But, Is It Too Pretty?
Nick Miller has to be getting tired of hearing about Ernest Hemingway. That is, if a debut novelist can ever grow weary of having his name mentioned in the same breath as one of the luminaries of American letters.
To be sure, the author has invited a great deal of the comparisons with his book, Isn’t It Pretty To Think So. The title, for starters, is a line from Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Miller named his protagonist Jake, which is what Hemingway’s leading man/narrator goes by as well. Miller’s Jake, being an aspiring writer, also makes a handful of references to Hemingway, including a conversation directly discussing the ending and greater meaning of his predecessor’s debut.
Those little tie-ins make easy fodder for comparison, but Isn’t It Pretty To Think So is a better book than that, and deserves a closer comparison. It has been said that Hemingway came as near as anyone to describing the hopes, angst, and lifestyle of his generation in their youthful early adulthood following World War I, at least as far as the expat set in Paris was concerned. The same argument can be made for Miller’s attempt at capturing a particular generation (the Millennials) at a particular moment in history (following the economic meltdown of the late aughts).
I don’t want to give away details for those who will read the book, but I will say that no book I have read in the past has so thoroughly and vividly portrayed the unique lifestyle and existential quandary of the Millennial Generation. Lacking the immediate existential crisis that Hemingway’s World War I generation had faced, the characters in Isn’t It Pretty To Think So are left to confront the more meta question of what existence, identity, and meaning really are in a life that is essentially lived in two realms, the analog and the digital. Where Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises had to question whether life was worthwhile after being injured in war, Miller’s Jake wonders if it’s worthwhile if it doesn’t end up on Facebook.
The duality of personality brought to light by Isn’t It Pretty To Think So is a new phenomena, and it is shaping the way we live and view life. In this regard, Miller goes further then his contemporaries have yet ventured (I’m thinking of Nick McDonnell and Tao Lin, among others), and it is the reason this book, much like Hemingway’s, should have staying power in the future.
That said, I cannot finish this little review without adding one critique, one little small detail that grated on me a bit from page one. I offer this bit of constructive criticism with the caveat that Hemingway is one of my three favorite writers, and for a very specific reason, which stands at a polar opposite from Miller’s novel. It is this: Hemingway is noted for, and revered by me because of, what is often referred to as a spare, simple style of writing. As he said, “My aim is to put down what I see in the best and simplest way.” There is not, in The Sun Also Rises, a single superfluous word, and yet the story does not suffer. Hemingway trusted the reader’s imagination and ability to see and feel and experience what he was trying to convey. He didn’t need flowery language to do so.
That is my only criticism of Isn’t It Pretty To Think So; the language, in parts, is overly descriptive and seems to try too hard to be beautiful and writerly. It’s a small complaint, and certainly one that damn near every writer is wont to do from time to time, but it just happens to be a sticking point for me in any book.
The occasional overly ornamental description aside, what Nick Miller has done with Isn’t It Pretty To Think So is quite remarkable for a first novel: it invites comparison to a literary giant and more than holds its own against them. It has me hoping that this is the dawning of a similarly illustrious, and prolific, career from its creator.