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.

Rereading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity

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.”

Preview: Nick Hornby and High Fidelity

I’m working on a post about Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, a novel that continues to impress. Last time, I read it chiefly for pleasure, but this time I’m also trying to figure how and why it works so well; I think the first line of my post will be: “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.”

More to follow, obviously.

The year's best in reading, not in publishing

Like D.G. Myers, I don’t find much interest in “year’s best” lists and the like. Most of them are, as he says, boring; maybe that has something to do with the nature of the list and the arbitrary divisions that we use to mark milestones in our lives.

That being said, I read a lot, and I’d prefer to write about what’s new to me, rather than what happens to be published in a particular 12 month period. Last year I wrote about “pointless listmaking,” and I’m reminded of a comment from Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he’s at a party given by an ex-girlfriend:

The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn’t… as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.

(Emphasis added. The novel’s first sentence involves a list: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth…”)

Umberto Eco likes lists, or at least studies them. As previously mentioned, he said that “The list is the origin of culture.” Being the origin, however, is very different from being the destination, or the evolution, of culture, and so in that light the list might be a primitive device that is still nonetheless useful to consider. As such, after a great deal of meta commentary regarding the nature of the activity in which I’m about to engage, I’m going to give a non-numbered, non-ordered list of books I happened to read in the previous 12-month period that are books I now recommend to others, found moving, or otherwise think deserve special attention.

* Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game, which I keep meaning to write about and then not doing. If one were writing an ad for the novel, it could say, accurately, “Did you love The Shadow of the Wind? Then you’ll love The Angel’s Game!” The two novels are written in the same half-mocking Gothic style, are both set in Barcelona, and both deal with murder, love, and literature.

* Max Jamison, Wilifred Sheed’s improbably hilarious novel about an unhappy theater critic.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s take on what magic school might seem like to those who are already aware of magic school and fantasy conventions. As with real school, nobility takes front seat to sex and power, which occupy the back. I also read (and haven’t written about) Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which features school and murder in a surprisingly pleasant literary package.

* Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness ought to be required reading for those who are alive.

* John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

One nice part about reading is that books are effectively inexhaustible: given constraints on time, no one can read everything worthwhile (although Harold Bloom is apparently trying). Therefore we need developed opinions, yes, but we also need pointers to books that are worth having developed opinions about, and to my mind the handful of books above meet that criterion. Apologies to those of you who have read this far and just wanted a couple books to read, and to those of you who think the whole idea of lists so noxious and boring that, even with the aforementioned meta commentary, you don’t know how you managed to get this far into the post.

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