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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