Nick Hornby in New York City for “Funny Girl”

Nick Hornby spoke at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Wednesday, in support of his novel Funny Girl, parts of which he read and supported the claim to comedy in the title. Comedic writers may in general read more successfully than other sorts of writers, or perhaps Hornby is unusually engaging. His talk and the book suggested that perhaps obsession makes us interesting and shows who we are, though Sophie, the protagonist of the novel, has nothing in its beginning save what she wants to become.

Nick HornbyFunny Girl is well-observed (“He said that the bevy of beauties in front of him—and he was just the sort of man who’d use the expression ‘bevy of beauties’—made him even prouder of the town than he already was”) and a keen sense of absurdity shadows the opening of the novel (which is all I can comment on so far).

At one point Hornby said that “Acquiring a family of choice is the dream, isn’t it?” but the challenge of a family of choice may be that it is easier to choose to leave such a family than a genetically intertwined family. Some of his talk also implicitly asked why collaboration is simultaneously so hard yet so essential; the book explores that question on an interpersonal level but per Peter Watts it may also apply on a cellular level.

The audience questions were as usual mumbly democracy in action, but Hornby, like T. C. Boyle, seemed to like or fake liking them. Many, many of them took photos with their cellphones held up high, as depicted above; many saw Hornby through their phones as much as their eyes.

On a separate note, Hornby’s novel High Fidelity holds up well and among other things implies that lists are a way of eliding criticism, real knowledge, and rhetoric. This description however makes it sound boring when it is not.

Hornby Funny GirlHere is a Slate interview between Hornby and Dan Kois.

Rereading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity

I still laughed aloud many times at High Fidelity, although the jokes are almost all context-dependent and so can’t be quoted without causing a quizzical look that says, “You really think that’s funny?” Flipping through it doesn’t yield anything obvious, but I kept smiling at many moments. This is the closest I can get:

There were some nights with Laura when I’d kind of nestle into her back in bed when she was asleep, and I’d be filled with this enormous, nameless terror, except now I have a name for it: Brian. Ha, ha. OK, not really a name, but I can see where it came from, and why I wanted to sleep with Rosie the pain-in-the-arse simultaneous orgasm woman, and if that sounds feeble and self-serving at the same time—oh, right! He sleeps with other women because he has a fear of death!—well, I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are.

Rob’s voice and attitude carry the book, as does the writing, which is largely about nothing yet still moves rapidly from incident to incident, creating plot, which is easily overlooked in novels like this, such as Wilson’s Flatscreen. The continuous happening in the plot contrasts with the non-happening in many of the characters’ lives.

There are moments of astute observation too, as when Laura says “sometimes you need someone to lob into the middle of a bad relationship like a hand grenade and blow it all apart.” Which is true, even if the hand grenade is often made out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the relationship. Often the grenade is the bad guy. But sometimes he (or she) is the catalyst for doing what should have been done long before. When big, life-changing transitions stop happening on a regular basis, (from high school to college, college to grad school and/or work), it becomes distressingly easy to slip into a single path and lose the willingness necessary to make radical changes, whether in work, the mind, or love.

Rob basically knows as much:

None of us is young anymore, but what has just taken place could have happened when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. We got to adolescence and just stopped dead; we drew up the map then and left the boundaries exactly as they were.

Life changes even if you don’t. This should be obvious. It takes Laura to tell him what he should already know; when Rob asks “So what should I be doing?”, she replies:

I don’t know. Something. Working. Seeing people. Running a scout troop, or running a club even. Something more than waiting for life to change and keeping your options open. You’d keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’d be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’ll be thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve kept my options open.’

She’s right. Whatever else you’re doing, you should be doing something. But Rob doesn’t, mostly, and as a result his problems are largely self-imposed. He says:

It’s only 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. [. . .] 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 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?

Rob lacks that intellectual ballast. He only listens to music and doesn’t play; at his level of obsession, connoisseurship and taste should pale compared to making (Rob hooks up with an American singer named Marie and says of her place, “thrillingly, there are two guitars leaning against the wall.” He could have two guitars leaning against his wall, although I think one would suffice). Still, I am struck by the extent to which many YouTube videos can be reduced to “one block on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do,” except talk to an audience that isn’t present. Jenna Marbles is a useful approximation of this idea.

There are moments of poignance and useful articulations of the obvious, as when Rob says:

You run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.

Being overly fearful of loss increases the likelihood of loss, and Rob is disproportionately anxious. As a college student dating Charlie Rob is “fretful about my abilities as a lover,” and fifteen or so years later he is still fretful about his abilities as a lover. Eventually shouldn’t he just let the anxiety go and figure out what he’s doing? Though he apparently hasn’t in his economic life so perhaps his love and economic lives reflect each other. Rob is a sort of what-not-to-do when it comes to women. He even says, “There are still enough of the old-style, big-mouthed, self-opinionated egomaniacs around to make someone like me appear refreshingly different.” That might work for him, but the big-mouthed egomaniacs are the way they are because what they do tends to work (link is text but potentially NSFW).

For a guy who thinks a lot about his love life, and pop songs that are almost entirely about love, sex, and romance, Rob appears to know very little about actual women. Most pop culture, however, appears to be highly misleading on this score, which may explain why a pop-culture junkie like Rob is or has been highly misled. People who don’t make a concerted effort to learn about actual women. But this is true of much narrative art, especially American narrative art.

In my reading over the last few days, I’m struck by how much more pathetic Rob seems: as I said before, his problems are largely self-imposed, or imposed by his personality, and the solutions also must come from within. Rob fears the women he’s attracted to, like a fifteen-year-old; he goes to a small gig where Marie plays and afterwords she sells CDs: “We all buy one from her, and to our horror she speaks to us.” Most guys are happy to be talking to the people they’re attracted to, and the same obviously applies to women.

In addition, High Fidelity feels like a period piece: Rob owns a record store in an era when CDs and records are mainstream, and people who want to hear a particular song must track down a physical copy of it. Though I was born into that era it feels very long ago and foreign. So does the difficulty of getting ahold of people through the phone. The default state of more people as “alone” then. Computers are almost totally absent. It also feels highly PC, as when Rob recounts “a terribly unsound joke” that is only mildly funny and not really offensive. Why qualify it by saying that it’s “terribly unsound” when it’s not and when interesting humor by its nature is “unsound,” using Rob’s definition?

Slam — Nick Hornby

Slam starts with great promise: a list of bullets that show a lot of Sam’s life in a short space and show why it’s going well (“For example: Mum got rid of Steve, her rubbish boyfriend.”) It’s got a fun, fantastical conceit in that Tony Hawk talks to the narrator and comes to represent a kind of externalized consciousness, giving Sam a dialogic way of bouncing ideas off another person. But the novel itself meanders. I look for the great sentences and don’t find them. To be fair, there are strong sections.; for example, in analyzing (as best he can) his family, Sam says:

The story of my family, as far as I can tell, is always the same story, over and over again. Someone—my mum, my dad, my grandad—starts off thinking that they’re going to do well in school, and then go to college, maybe, and then make pots of money. But instead, they do something stupid, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to make up for the mistake they made. Sometimes it can seem as though kids always do better than their parents. You know—someone’s dad was a coal miner, or whatever, but his son goes on to play for a Premiership team, or wins Pop Idol, or invents the Internet. Those stories make you feel as though the whole world is on its way up. But in our family, people always slip up on the first step. In fact, most of the time they don’t even find the stairs.

Notice the metaphor at the end: most of the world “is on its way up,” without noting the transportation method (flight? an elevator?), but his family doesn’t “even find the stairs.” It’s a bittersweet passage, with him not exactly castigating his family but still fundamentally aware of social class. Yet why not start the metaphor at the beginning of the paragraph? His family’s story is always the same, with them looking up as other people go by, or being on the ground floor of a building whose top they can’t even conceptualize, or something to that effect? You could do much better than the ideas I’ve come up with in 30 seconds, but the point is that there’s no reason not to extend the metaphor—maybe throughout not just the paragraph but the book. We appreciate that Sam’s awareness is a step on the road to change, but he could be slightly more aware without harming the fundamental structure of the story.

Perhaps not surprising, some of the story’s tension involves whether Sam will continue the family tradition or break it. He meets a higher class, very attractive girl named Alicia. They talk music. He works to avoid being subservient to her, but later thinks that “I knew that I didn’t want to be [Alicia’s] friend, if you know what I mean, and I was worried that her being friendly to me meant that I didn’t stand a chance with anything else. I know that’s wrong. Mum is always telling me that friendship has to come first, before anything else.” Sam knows the score even when his mother doesn’t, or doesn’t want him to know. She is, in essence, pitching him the idealized version of romance, which he has internalized to the extent that he says he knows that not wanting to be Alicia’s conventional friend is “wrong,” imputing a sense of morality on an act that’s more about strategy than morality. In a different world, friendship would come first. If you search Google for “Friend Zone, you’ll find a wide array of articles with advice on how to avoid becoming “just a friend.” Sam’s Mum is trying to give him advice that isn’t highly applicable to the real world.

If you’re already aware of these dynamics, however, the novel will feel like old news. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s not exciting, either. A lot of the book is fun. It just feels average, unlike Francine Prose’s Touch. I’m looking for ways that make it more than average and not finding them. Hornby’s best book, by far, is still High Fidelity. Maybe it always will be. I often think about it when writing contemporary novels that feature love stories; he fundamentally understands that such love stories tend towards comedy, that indecision is the great modern problem, and that love stories need more than just a should-I-or-shouldn’t-I plot. Whenever I read High Fidelity, I’m impressed again at how surprisingly well constructed it is. I keep trying his other books (A Long Way Down, How to be Good, Slam) in search of the same kind of mastery. I keep not finding it.

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