In 1997 or 1998, I forget which, two very important women in my life (only one of them a sister) independently, and within about a month of each other, decided it was very important that I read Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity. One copy arrived in San Francisco from the other side of the country, and the other from the other side of the Atlantic; and so, happily enough, I had a UK edition to read and a US edition to turn to for translations whenever I didn't understand a word in the UK edition. (Two that stick in the mind a decade later are 'sweet papers' candy wrappers; and 'fag ends' cigarette butts.)
That was the last time I can remember reading a book in a single sitting and I did it on a school night, staying up to 4AM to do so. Obviously, the book was chortle-out-loud-funny enough, and insightful enough, and lovely (*) enough to keep me out of bed. But as I dragged myself bleary-eyed to work the next morning, actually, my main reaction was a sort of shock, or outrage, or violation. It wasn't the fact that I saw so much of my life and feelings and experience in High Fidelity. It was that the things I saw were Man Things. How had these two women, who had told me I would see myself in this book, known that I would see myself in this book?! They're not supposed to know these things! And, so, kind of stunned and bemused, I started giving copies of this book to everyone I knew, to see if they'd see themselves in it, too. I gave it to my boss, a gay man. A few days later, he stuck his head into my office, looking bemused and muttering, "I thought I was the only one who'd ever ended up hiding face down in a flower bed . . ." And so it went.
If I'm going to take the time to plug books, generally I really want to do it for writers who need the support. (*) And Hornby's doing perfectly okay on his own, without me. But, as it happened, his new one just came out, and also we passed a copy of his first one in a charity shop, and it turned out Anna hadn't read it, and it's one of those books you immediately buy for people when (shock! horror!) you find out they haven't read it, and so I also re-read it myself. And so here we are.
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
In response to being dumped, Rob goes back in time trying to figure out just exactly where it all went wrong and revisiting his ex-girlfriends. Along the way, he makes an awful lot of Top Five lists with his two sweet but going-nowhere employees (Top Five Side One Track Ones, Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have To Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution); beds an American singer-songwriter ('recording artiste') who looks like an LA Law-era Susan Dey; spends his 35th birthday watching Terminator 2 and (worse) Robocop 2, then having drinks with a couple of remaining friends, whom he hates; and, finally, of course reaches some kind of mild epiphany, or self-knowledge, or at least resolution.
In the end, and after the sudden death of her father, Laura decides she's simply too tired not to go out with him. And Rob decides maybe he's grown up just enough to make a commitment to a woman whom he belatedly realises is very good for him maybe the best thing he's got going.
I can't say my 2009 re-reading of High Fidelity contained the stark shock of the familiar that it had before. And I don't think I chortled out loud as often or as loudly. But the book has become, somehow, with the passage of time (and the passage of stages of life), if anything, lovelier. And it certainly remains the case that if you haven't read this book (shock! horror!), you should really put it on your personal Top Five Most Important Books to Read Next list.
Juliet Naked, by Nick HornbyI should also mention that, along the way, I saw either A) Hornby going slightly downhill; or B) me growing slightly out of him. High Fidelity was life-changing. About a Boy was great, really great; and, really weirdly, was adapted extremely winningly and successfully for film. (*) How to Be Good was, well, good. (*) I sort of checked out after that; haven't even read A Long Way Down. So I didn't really expect to like Juliet Naked all that very much.
But I do. I really, really do. The book's also about an unmarried live-together couple, Annie and Duncan, and Duncan is an obsessive over the music of one Tucker Crowe, who disappeared from sight two decades ago . . . and, so, you can also kind of see where I thought Hornby might be retreading already-trod-upon ground. But he's not. Or, if he is, it's still wonderfully fertile ground. Unexpectedly, Crowe releases an album of skeletal demo tracks from his magnum opus, Juliet, an omnibus account of an epic and tragic relationship. Duncan thinks the demos (titled, as you might guess, Juliet, Naked) redefine genius; Annie thinks they're rubbish, and makes so bold to write a review to that effect and publish it on Duncan's web site for obsessive Tucker Crowe fans. This irreconcilable difference marks the beginning of the end of Annie and Duncan's fifteen-year relationship, which maybe should have ended a lot earlier. And then Tucker writes Annie some e-mail and tells her how right she is . . .
The three points of this triangle all receive a really deft and complex psychological rendering, leaving us feeling that we know three people who are, like all people, far from being either all good or all bad. They are wounded, and they have some misperceptions of things, and they are trying and often failing. The handling of the e-epistolary relationship I'm always sceptical of novels with e-mail in them ;^) is unobtrusive and convincing. Ditto the ipods, and the digital photos, and even the Wikipedia entries. This is not trend-surfing but recognition that these things form an important ridge on the cultural landscape we're all trying not to tumble off of, and Hornby includes them effectively and unselfconsciously.
And, anyway, those things are merely background to the humour, and tenderness, and insight into, not so much the way we live now, but the way we've always lived, and always will do as long as we are human, and weak, and prone to loneliness, and to second-guessing ourselves. And as long as there remains the possibility of intriguing and rejuvenating and lovely human connection. Which we hope there will be for a long time to come.