The Conformist

The Conformist

The Conformist

Reading between the lines.
May 7 1998 3:30 AM

The Conformist

Nick Hornby discovers the pleasures of fitting in.

About a Boy
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead; 320 pages; $22.95

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I'm not a man, so I'm not one of the critics who hailed Nick Hornby's first novel, High Fidelity, as the ultimate exposé of the contemporary male psyche. What I do know is that the story made for a fun read: A 35-year-old Londoner named Rob with the maturity level of a high-school junior dumps his girlfriend and retreats to his pathetic job in a music shop. He fetishizes his record collection until one day he realizes that it's just a stack of plastic discs, not a fulfilling life partner.

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Hornby writes with awesome fluidity. His musings on the destructive beauty of pop culture, the way it merchandizes melancholy to vulnerable young people, at times achieve something like philosophical depth. (Click for an example.) The book's unapologetic concern with personal happiness even lent it a classical grace. You could almost see it as a throwback to the 18th century, before the Novel got confused with Art and the novelist's job was to write clean prose, trot out a few moral guidelines, and make the reader laugh. My only complaints with High Fidelity were with a few cloying Growth Moments and the cute epilogue, a party at which Rob plays DJ and every character in the novel appears to issue a happy farewell. The finale is reminiscent of one of those Pollyanna-ish endings on Beverly Hills 90210 such as when Donna gets out of the hospital after an attempted rape, and the whole gang gathers at the Peach Pit for a supersupportive celebration.

If you had to quantify it, the brilliant-to-annoying ratio of High Fidelity would probably be about 4-to-1. Maybe it was inevitable that in a new Hornby effort, the first number would decline. Rob was immature, but his desperate clinging to youth placed him inside a world of rock trivia that Hornby described in beautifully specific detail. By comparison, Will, the hero of About a Boy, is an abstraction, the sort of handsome cipher you see in magazine ads for khakis. He's inherited a nest egg, so instead of working he sits at home and watches daytime television. All signs to the contrary, he thinks this shallow bachelorhood is glamorous. His joys in life are dressing well and going "clubbing." In England, apparently, this makes him an archetype of male cool.

Will wants to sleep with women, but he doesn't want to get involved, so he comes up with a plan. He'll pursue beautiful single mothers and pretend he has a child, too. This will trick his girlfriends into thinking he's capable of depth and caring. Then, before things get too heavy, the woman will realize her child comes first and break up with him. "Great sex, a lot of ego massage, temporary parenthood without tears and a guilt-free parting--what more could a man want?"

In other words, the premise of About a Boy is as thin as a Handi Wipe. It's like something a committee of TV writers might dream up for George Costanza on a lesser episode of Seinfeld. But after a few implausible episodes in which Will tries out his ruse, he finally embarks on a challenging relationship. It's not with a woman at all, but with Marcus, a geeky 12-year-old boy. Will meets the poor kid when the woman Will is currently attempting to date drags the boy along on a picnic as a favor to the boy's flaky mother. Will resents Marcus and finds him weird, but when he drops him off at home, they find the mother passed out in a failed suicide attempt, and Will's sympathy is engaged. Sort of. Actually, Marcus fixates on Will as a potential father figure and starts appearing at his house uninvited. Will feels guilty, lets him in to watch television and slowly, very slowly, begins to get involved.

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Marcus is a complex and touching creation, and his growth arc easily beats out Will's for interest. A victim of the modern parental tyranny of hippie idealism, he doesn't watch television, eat meat, or know how to dress, and his music-listening at home is tragically restricted to Joni Mitchell. He misses the cultural references kids throw around at school. The bullies in his class sense this and pounce, like hyenas on a limping gazelle. Meanwhile, his well-meaning but narcissistic mother mopes around the house, so his only example of adult behavior is hopeless isolation.

In his clueless search for companionship, Marcus gets a crush on Ellie, a troublemaking older woman (she's 14) obsessed with the pessimistic lyrics of Kurt Cobain. Here you can see Hornby straining hard to live up to his reputation as an interpreter of the Zeitgeist. The novel is set in 1994, and the climax cleverly dovetails with Cobain's suicide. Hornby clearly means to revisit a Defining Cultural Moment, with Ellie symbolizing the peril of taking rock 'n' roll angst as a model for life.

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A couple of problems with this strategy: 1) It's too early to look back on the mid-'90s with clarity, let alone nostalgia. 2) As wise as Hornby's warning against overwrought adolescent feeling is, the alternatives aren't very appealing. Marcus' classmates abuse him, his mother ignores his needs, and Ellie is insane. That leaves him with Will. But what does Will know how to do? Buy records and clothes, be selfish, and not take anything seriously. In all the obvious ways, About a Boy feels like a continuation of the themes in High Fidelity. But where High Fidelity argued against too much coolness, the new novel is about the benefits of fitting in.

It's almost brave, this defense of conformity. It certainly defies the standard tropes of writing about young people--all that stuff about how it's OK to be yourself, even if you're different. Brave or not, though, it's still shallow. One of the great things about High Fidelity was the way it made emotional epiphanies function as plot. Rob's painful realization that he was lonely was as thrilling as the naming of a murderer in a whodunit. In About a Boy, characters go through the motions of growing up without conducting the necessary internal search. Will's maturity simply arrives one day, like a piece of mail: "Will couldn't recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling, chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human. It wasn't too bad, really; he wouldn't even mind being human on a full-time basis." As for Marcus, under Will's sartorial influence, "[h]e had flattened out and become as robust and unremarkable as any twelve-year-old kid." The message is that there's a right way to dress and a right set of music to listen to and that hippies, geeks, angry teen-agers, and other marginal people would make life easier for themselves if they'd just get with the program.

Hornby still writes with warmth and charm. In fact he renders his message in such appealing, facile strokes that one wants to believe he just panicked after the success of High Fidelity and turned out a callow rush job. More depressing is the possibility that he means it.