Sunday, August 17, 2014

Cranky Book Review: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby


“It's only just beginning to occur to me that it's important to have something going on somewhere, at work, or at home, otherwise you're just clinging on.”

A few years ago I read Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I remember being really annoyed that the entire book revolved around an old man's obsession with a girl whom he knew briefly as a child. The story was a romantic exercise about remembering childhood things, well crafted books, adventures. But the nostalgic yearning for this young girl never made any sense, because the narrator didn't know anything about her. Some sort of idealistic projection was going on that I still don't understand. Carrying a torch for a childhood crush? Who does that?

“Back then, all we wanted was foreplay, and girls weren't interested.”

Well, Rob, the narrator of High Fidelity does that too. And since Nick Hornby is setting Rob up as a sort of comedic everyman-who-hasn't-grown-up, the assumption here is that most guys (who had a British suburban upbringing, anyway) constantly daydream about their childhood romances.

“'I think he was going through, you know, some kind of what-does-it-all-mean thing, and he wanted to see me, and talk about stuff, and what have you, and I wasn't really up for it. Do all men go through this?'”

Well, we men don't all go through this, because some of us were working and wondering about our survival while everyone else went on with dates and proms and basketball games. And that's all right. I accept that books like this aren't really written for me. It's more of a sociological look into the lives of people who drove this to the top of the best-seller list. But I think there's something else going on here, under the dry humor.

“Sex, in fact, is the most absorbing activity I have discovered in adulthood. When I was a child I used to feel this way about all sorts of things...I could forget where I was, the time of day, who I was with. Sex is the only thing I've found like that as a grown-up, give or take the odd film: books are no longer like that once you're out of your teens, and I've certainly never found it in my work.”

This is a very odd passage coming from an author who has spent the last few years reviewing books for The Believer. I suppose it would be an odd thing for a serious writer to say at all, and seems to me to be a sort of wink at the more bookish reader. If the average person really does feel that the modern world is empty and needs to be filled with entertainment, then this passage will probably fly right by them, and they may even nod at it. Those of us who do find enjoyment in art and can get lost in things will recognize the parody of the intellectual's pseudo-nemesis, the common man.

“'How come you hate women who have better jobs than you, Rob?'”

To go back to another book, when I read Jack Kerouac's On The Road  last year, I couldn't make up my mind whether it was written by an adult looking back at his romantic years with yearning, or pointing to them to show how silly young ideals can be. I have a little bit of this problem with High Fidelity. Rob is a man who needs to grow up, and so is a bit self-centered. And because of this I can't tell if the lack of characterization reflects his point of view, or the author's disinterest, for example, in his female actors.

“...if I do OK with women, it's not because of the virtues I have, but because of the shadows I don't have.”

All the women in the book have fairly generic names and are fairly interchangeable. I found myself constantly flipping back and forth trying to remember if Liz was his ex, his ex's sister, her friend, or one of his younger attachments. And I may be reading too much into it, simply because there aren't as many male characters for Rob to interact with. I guess everyone in this book is defined by their careers. Or their taste in pop culture.

“A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases.”

So, parody, right? So spot on, that it appears to be a natural thing for the narrator to say, even while you're laughing at it. The very idea of being able to use a career or entertainment choice as a way of judging someone's worth can only come from a comfortable, naive existence. Those of us from the poorer side of town take whatever job we can get and whatever media we can afford to consume.

“...when you're sitting in a one-bedroom flat in Crouch End and your business is going down the toilet and your girlfriend's gone off with the guy from the flat upstairs, a starring role in a real-life episode of thirtysomething, with all the kids and marriages and jobs and barbecues and k.d. lang CDs that this implies, seems more than one could possibly ask of life.”

And this is where it all leads, really. A well-written, humorous book about a man who has been avoiding “growing up” because it means accepting a normal, comfortable existence. Rob doesn't really become a better person, he just moves up to the next stage of the consumer lifestyle. And yet, he isn't presented as an anti-hero. I really think we are being presented with a world where making basic choices about one's life have somehow become acts of courage and maturation. If you aren't fighting for survival, or to remake the world in your ideal image, then I guess one has to dramatize the tiny, ridiculous struggles that are left.  

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