I’ve just waded through a very blokey book, #143 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and I didn’t enjoy it. I seem to be working through a string of very male-centred books on the list. It’s not a surprising streak as male authors and main characters seem to outnumber females by about 4:1, but it’s tiresome.
High Fidelity is about Rob, a 35 year-old Londoner. When the story opens, Rob has just been dumped by Laura, his partner of some years. She’s moved out and moved on, leaving Rob wondering what went wrong, why it went wrong, and whether he should try to fix it. Rob owns and runs a record store called Championship Vinyl. He knows his top 5 songs to play when you’re sad, his top 5 worst break ups of all time (and Laura’s split hasn’t made the cut) and believes that anyone with less than 500 records isn’t a serious person.
I don’t identify with any of the ‘universal truths’ Rob keeps spouting and I think he’s a self-indulgent wanker. Viewed from the inside of his own head, he is so self-involved that I wanted to warn even his friends off him. By the end of the book, I was starting to think Laura was a figment of his imagination – she certainly puts up with things I never would, having had some similar experiences.
In High Fidelity, as in most books and films, the characters aren’t presented neutrally. Instead, it’s like meeting a friend-of-a-friend. The author (your friend in this analogy) preps you, giving you a guide to how they think you should feel about a character, rather than letting you make up your own mind. I find it very hard to enjoy a book or film where I disagree with the author’s assessment of a character. I don’t tend to watch action films, because I think the ‘heroes’ actions often paint them as violent criminals who are a danger to society, not the good guys the narrative suggests. Likewise, I don’t think Rob is a good guy, and yet Hornby wants me to spend a couple hundred pages inside his head, sympathising, presumably, with his (largely self-inflicted) troubles and rejoicing in his successes. Well, I didn’t follow on. I think all his exes are better off without him, and he needs to spend some time alone and grow up.
A dose of the pop
I’m not serious about music. I don’t have more than 500 records; I don’t own a single record, in fact, and would have no way to play vinyl or wax if I did. I barely had tapes, as by the time I graduated high school it was all file sharing and burning CDs. Also, I am a terrible fan – I like the music I like and I really don’t give a toss who’s in the band or even what they’re called.
I tried mentally replacing ‘records’ with ‘books’ throughout, and still didn’t get very far. There were a couple of moments I liked, one shortly after the break up where Rob gets really into his record collection, taking control of it as a way of taking control of his life.
Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress. There are some people who would find this a pretty dull way to spend an evening, but I’m not one of them. This is my life, and it’s nice to be able to wade in it, immerse your arms in it, touch it.
That I recognize. I’ve done that with books throughout my life. I’ve had them by title, switched to spine colour, changed it to genre, then author surname, or even just clumped ones I feel go well together. And when something is that important to you, is a significant part of how you spend your day, then it is nice (more than nice) to be able to revel in it, to physically dwell in a mess of your favourite things, and finish up feeling like you’ve put the world to rights.
High Fidelity is packed with pop-culture references, and has dated very rapidly as a result. It’s not just that Rob throws around obscure band names, some of which I assume are entirely made up, but even the mainstream references haven’t lasted, sapping the book of a lot of its power. For example, Rob compares most of the people he encounters to a film or TV star, which would be great if I’d ever heard of any of them. More than that, the focus on records and cassette tapes makes the book seem even older than it is (first published 1995). And yes, perhaps there is something special about vinyl, but High Fidelity doesn’t explain what – it doesn’t even recognize that the CD has been invented.
I appreciated Hornby’s writing in this, actually. The film star comparisons, although they left a gaping, empty hole in my images of the characters, were totally in character for Rob and an apt way to explore how he felt about and saw people without actually talking about feelings. Also, the top five list that opens the book (top five worst break ups) is a very neat way to introduce the main character, his attitudes to life and his emotional history.
Overall, I don’t recommend the book. It’s like reading through a time warp, an anachronism both in terms of setting and attitude, like the ’80s romances where the young secretary becomes the millionaire’s mistress, where both the fur coats and the sense of sin horrify more modern readers.
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.