Review of Under the Nihil (pronounced like the river Nile), by Andy Nowicki.
Many saints are lunatics.
Catholic figures such as St Catherine of Siena seem driven by inner demons that combine with contemporary values. The same might be said of secular martyrs – soldiers who insist on doing ever more tours of duty in some unwinnable hellhole; Western doctors choosing to work in African war zones; animal shelter ladies. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden.
A normal person lives his life, tries to get a job, get married, raise kids and pay off the house. He might give twenty bucks to the Salvos at Christmas, help the odd beetle back onto its feet and consider himself a good sort. For the average person, it is enough to obey the law and not to be too obnoxious.
The protagonist of Under the Nihil decides at a young age to become a priest. He is troubled, socially awkward, unpopular. Religion gives him strength and direction. One day, he thinks, I’ll be a priest and everything will be okay. I’ll have a vocation helping others. He prays and waits for this release from his uneasy life.
This hit a nerve.
But after years of training he fails the final hurdle: the psychological test. The seminary kicks him out because he’s nuts.
Utterly lost and without direction, he sinks as low as he can go and ends up in a mental hospital. And then he is visited by Mr X, who offers him cash for participating in an experiment. All he has to do is take the drug nihil, allow himself to be monitored and report his reactions. The substance is supposed to make all one’s cares and inhibitions fade away; to make the subject totally nihilistic.
And so he does.
The psychotic adventures that follow will not be to everyone’s taste and indeed many readers will have trouble appreciating this book. Like Notes From the Underground, it demands either experience with this psychological state or at least the openness to imagine it.
Under the Nihil examines the human need for faith and the consequences of ripping it away. Avoiding didacticism, it allows the reader his own interpretation. I’m still not sure what to think. On one hand we require some sort of faith to cope with life’s hardships, but on the other this can become a crutch which prevents us from dealing with reality.
Think of the belief or value most precious to you: religion, democracy, liberty, utilitarianism, family, equality, love. Whatever it is that gets you through your darkest days.
What if it were suddenly taken away? What would be left of you?
Can a man live without the thing that nurtures his soul? If he can’t, what does that tell us about him? And if he can, what does that mean?
Under the Nihil is a short book, perhaps a novella, and that’s fine. Most books are overwritten. A miserable and disturbing story, it leaves me eager to read more by Nowicki.