As the vanguard of the last sixteen years of British literature, Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for. You can call what he writes what you like – “lad lit”, “dick lit” (as opposed to chick lit, obviously) – but that doesn’t make it any better than what it is: fiction about people who never bothered growing up and show no intention of ever doing so.
This isn’t true of his entire canon, but it holds up for both the instigator of the genre, High Fidelity and its spiritual sequel, 2009’s Juliet, Naked. Reading about people who choose to wallow in lives that they consider wasted is not particularly fun or illuminating. It’s High Fidelity 14 years after the fact: if you thought that collection of characters was developmentally arrested, you will not be at all impressed with this troupe.
Duncan is obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a Cohen/Dylan hybrid musician who mysteriously quit in 1986. When an acoustic demo version of Tucker’s last album, Juliet, is released, Duncan and his long-suffering girlfriend of convenience, Annie, have a falling out. Tucker emails Annie after reading her review of Juliet, Naked and a fledgeling relationship is formed as Duncan fades into the background.
Hornby comes at this novel from the perspective of a modern author who doesn’t quite understand how the internet works. This is a common fault in authors, not just Hornby, but when you’re reading a guy who clearly thinks that he’s got it all figured out it’s annoying to see precisely how wrong he’s got it. The internet of 2008 was not so radically different from that of today, but a lot of the plot, such as it is, is predicated on the idea that Annie has to make her email address publicly available to post her review on the Tucker Crowe fan forums.
The forums themselves are a source of scale inconsistency: we’re given the impression that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Tucker Crowe conspiracy theorists and fans on the internet. By the end we’re told specifically that there are fifteen. Given the intimacy with which the three leads are acquainted with the site in question, this sort of oversight isn’t really forgivable. One could argue that Hornby was simply trying to peel back the layers of Crowe’s cultural importance, which he does achieve with some success in other parts of the novel, but here it just seems lazy.
Laziness, of course, is the key to Hornby’s game: people end up with each other because they can’t be bothered trying to look for anything else. Annie and Duncan settled for one another fifteen years ago because each was the only person the other considered tolerable in the seaside village they found themselves in. It’s easy enough to understand their frustrations but they’re not interesting enough to read about, let alone base a whole book around. There are maybe two or three funny passages in this book, but otherwise it’s an unrelenting 250 page whine (remember that this review clocks in at less than a thousand words, in case you’re getting any ideas).
Tucker, of course, fares even worse: he’s spent 22 years moving from relationship to relationship, having children and neglecting them before ultimately abandoning them. Except for the last one, of course; the fifth child is the one you use to “redeem” yourself. He’s earned no money in that time and has essentially abused his wives and partners with his malicious indolence. The concept of a tortured artist who has lost his will and talent is not new or original, but his inability to do anything is more pathetic than sympathetic. The use of his six year old son as an anchor is too manipulative and cutesy to be effective. Consequently, Tucker comes across as more of a shell than he reasonably should, and he’s scarcely more likeable than Annie or Duncan, who Hornby decides is fairly irrelevant after a certain point.
The idea of thoroughly unlikeable characters who pretend to learn something is nothing new in books, as Hornby well knows. Still, fourteen years after his breakthrough, he has legitimately regressed and stagnated. Gone are the occasionally moving passages of A Long Way Down, gone is the prospect of anything but two boys who never bothered to become men, and a woman who is equally complicit in their shame while trying to pass the blame on to them.
Fortunately, Hornby does make the allowance that people who write on the internet are entitled to their opinions, and that art is a matter of interpretation. The fact of the matter is that Hornby is going to keep on producing novels of this calibre simply because there is a large segment of society that identifies with his words. The fact that he’s essentially enabling people to be horrible to one another and incredibly selfish is beside the point. I would like to believe that there is room for only one Hornby in the world, but the damage has already been done; I have on my desk a book with the following pull quotes on the cover:
“The indiest book of all time” – GUARDIAN
“Reads like HIGH FIDELITY at high volume” – JAY MCINERNEY
Nick Hornby and the navel-gazing industry that he helped to birth are safe for the foreseeable future. More’s the pity.