Rob Fleming is 35 years old, nearly 36. He lives in North London, in a one-bedroom conversion flat in Crouch End. His girlfriend, Laura, is a lefty lawyer who would like to be working for a legal aid firm but finds herself, to her dismay, with a flash job in the City instead. Laura has this very morning walked out on Rob, with a carrier bag in one hand and a hold-all in the other. ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing,’ she says, crying as she goes. So this is what Rob does:
I sit down on my chair, the one that will stay here with me, and pick bits of stuffing out of the arm, light a cigarette, even though it is still early and I don’t really feel like one, simply because I am now free to smoke in the flat whenever I want, without rows; I wonder whether I have already met the next person I will sleep with, or whether it will be someone currently unknown to me; I wonder what she looks like, and whether we’ll do it here, or at her place, and what that place will be like; I decide to have a Chess Records logo painted on the living-room wall. (There was a shop in Camden that had them all – Chess, Stax, Motown, Trojan – stencilled in the brickwork beside the entrance, and it looked brilliant. Maybe I could get hold of the guy who did that and ask him to do smaller versions here.) I feel OK. I feel good. I go to work.
Rob’s work is a second-hand record shop called Championship Vinyl, situated in a side-street off the Holloway Road. One of his colleagues, Dick, always carries large numbers of tapes around with him, in a plastic bag with a very underground American logo on it. ‘He went to a great deal of trouble to get hold of it, and he gets very nervous when we go anywhere near it.’ His other colleague, Barry, likes to stick his lips out and clench his teeth and go DA-DA, in imitation of the guitar riffs on Clash records. He otherwise spends much time talking about music, films, Terry Prat-chett ‘and anything else which features monsters, planets and so on’, entirely in terms of best-of-the-year lists of all-time top fives. It is a habit, says Rob, that he and Dick have been infected with. He isn’t kidding there.
We have already heard about Rob’s own desert-island, all-time, top-five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order from age 12. ‘These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d slip into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five ... Close but no cigar.’ We will shortly be hearing about the following: all-time top-five episodes of Cheers, each described in religious detail; the all-time best track one, side ones; best films; best American films; all-time favourite singles, as requested by a newspaper called the Tufnell Parker. ‘But where have they gone, all these records I’ve had in my head for years, just in case Roy Plomley or Michael Parkinson or Sue Lawley or whoever used to do My Top Twelve on Radio One asked me in as a late and admittedly unknown replacement for somebody famous?’
And what was Rob’s killer move when he was in the process of getting to know Laura in the first place? He made her a complilation tape, of course (‘you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music’ etc etc etc). He put together for her, in other words, a favourite-things list made flesh. It is probably this that will turn out ultimately to be his salvation, his saving grace. Barry’s all-consuming interest in the numerical side of things has rendered him so unacceptable to the female sex, the closest he ever gets to a woman is to take the piss out of other people’s girlfriends. As for Dick, when he eventually – and unprecedentedly – manages to bag himself a girl, he can show his affection for her only by browbeating the poor woman out of her fondness for the music of Simple Minds. Rob may be a bit sad and infantile himself, but at least he’s not as far gone as these two. At least he has managed to find a way of turning his obsession into an act of communication. And so, at least he manages to get stable sex. Or did, until this morning.
The ungodly triangle of Rob, Dick and Barry will, I’d imagine, be a familiar one to many readers: the runt, the bully, the supposedly nice one, who of course needs the others to make him feel more on top of things than he actually is. This is just one of the classic ways in which men bond. What has happened to Rob and his girlfriend will be equally familiar. Laura has left her live-in partner of three years because a. he has been unfaithful to her, with a personage immortalised as ‘Rosie the pain-in-the-arse simultaneous orgasm woman’; b. she felt anyway that he was growing bitter and twisted, stuck in a groove of childishness which was growing less appealing by the day; and c. ‘because I’m at an age where I want to sort myself out, and I couldn’t see that ever happening with you, mostly because you seem incapable of sorting yourself out.’ And who is to say Laura has judged wrongly when her beloved responds to her departure by wanting a classic-soul logo painted on his wall?
High Fidelity was published a month ago. It roared straight up the national bestseller lists to sit comfortably – as I write – at number 2. It has been a great talking-point among the company I keep, partly because we are a bookish lot, but mainly because much of it chimes very closely with our own lives. I know many, many Robs. I’ve also known quite a few Dicks and Barrys. And I know any number of Lauras, too. I have never seen my type of people so vividly rendered on the page before. And I have never before, since I was a grown-up, responded to a piece of writing so immediately either. How successful is Hornby in his construction of the character Rob? Very: I don’t go for him myself, but I’d probably approve if any of my friends wanted to go out with him, so long as he’d sorted out his unfinished business first. Does Laura’s feminine perspective make for an effective counterpoint to the blokeishness of Rob? Absolutely. She can be friends with me any time she likes. That’s not quite literary criticism, is it? But these are the sorts of response the book provokes, if it happens to do its thing for you.
Nearly thirty years ago, David Lodge wrote a brilliant essay, called ‘The Modern, the Contemporary, and the Importance of Being Amis’, republished in his collection Language of Fiction (1966). All right, this essay said, so no one with any sense ever pretended that Lucky Jim was a work of art in the way that Ulysses is, or something by Virginia Woolf, but that in itself is not to say that Lucky Jim was not, for many readers in the Fifties, an overwhelmingly powerful book. ‘The importance of being Amis ... is in a sense greater than the sum of his works, individually considered as autotelic works of art. His novels, stories, poems, reviews, even his obiter dicta reported in the newspapers, have focused in a very precise way a number of possible attitudes which a great many middle-class intellectuals of the post-war period find useful for the purposes of self-definition.’ Yes, I would have been tempted to think Lodge was over-egging it too, if I’d happened to read his essay only a couple of months ago. But then I read High Fidelity, and started seeing exactly what Lodge meant.
Just look back at the very top paragraph of this review. How much documentary detail we seem to have picked up already! Thirty-five, one bedroom, hm hm hm. Family houses cut up into bachelor-boxes: now why would they want to do that? Forced out of the socially-useful sector because there aren’t any jobs in it, what a sign of the times. A woman who earns a good wage, living with a man who doesn’t: it wasn’t like that in my parents’ day. It’s all very well making these observations, but whose world exactly is it we’re talking about? A fictional one Hornby has made, or the real world he is referring to, the world outside the text?
Unlike Lucky Jim, High Fidelity is not constructed as a dismally hidebound farce. It is elegantly crafted, subtly plotted, and its first-party voice is a lively, charming offspring of Salinger and Kelman and young Paddy Clarke. And yet, the book still reads more like a superior piece of lifestyle journalism than like a work of art. It reports on real things, and on real things never before seen within the covers of a hardback novel, like Dick’s carrier bag and Barry’s DA-DA noise. (Try making that noise yourself, lips clenched, teeth tapping smartly against the alveolar ridge. It’s a glorious experience.) And never have I read a piece of fiction which inhabited every second of its own present, every detail of its own environment, so thoroughly, so cheerfully, with so little strain. But there is no distance, no tension, no irony, no art to it. ‘So these things happen’ is pretty much all Hornby seems to be saying. And if he was a real person, this is pretty much all Rob Fleming would be saying.
In his essay about Kingsley Amis, David Lodge points out that ‘contemporary’ novels do incredibly well when they are first published, then fade and date to near-unreadability within a matter of years. They flatter their own generation, taking on its obsessions at face value, offering them more attention than ever they got from their mums. High Fidelity is stuffed with stunning what-oft-were-thoughts, about pop culture, about mid-life crisis, about why the contemporary man seems to grow up so much more slowly than does the contemporary woman, about lower-middle-class rootlessness and chip. It is a novel about how records and television programmes, smart-arse one-liners and off-the-cuff opinions and evenings out at the pub, offer only a phantom social connection, which solidifies in the long run into arrested development and kitsch. And yet it evokes its peculiar mindset with such precision and charm, you end up oohing and aahing, sentimental and nostalgic, with every mention of black Levis worn with Doctor Martens, of Peter Frampton and Art Gartfunkel, of homebrew wine at the parents’ house and fancy wine when you get invited round by old college friends who have done much better for themselves than you have.
In an earlier draft of this article, I tried to construct a little slab of cultural history, in which I proved with reference to Hornby how all these ephemera are necessarily linked together, all being in their way side-effects of the 1944 Education Act and the post-war boom. As a theory, I think it could have been pretty solid: ‘From Superfluous Man to Nowhere Man Sitting in His Nowhere Land, Making All His Nowhere Plans for Nobody’, I will call it, if I ever get round to revising it and submitting it for my PhD. So why am I not presenting it here? Because by the time I had it sketched, I realised I wasn’t writing about Nick Hornby’s book at all. I was reflecting, with some self-indulgence, on matters arising from my own life. I was very glad when my deadline got extended, so giving me a chance to detach myself, towards that lofty impersonality which surely is the correct attitude to be had from a critic of the literary art.
You can see this weird projection process going on in most of the reviews the book has got so far. For Suzanne Moore in the Guardian, it was ‘charming’, ‘a pop classic’, packed with ‘people so instantly recognisable you could hum them’; we can then surmise that Suzanne Moore’s background is probably pretty much like Rob’s is, and that Suzanne Moore has at least a bit of a soft spot for bumbling puppies of the Rob Fleming type. Yet Will Self of the Modern Review hated it to pieces. He found ‘the protagonist’s obsession with pop alienating’; he complained of Dick and Barry, that ‘we never really learn the physical appearance of either,’ and he had no empathy at all with the notion that people in their mid-thirties can think and act like overgrown teens. From which we can assume that Self has little empathy with the thousands of people who have already clutched the book to their bosoms, and that, in some obscure way, he seems to see in the book a threat. It’s quite something to have written a book which functions so efficiently as a sort of cultural Rorschach test. Though this also implies that there is something about the book reminiscent of a blob.
While discussing High Fidelity with my friends, I noticed a couple of things. Women, as a rule, like the book a lot better than men do. And women say this is because it is the first book ever really to slice the top off the head of the averagely presentable, apparently sane-enough thirtysomething man, so revealing all those slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails writhing away in the cosy cavity where the brain should be. Yet men say it’s because Hornby, in an interesting reversal, has presented himself as a female fantasy figure, cute and cuddlesome and just confused enough to be in need of a good woman to show him how to settle down. Speaking from my now-disinterested peak, I would say that both sides are equally right. Hornby is certainly keen that women should like him. Which is all very right and proper and gratifying, but also somewhat mealy-mouthed.
Whenever I read a novel which starts out with a break-up – and there have been a lot of them around lately, what with the last Margaret Atwood, and then the Michael Brace-well, and then the latest Joanna Trollope – I always riffle first through all the pages, to see what happens at the end. I did this with the new Nick Hornby, and I’m about to say what I discovered, so if you don’t want a big spoiler, you’d better stop reading now. But you knew the answer anyway, didn’t you? So Laura comes back, and she and Rob go about setting up for themselves a new life, a second relationship, a fresh start which, as rendered by Rob’s voice, displays every sign of being the sort of set-up that can go on and on, getting better and better by the day. It’s a veritable Heart of the Matter item, the sort of thing that should have been on ‘Our Tune’. And the last scene of it, in which Rob presides as DJ over a nightclub full of happy bopping friends, is particularly fine. ‘It was like a film,’ he says, thus pre-empting pusillanimous suspicions that Hornby might have installed the disco for this very purpose. It’s like Umberto Eco’s line about how you can’t tell a woman you love her madly any more, but that you can get round it by saying, ‘As a novelist would say, I love you madly,’ rewritten in a proley British key. It’s very clever, and it’s almost – almost – convincing.
More interestingly, however, no one will really have needed me to tell them how Rob’s story all works out in the end. It’s a new version of the Call Me Ishmael problem: had Rob not known he had a happy ending coming, he would not have had such a jaunty and charming tale to tell. Had Laura left him heartbroken, there would have had to be pages and pages of bile and bitterness, misogynistic fantasies and blackout depressions, so breaking the decorum of the witty, upbeat, charming Rob Fleming voice. And had Rob not turned out sincerely to care about Laura, Hornby would have lost his women readers for sure, and he could hardly be having that. There is a bit towards the end of the novel in which Rob describes Laura as ‘putting on her smug face’: would that some Rob would love me for my smug face! I’d happily pay £14.99 in order to dream on!
Yet it is, of course, precisely this happy ending that leaves High Fidelity, by the end of it, looking ever so slightly blank. It’s nothing like that ludicrous cop-out nonsense you get at the end of Lucky Jim, with love-interests and fabulous job-offers flying in on wires. No, it is an ending that has been immanently developed right from the novel’s start. But the trouble is, this means that the whole of the novel has been compromised by it; its whole emotional vocabulary has been foreshortened and compressed. Rob talks gloriously about all sorts of highs and lows, but as with the pop songs he supposedly is growing out of, his experience is constricted by the need to keep to a rhyme. There is not a millisecond in the book of naked faith or hope or despair.
Over the course of his story, Rob learns, very sensibly, to give up on looking for the meaning of life in a Pretenders record, though he still allows himself the freedom to enjoy the music. Which is to say, he is free to give up on it when it starts to bore him and look thin. No better guidelines could be followed by the generation of readers currently trying to define their ‘possible attitudes’ through Hornby’s book. Not that this or any other generation needs such guidelines. Because this is exactly what everyone does anyway.