There are two really remarkable things about High Fidelity: how funny it is and how well constructed it is, especially given that the subject matter (romantic entanglements and existential dilemmas for the aging man and relationship) could easily be a plotless mess.
A novel about extended adolescence (or extended adolescence in general) can become vague, wishy-washy, and meandering. I’m trolling for specific examples of constructedness, but most aren’t as good out of context as they are in context as they are in it. Still, the novel moves: it starts with Rob’s “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order,” proceeds through them, brings him back to the cause of his most recent breakup, propels him forward to his most recent hook-up, and then moves through scenes involving a funeral, a dinner party, a move-out, and a real party, each of which feels developed and connected to each other. There’s a strong sense of Rob moving, and him both acting and being acted upon that’s so often absent in similar novels, like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, or Kate Christensen’s Trouble, all of which ramble and drift and make you long for the cohesiveness you don’t realize you’re missing until you see something like High Fidelity, or Elmore Leonard’s caper novels, or Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
Not that jokes are everything, but High Fidelity is filled with them, and the tremendous humor gives poignance to moments of seriousness, especially when those moments are tinged with existential fear about the future and one’s social position:
You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and there are no sets, or locations, or supporting actors, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?
(Not to worry: in the next paragraph, a woman asks “Have you got any soul?” and the narrator thinks, “That depends […] some days yes, some days no.”)
Rob both rationalizes and sees himself as others might:
Me, I’m unmarried—at the moment as unmarried as it’s possible to be—and I’m the owner of a failing record shop. It seems to me that if you place music (and books, probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the center of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it of it the finished product. You’ve got to pick it up, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again […] Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realized.
He knows the argument is wrong and unlikely—art comes from the most unlikely places and conditions, much like the appreciation of art—yet he still half-believes it, just as we half-believe the joking things we say to ourselves to get through the day, or to convince ourselves of our value and self-worth. The alternative is often a depressing sense of how you look in others’ eyes, a kind of objectivity that might be a cure worse than the disease of being wrong. This doubleness of Rob’s view—he’s joking, but aware that he’s half-serious, which makes the joke funnier—is one of the novel’s great pleasures.
To return to the blockquote above, it should be obvious based on the plentitude bordering on plethora of novels about marriage in all its configurations (see: the collected work of Updike and Roth), one’s love life isn’t finished until one decides it is or one dies. Rob knows this: he warns against starting “to think of it as finished,” rather than knowing it is finished. And blaming your love life on listening to pop music is a cute pop psychology theory that’s hilariously wrong and yet plausible enough for us to appreciate it.
The novel’s humor and voice combined with its structure to give it meaning where so many not dissimilar set ups fail. The TV show Californication, though mildly entertaining, is basically about the difficulties of information hiding: Hank is a frequently blocked writer who derives pleasure from sleeping with various women, which he in turn has to conceal from various women because of the potential sexual and emotional side effects of revelation. But the show trades in a narrow range: who can Hank sleep with, and who matters enough to keep it from? If the show has a larger plot, it’s not evident: Hank’s relationship with his ex-wife, whose name I can’t remember because she isn’t that important to the show, oscillates in a narrow band between reconciliation and estrangement from which it cannot escape with eliminating the show’s potential for future seasons. Although the show isn’t pornography, its limits become steadily clearer over time.
One of the few disappointing things about High Fidelity isn’t the book itself— the other output of its author. Like Robert Penn Warren, Hornby seems to have only one really, really good book in him; I’ve at least started most of the rest of his work. Some books, like A Long Way Down, aren’t bad but aren’t compelling, and they don’t have that sense of drive and purpose High Fidelity. They’re like the story about a dream your friend wants to relay in exhaustive detail. The events in those other books are exhaustive even when they’re short, and they don’t have the pep and vigor of High Fidelity, which almost has too many short and wonderful asides to mention them all.
The end of High Fidelity trends toward sentimentality, but it’s saved by a continuing self-awareness that its concerns are silly. By making them serious while retaining its essential lightness, the novel works. And, the ending implies, life trends toward sentimentality: if you never indulge in any sort of authentic feeling, then you’re left alone and an agglomeration of preferences in music, books, or movies, dangling before a world that will, more likely than not, be mostly indifferent to your existence. But that’s an awfully heavy premise: I’d rather hear about Rob’s top five breakups and the linguistic implications of “I haven’t slept with him yet” as compared to “I haven’t seen Evil Dead 2 yet.”