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Records and old romance.

January 29, 2014

At the end of last year, amid (probably justified) complaining that we’d read too many depressing novels lately, someone in my book club suggested that we begin 2014 with some much-deserved mirth and read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995), which she’d heard was an entertaining read and is now immortalised in orange as a Popular Penguin.

Hornby’s fiction has variously featured obsessive music fans, obsessive football fans, and semi-neurotic characters grappling with contemporary morals and relationships. He’s probably best known for those of his books that have gone on to become successful films: Fever Pitch, About a Boy, and, of course, High Fidelity, which I mostly recall as being two hours of John Cusack whining about women punctuated by brief intervals of Jack Black in one of his rare ‘look, I’m actually acting’ roles. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I liked About a Boy (the book and the film), so I was prepared to give Hornby’s original material a go.

High Fidelity turned out to be both a curious and a curiously rewarding experience. Reading it was kind of like what I imagine being in a relationship with the novel’s protagonist would be like, only probably, on reflection, a lot less irritating. To begin with, I thought the book was funny and clever and different, then I began to tire of it and find it less funny and more frustrating, then I briefly hated it and wondered what I’d even seen in it, and finally, after a brief break(up), it partially redeemed itself and held my attention (and sympathy…almost) until the end.

While it’s ostensibly about a 35-year-old record shop owner and music obsessive named Rob who feels the need to rake over his previous relationships when his girlfriend, Laura, suddenly leaves him, High Fidelity is also about a stage of life many of us go through at some point: that rather terrifying moment of prolonged self-assessment when something or someone prompts you to look at your existence and wonder how you got to this precise point within it and how, if at all, that point tallies with the grand and probably totally unrealistic ideas you had when you were younger. (Luckily, I’ve so readily bought into the Starving Aspiring Writer myth that the reality of never having any money and eating a lot of baked beans still seems worth it For the Sake of My Art.)

Rob is a self-confessed ordinary bloke whose ‘genius, if you can call it that, is to combine a whole load of averageness into one compact frame’, believes that anyone who owns less than 500 records can’t possibly be a serious person, and fantasises that ‘someone beautiful and tearful will insist on “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” by Gladys Knight’ be played at his funeral, even though he ‘can’t imagine who that beautiful, tearful person would be’.

It certainly wouldn’t be any of Rob’s exes, whom he revisits in the wake of Laura’s departure in a fit of self-indulgent ‘where are they now in relation to me’ curiosity. This voluntary, up-close-and-personal return to one’s romantic roots is an interesting concept, and one to which many of us can surely relate—how often have you wondered about how different your life would have been (better, maybe; perhaps just more interesting) if things had worked out with that particular someone?

Getting in touch with old flames can also be a poignant measure of change: you might think you’re fundamentally the same person you were at 19, but coming face to face with the person you loved at that age could well demonstrate otherwise. Of course, they’ve probably changed too; but for Rob, who’s about as self-centred as it’s possible to be, it simply exacerbates his sense of personal and professional failure. Looking at a photo of himself as a kid, he reflects that ‘if he could be here now’ to witness the state of his adulthood, his childhood self would ‘run straight out of the door and back to 1967 as fast as his little legs would carry him’.

But Rob’s soul-searching eventually serves a purpose—it turns out to be a necessary part of becoming, if not entirely self-aware and mature, at least more so than he is at the novel’s start. He isn’t a terribly likeable figure, but he gets away with it because he’s so frank, so openly neurotic and pathetic and willing to share his every thought—however unflattering (‘it’s brilliant, being depressed; you can behave as badly as you like’)—with the reader. Hornby has an appealing conversational style and dry wit that makes Rob surprisingly bearable (that said, you only have to tolerate him for 245 pages).

More than that, High Fidelity is a book that illuminates (with admirable levity) a common human experience: that uncomfortable periodic questioning of our identity and our achievements, romantic and otherwise, and whether we’ve made of ourselves what we thought we would when we were kids and the world seemed as though it was at our feet. That world is what you make of it; and Rob’s version turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining alternative to watching John Cusack have a mid-life crisis.

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