Nathan Hill in Barcelona, 2018 (Inés Baucells/Album/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is a scene in Nathan Hill’s hilarious, terrifying, and dazzling new novel in which his married protagonists, Jack and Elizabeth, stroll into a certain kind of Chicago watering hole—lots of hipsters, “no Budweiser on tap.” Jack thinks back to his dad in rural Kansas who wore a John Deere hat “sincerely” and “drank nothing but Budweiser.” Ironically enough, in 2023, a Midwestern farmer—who has plunged into Facebook’s deepest right-wing rabbit holes, as Jack’s father has—would actually be boycotting Budweiser in the wake of recent culture wars. Some of his dad’s posts even come with anti-establishment rhetoric “that sounds distressingly similar to what Jack himself might have said…in the nineties,” including Rage Against the Machine lyrics, which really do ring a bit Trumpy all these years later.

The relentless cycles, and recycling, of culture wars is one of a dozen or so zeitgeisty ideas Hill bats about in this hefty epic, which reads like Franzen-meets-Apatow-meets-Radiohead. Wellness is a brainy lifestyle think piece, but it’s also a technophobic page-turner, and also an absorbing love story, exploring both romantic and familial love. And hate—marital hate, familial hate, political hate, self-hate. Fittingly, it veers from cringey to poignant, often on the same page, before hurtling towards an ominous, baffling, and altogether fitting conclusion. 

Wellness is probably a bit too long and a lot too snarky. The conspicuous absence of spiritual or theological matters in such an all-encompassing book might say as much about contemporary literary culture as it does about Hill or his characters. But that doesn’t change the fact that Wellness will have you shaking your head and laughing out loud—even when the joke is on people just like you.

Hill made a big literary splash seven years ago with his sweeping debut, The Nix, a more explicitly political novel that churned powerfully from late-sixties chaos to post-9/11 surrealism. More than a few readers took The Nix as a roundabout explanation of the 2016 election. Hill’s follow-up is an equally packed chronicle of the disunited states of (a very white) America, set against the backdrop of the internet’s first two inglorious decades. 

Wellness opens with Jack and Elizabeth in college, and their meeting is somewhere between cute and creepy. Early on, things are romantic, grungy, hopeful—think Jennifer Egan’s goon squad before reality starts to bite. Wellness’s gentrifying bohemians have left gloomy farms (Jack) or super-rich, super-cruel parents (Elizabeth) to rock out in sweaty clubs with headliners like Veruca Salt or Urge Overkill. They’re “not here despite the neighborhood’s danger,” Hill writes, “but because of it…. Chicago’s answer to Montmartre [is] cheap and dirty and run-down and, therefore, alive.”

It is when Jack gets serious about photography that a blowhard pal explains “the Internet—a word that seemed to be used interchangeably with World Wide Web.” There’s “no gatekeeper,” Jack learns. “No overlord.” Those halcyon days, of course, are long gone, leaving Jack to futilely criticize his own son, who spends hours online not just “gaming,” but watching others do the same thing “covered in logos.” “When I was young,” Jack ventures, “none of my friends wanted corporate sponsorship…. [T]hey called it selling out.” To which his son replies, “That’s dumb.”

There’s so much that Jack now laments—including that such lamentations make him sound like the farty old scolds he used to mock. Even his adjunct teaching job has been upended by creeping analytics, low pay, and absurdist, mission-statement brainstorming sessions. If academic fields like Hitler Studies, from DeLillo’s White Noise, reflected the intellectual tenor of the 1980s, what does it say about our time that Elizabeth works for an outfit called The Institute for Placebo Studies, which yields insights like “as soon as we get the things we desire we…start desiring something else”? If this all sounds a bit like Jerry Seinfeld wandering into an unusually dark episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Hill turns things up a cerebral notch with a deep dive into algorithms, a “wellness culture” bibliography, and citations occasionally simmering with in-text parenthetical rage.

In short, by the time they meet, Jack and Elizabeth see themselves as orphans adrift, and they seek salvation in each other—which only makes the thousand cuts of marriage, adulthood, and parenthood that much more painful.

Still, Wellness presents a problem typical of satire: How can we expose frivolous things while still taking them seriously? How should we think deeply about sometimes shallow characters?

Hill spirals back to the characters’ childhoods to raise the dramatic stakes. Jack is an isolated loner, so desperate for change he literally draws blood with an eraser, foreshadowing the enormous tattoo in which he (regrettably) cloaks himself later in life. As for Elizabeth, her family reinforces the old adage about great crimes and great fortunes. Her parents are sadistic one-percenters whose wealth has taken a circuitous route from Nathaniel Hawthorne and processed food through Hollywood and the Ku Klux Klan. All the while, Elizabeth dodges tennis rackets flung by her father and ponders her palatial home’s mysterious attic, which swells with foreboding noises out of Jane Eyre. It’s all downright, well, American gothic. In fact, thanks to a saintly, peripatetic sister, Grant Wood’s iconic rural painting becomes one of Jack’s favorites. The painting’s bleak undertones also foreshadow a looming family tragedy.

In short, by the time they meet, Jack and Elizabeth see themselves as orphans adrift, and they seek salvation in each other—which only makes the thousand cuts of marriage, adulthood, and parenthood that much more painful. It’s not just endless Dickensian legal and financial entanglements that transform their apartment into a twenty-first-century bleak house. Meanwhile, among the bigger cultural game Hill hunts (as opposed to merely satirizing) in Wellness may be what, by the 2020s, far too many people refer to vaguely as “narrative.” These days, CEOs and politicians are as apt to rhapsodize about “journeys” as epic poets. And what do we call that Instagram feed—upon which we obsessively chart our not-always fascinating lives—but our “story”? Hill writes that a “story could act on you as strongly as a drug.” Powerful? Sure, and also potentially addictive. Or maybe just a placebo.

In a recent, much-discussed New Yorker essay, Parul Sehgal notes that for a thousand years or so, crafty characters like The Arabian Nights’s Scheherazade have been “dusted off and wheeled out” to illustrate the “magic of storytelling.” But since stories can just as easily obfuscate or deceive, it’s unsettling to Sehgal that “we are all Scheherazade now.” And we’re all Marshall McLuhan, I’d add: too aware that there’s some scheming wizard behind the curtain, twisting the medium as well as the message—at least the ones we don’t like, or that don’t make us look cool. None of which helps us (or Jack or Elizabeth) with the big questions that come our way. Urbane braininess isn’t much help in the face of cancer, or aging parents, or the mystery of art, or the awesome violence of the natural world, since life is not just some text to be deconstructed. 

This makes it all the more curious that Hill more or less avoids faith in Wellness. In The Nix, Hill used a young 1960s cop to swat some low-hanging religious fruit. “The uniform made him feel older, the uniform and crew cut,” Hill writes. “And church. Going to church and seeing the other beat cops there: It was a brotherhood. They were Catholic guys, neighborhood guys. You slapped them on the back when you saw them. They were good guys…. Irish, Poles, Germans, Czechs, Swedes.”

Of course, when all hell breaks loose at the ’68 Democratic convention, these are not the “good guys.” They’re more like fascists, in scenes that are brutal, cinematic, shocking—so much so it’s easy to overlook where the bloodied protesters retreat to afterwards for aid and comfort. “Churches across Chicago have opened their sanctuaries, as sanctuaries,” Hill writes. “Priests give them bowls of warmed canned soup…warm washcloths for their eyes, red from the gas.” Sounds like a story worth looking at more closely.

A Novel
Nathan Hill
$30 | 624 pp.

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents

Tom Deignana regular Commonweal contributor, has written about books for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Catholic Reporter. He is working on a book about immigration.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.