Where Nick Hornby went wrong.

Where Nick Hornby went wrong.

Where Nick Hornby went wrong.

Reading between the lines.
June 20 2005 4:40 PM

Not-So-Sublime Banality

What happened to Nick Hornby?

Book cover.

Nick Hornby has built his admirable career, as comedian of manners for the album rock era, out of a single, hedgehoglike insight: The majority of people touched by rock music weren't makers of rock music. In fact, they weren't even remotely like the makers of rock music. They were consumers of rock music, or dorky suburban boys in poster-filled bedrooms. Sublime banality and self-centered mediocrity and a pitiful moonlit pining: Hornby captured perfectly the voice of the Baby Boomer more or less permanently fixed to the emotional vocabulary of his own pubescence. As a result of the immense success of his debut novel, High Fidelity— and of Fever Pitch, its nonfiction predecessor, and About a Boy, its more ambitious if less assured follow-up, and film adaptations of each—the callow Anglo-American rascal threatened to be for Hornby what trees were for Joyce Kilmer: a reputation-maker and a prison house. To ward off confinement (as a lad novelist, I suppose, a rubric he wouldn't deserve anyway), Hornby has always taken care to introduce a note of pathos and moral seriousness into his work. But what started out as a cautionary undertone in About a Boy crept into predominance by How To Be Good. Now, in A Long Way Down, it promises to overtake the entire enterprise. Empathy, decency, ordinary human happiness: Is this really what we want from our old Uncle Nick? What if his younger self were right, and the cost of adulthood is prohibitively high?

A Long Way Down is basically a screenplay on dry ice, disguised as a story-device novel, in which four interlaced first-person narrations cover a few months in the lives of four would-be suicides. Our quartet is: Martin, a morning chat-show host who has been caught bedding a 15-year-old girl; Maureen, a dowdy fiftysomething Eleanor Rigby, tethered to a severely disabled son; JJ, a young aspiring rock musician from the states; and Jess, a punky adolescent with a terminal case of smart mouth. On New Year's Eve, the four strangers ascend separately to the top of a London high-rise famous for abetting suicides, where they meet and, through a series of mishaps, prevent one another from jumping. Now, it goes without saying, the desire to rid yourself of yourself is a sober one, and Hornby means us to take his protagonists' desires seriously. And yet it would be hard to argue that the subject of A Long Way Down is depression. The essence of depression isn't "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"; it's the inexorable "shit-hum," as a friend of mine calls it, or a problem of neural frequencies courtesy of an infirmity of the brain, not a run of bad luck. In A Long Way Down, however, suicide is largely (as they say on Wall Street) event-driven: JJ can't make it as a musician, Martin can't suffer his public humiliation, Maureen's duty to her son has slowly choked off her desire to live. Even foul-mouthed Jess, our lone possible shit-hummer, lost her older sister a few years back to an unsolved disappearance.

Book cover.
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Perhaps I am being too American. Perhaps plain old event-driven despair is every bit as brutal as memoir-and-pharmacology-driven depression. And yet Hornby's evocations of despair are not acute enough to prevent the reader from dream-casting the novel as he goes or to banish images of Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley disporting sassily as Martin and Jess … and maybe the ever-tasteful Brenda Blethyn as Maureen? It is only a matter of time, said reader groans, before these four form their makeshift family and before Hollywood options the whole lot. Against the basic ick of it, Hornby pulls out every trick play, including the old classic, the adolescent whose purchase on our affections only deepens the more he or she tries to repel them. (Viz.: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or a recent favorite, Dedee in Don Roos' underrated film The Opposite of Sex, who announces, "If you think I'm just plucky and scrappy and all I need is love, you're in over your head. I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later.") Here we have Jess, who tells us of her missing sister, "Don't sit around hoping for her to pop up later on and rescue me. She doesn't come back, OK? And we don't find out she's dead, either. Nothing happens, so forget about it. Well, don't forget about her, because she's important. But forget about that sort of ending. It's not that sort of story."

Well, what sort of story is it? The four do form an ad hoc family; they get splashed across the tabs, thanks to Jess' attempt at a quick payday; they go on the disgraced Martin's new TV show, a grim and largely unwatched affair; they take a makeshift family vacation, which ends in tears; and of course, in addition to bickering and backbiting and wishing one another into oblivion, they help one another overcome despair. Critics have been put off by this aspect of the book, which they see as treacly, and rightly so; and the foursome never sounds quite like a true foursome, with its members' habitual recourse to pop music as a way of ordering their respective universes, as if everyone were, well, Nick Hornby. "[JJ] wasn't Ringo, though," Jess tells us. "He was more like Paul. Maureen was Ringo, except she wasn't very funny. I was George, except I wasn't shy or spiritual. Martin was John, except he wasn't talented or cool." But this isn't right—Jess is a vicious little riot girl, for whom the Beatles are more like Shakespeare and the queen, tiresome icons of fusty old British pride. "They don't like real music, these people," says JJ of young people at a party. "They don't like the Ramones or the Temptations or the 'Mats; they like DJ Bleepy and his stupid fucking bleeps. Or else they all pretend that they're fucking gangstas, and listen to hip hop about hos and guns." This is old fogeyism dressed up as young fogeyism and merely echoes Hornby's own well-documented jaundice about the corruption of the current musical scene.

When Hornby gives up the pretense to a larger demographic canvas and lets himself be Hornby, the kill is as clean as ever. "She was tall, expensively dressed," Martin says of Jess' mother, "and disfigured by a hideous smile that clearly bore no relation to anything she might be feeling, a real election night of a smile." Martin is the only character close to Hornby's age, and thus close to his heart, and thus close to ours. The reader longs for a respectable novel following the travails of this moonlit boy hitting middle- to late-middle age. In short, Hornby's genius isn't for despair; it's for quotidian disappointment in an epoch devoted to pop bliss. On this score, almost in spite of itself, A Long Way Down starts to get interesting. "The life I was leading didn't let me be, I don't know … be who I thought I was," says JJ. Later on Jess says something quite similar: "I had that terrible feeling you get when you realize you're stuck with who you are, and there's nothing you can do about it." A feeling of something—not quite as acute as despair, not quite as chronic as the shit-hum—runs throughout the novel: In a time of exponentially proliferating images of the luckier-than-thou, self-possession is not wholly possible, and the specter of our many unlived lives can be debilitating. It is a shame that Hornby feels this way about his own remarkable talents and has grasped instead for someone else's.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate’s critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.