Nowicki’s fourth novella, Under the Nihil is a more difficult work to tear into than his previous outings, because it’s considerably less hamfisted with its themes and motifs. Nihil concerns an unnamed protagonist who, after being expelled from seminary school for being suspected of being a child molester, accepts an assignment from a “Mr. X” to test out an experimental new drug known as “nihil”:
“I can’t tell you how or why it works, to the extent that it does work,” you said. “And I’m not at liberty even to say what nihil is composed of, chemically speaking.” You pronounced nihil the same way one does the river in Egypt, on which Death stalked the dwellers of the cruise ship in that famous Agatha Christie novel. The nihil was so named, you said, because it had been designed to dissolve one’s fear and apprehension in the heat of battle, to render one’s natural inhibitors ineffective; in essence, its function was to reverse God’s miraculous creative gifts, and render nothing out of something, rather than vice versa.
One of Nihil’s most interesting aspects is that it’s written in the second-person, under the guise of the protagonist’s letters to Mr. X. It’s a surprisingly effective conceit that plunges you deep into the story, from the protagonist’s shacking up with a past-her-prime single mother to his final act of rebellion. The book’s plot twist is one of the finest I’ve read in a modern work of fiction; it’s both predictable yet unpredictable, and a striking commentary on the modern conception of “nihilism.”
“You cruel little cock tease,” I spat. “How many dorky little boys have you taken in with your so-called ‘charms’? How many times have you flashed your thighs in class, while sitting innocently at your desk, or bent over to pick up a pencil, putting your cleavage on display? You love it, don’t you? You love toying with them, laughing at their torment. You get off on it, don’t you?
Overall, Under the Nihil is a brilliant, if somewhat obtuse, read.
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