Book Review: ‘Wellness,’ by Nathan Hill | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams

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.

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