Photo by Stephan HydeHighFidelity, Nick Hornby's debut novel from 1995, is one of the best pop novels ever written—not only is its tone pop, but pop is its subject, and the book is suffused with the youthful charm of a hit single, the easy insouciant grace of a rookie who hits it out of the park the first time out of the box, the brilliant sheen of a natural whose passionate embrace of romance and rock & roll make them seem like quests for the same thing. The book is irresistible: its schlemiel-ish hero (postmodern non-Jewish division) Rob, moping about London picking at the scabs his ever-so-familiar love life has left him with, is kept afloat by his devotional love of rock music. Rob's constant list-making (five best opening tracks on an album, five most memorable breakups, five favorite films with subtitles) show a mind that has accepted the allure of pop's limitations (the quickness to categorize, the naive love of surface, the willed confusion of immaturity with innocence, the willingness to be defined through what one consumes, the drunk-on-the-floor need for love love love) at the same time that it expands them: Rob is almost entirely characterized by the music, books and films he loves, and Hornby makes us believe that that's not just possible as an artistic strategy, but that the artifacts of pop can indeed serve as the building blocks of a sweet, complex, yearning self. It helps that the book is about young love, which is pop's great subject, and one that high art can't seem to improve upon. RomeoandJulietand TheSorrowsofYoungWerthermay be the ur-textsof youthful passion, but they don't hit us any more viscerally or truly than do, say, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Let's Get It On," "Thunder Road," or (plug in favorite song here).
Hornby, who began as a pop critic (and whose recent collection of meditations on rock music, Songbook, is as genial, unprepossessing and fun as HighFidelity) has gone on to a successful career as a novelist: AboutaBoyis almost as frumpily amiable as his debut and was made into a film starring Hugh Grant, whose earnest fumbling about makes him as perfect a Hornbian hero as John Cusack was in the film of HighFidelity; HowtoBeGood, the third novel, I haven't read. And he's developed a fan base—me very much included—that loves him for his just-a-bloke unpretentiousness, the modesty of his artistic attack, his openhearted explorations of (especially) male desire and male shame. He's like the Tom Petty of literature, keeping his head down and making good, respectable, unspectacular music that you can count on, album after album.
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Until now. ALongWayDown, just out, makes for painful reading. It's the first book of Hornby's I've read where he seems out of his element subject- and character-wise, where he seems to be cranking one out (because, as Tom Stoppard says in TheRealThing, that's what a novelist does, cranks out books) at the same time that he seems to be straining for significance. ALongWayDownis about suicide, or at least about suicidal depression, and Hornby's talents just don't lean in those directions. Freud once wrote that "we have no adequate means for approaching" suicide psychologically, but its mysteries have been plumbed in literature forever, from Hamletto Werther, from TheAwakeningto DeathofaSalesman, from TheBellJarto TheMythofSisyphus, down through Andrew Solomon's amazing nonfiction book, TheNoondayDemon:AnAtlasofDepression, whose chapter on suicide makes ALongWayDownseem about as deep as "Dead Man's Curve."
The book's structure seems like it could have come out of a hack writer's story meeting at a TV studio. It follows four characters, each of whom tells his or her own story in short five- or six-page stretches of narrative, as they head to the top of a London building on New Year's Eve where they intend to jump off and end it all. There's brash and cynical Martin, an English morning talk-show host whose tabloid-splashed dalliance with an underage girl landed him in jail and ruined his marriage and career. There's the pinched and prudish Maureen, whose single indulgence in the act of sex led to pregnancy and the birth of a child so brain-damaged and dependent that she's hardly left the house in twenty years. Then there's Jess, the spoiled and extremely annoying daughter of a junior cabinet minister who just lost a boyfriend. Finally, there's JJ, the sole American of the bunch, who has lost his rock band, his girlfriend, and his dream of fame, fortune and music-making at the same time. These characters are iconically represented on the book's cover by the shoes they wear—dress shoes for Martin, nurse's loafers for Maureen, sneakers for Jess, combat boots for JJ—and, honestly, that's about as deep as Hornby's characterizations ever get.
The four don't jump, of course; they bond, instead. None of the characters gets along, at least at first, but their meet-cute conflicts are supposed to be the glue that gives them the strength to hold off from suicide. Hornby doesn't overdo the bonding—in fact, he underdoes it so much that we never understand why these disparate characters can stand to be around each other—but the story requires that they hang together or fall separately—literally, off the building—and I, at least, never bought the seriousness of their suicidal desires or the friendships they develop as a way to stave them off. The characters never deepen—they remain the shoe clichs of the dust jacket—and Hornby only seems to feel close to one character, which—no surprise—is JJ, the rock musician and jilted lover who happens to be a pale imitation of Rob Fleming. What's worse, the episodes Hornby strings together to develop the story—the tabloids catch up with the suicidal four; the group starts a suicide book club; they go on vacation together; Jess, of all people, stages an "intervention" that brings all the characters' significant others together in an absurd this-is-your-life reunion—all end with a whimper rather than a bang. The book just lurches along, getting increasingly desperate, it seems to me, and though it knows enough not to give us a Hollywood ending, what it gives us instead just seems enervated and entropic. Hornby, whose work has always carried with it a mild melancholic streak, can't get inside real suicidal terror dramatically: his own modesty, his gift for the merely genial, his popsensibility—the saving graces of his other books—get in the way in this one.
A LONG WAY DOWN BY NICK HORNBY; RIVERHEAD BOOKS. HARDCOVER, 333 PAGES, $24.95.