November 25, 2023 7:57 AM - Subscribe

"When Jack and Elizabeth meet as college students in the '90s, the two quickly join forces and hold on tight, each eager to claim a place in Chicago's thriving underground art scene with an appreciative kindred spirit. Fast-forward twenty years to married life, and alongside the challenges of parenting, they encounter cults disguised as mindfulness support groups, polyamorous would-be suitors, Facebook wars, and something called Love Potion Number Nine."

"For the first time, Jack and Elizabeth struggle to recognize each other, and the no-longer-youthful dreamers are forced to face their demons, from unfulfilled career ambitions to painful childhood memories of their own dysfunctional families. In the process, Jack and Elizabeth must undertake separate, personal excavations, or risk losing the best thing in their lives: each other."

Believing with Humility: A Conversation with Nathan Hill on “Wellness” (Chicago Review of Books): "If there’s a moral of the story, it’s the one I gave to Elizabeth’s teacher when they’re sitting at the Bean and he says something along the lines of, “Believe what you’re going to believe, but believe it with humility. Believe with curiosity.” I would add now, “Believe without sanctimony and be as passionate about how you might be wrong as about how you might be right.” I think one of the errors that a lot of the characters in Wellness make is falling into a false sense of certainty about something—whether that’s, “This is who I am,” “This is who I am not,” “This is what my marriage is,” or “This is what the world is.” What the book tries to do is always prevent you from landing on something with too much certainty, even up until that last image in the last chapter."
posted by MonkeyToes (1 comment total)
I'm still sorting through how I feel about this one, which started out as a love story but ended up being something mush more interesting, about the ways that aspiring to relentless self-improvement can be harmful, about how the belief in story shapes how we experience things, about how vulnerable certainty can make us. More concretely, Nix takes on the relentless drive of many Americans toward self-improvement, whether it's with the latest psychological research or with quack remedies; the cost of gentrification and the importance of land management; the pressures of contemporary parenting and marriage; "social media, misinformation, algorithms and conspiracy"; authenticity; and the placebo effect.

Nix's areas of interest show up in the novel's bibliography. He takes on so much at once that not everything lands equally well--the chapters devoted to the inner workings of Facebook were painful, but felt a little undigested? And though the prairie fire execution was interesting, it dragged a little there too. (Minor quibbles.) It reminded me of certain chapters from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon--but there were other chapters that hit like Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which is praise from me. There's a lot of satire here, but also an earnestness, and I mean it as a compliment when I say that the complicated structure does not get in the way of the story.

I thought the (otherwise balanced) book was harder on Elizabeth than on Jack. His essential sweetness and romantic streak survive his difficulties. Whereas she comes in for a fall because of what she wants (a sexual thing); her professional life is in ruins; the well-intentioned grifter gets punished, unlike her forbears; she receives her lesson from a retired male mentor; her dream (much more than his) is in literal ashes. "She understood that there was some fantastical and elevated place where his love awaited, and she was never certain she could join him there, whether her heart was capable of it." Oof. Her unraveling, though, the way she screams "How did you know?"...I felt that one, more than anything else in her storyline. Jack is more of a fairy tale for me (except for the extraordinarily painful night of his sister's death, and his conversation about ti with his mother, many years later). Jack is trying to expiate his sin; Elizabeth is being punished. She's the more complicated of the two, but gets the worse deal. I was unhappy with the mentor's lecture, and felt a little short-changed by Elizabeth's taking it on board. But...best practices, right?

I really liked the way Nix looks at the relationship between belief and the stories we choose to accrete around it. Believing may lead to cults, conspiracies, and living the latest and greatest popular research studies. It also lets us choose good, kind stories, "the most humane, most generous, most beautiful, most loving." Maybe when we know ourselves better, we can choose better, or at least decide to be fooled by better stories.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:22 AM on November 25, 2023

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