty much asked for it by being such a reckless crusader for guns. Comparisons are made with the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. The NRA releases a statement saying the attack never would have happened had Governor Packer been carrying his revolver.

The people working at their desks behind the TV anchor, meanwhile, do not appear at this moment to be working any harder or less hard than they were earlier in the day.

It takes about forty- five minutes for a clever copywriter to come up with the phrase “Packer Attacker,” which is promptly adopted by all the networks and incorporated into the special logos they make for the coverage.

The woman herself is being kept in a downtown jail awaiting arraignment and is unavailable for comment. Without her explanation, the narrative of the day forms when opinion and assumption combine with a few facts to create an ur- story that hardens in people’s minds: The woman is a former hippie and current liberal radical who hates the governor so much that she waited in a premeditated way to viciously attack him.

Except there’s a glaring logical hole in this theory, which is that the governor’s jaunt through the park was an impromptu move that not even his security detail knew about. Thus the woman couldn’t have known he was coming and so couldn’t have been waiting in ambush. However, this inconsistency is lost in the more sensational news items and is never fully investigated.