Odes to Angst – Reading Nick Hornby

Stories about depression are more often than not, depressing. It is said that Muriel Spark was so exhausted after writing The Driver’s Seat that she had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalised. The author’s feelings seep out through the pages of the book which has a draining quality about it. In spite of its elegant prose. Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar invokes a sense of melancholy in the reader, which is perhaps accentuated when one knows that the author died tragically two weeks after the book was published.

Told with wit, warmth and humour, Nick Hornby‘s first novel High Fidelity, a story about Rob Fleming, a depressed music record store owner who is recovering from his latest relationship break-up is anything but depressing. When we meet Rob for the first time, he is busy making the list of his top five breakups in a bid to understand what went wrong with his latest girlfriend Laura who has left him. Rob expresses his worldview about life, work, relationships, music and just about everything is in the form of top five or top ten lists. His juvenile attitude to life and the realisation that he had been sleepwalking through it is brought out through the aftermaths of his complex relationship with Laura as he takes a journey through his past relationships and finds out the reason behind his fear of commitment.

High Fidelity is a coming of age novel about a grown-up Holden Caulfield who eventually finds his way home. The supporting characters come wonderfully alive, whether they are Rob’s eccentric employees Dick and Barry or the pop singer Marie with whom Rob has a brief fling. Even minor characters such as Rob’s many girlfriends or the rich woman who want to take revenge on her unfaithful husband by selling his vintage collection of pop music for fifty pounds are memorable. The scene involving the latter in which Rob refuses to take advantage of the situation but cannot resist buying an Otis Redding record and pays her ten pounds instead of the ten pence that she asks for, reveals the sense of decency beneath his tangled moral values. That and the last scene in which Rob plans to put together another compilation of songs remain with the reader long after the book is finished.

I read more of Hornby’s work soon afterwards.

A Long Way Down is a wonderful book in many ways. For a novel that deals with the serious issue of suicidal depression, it is chockful of humour and philosophical insights expressed in direct, down to earth prose. On New Year’s eve, four people who are as unlike each other as possible meet on the roof of Topper’s House, a high rise building in London where they had come with the intention of killing themselves. Four potential suicides – a popular TV star ostracised due to a scandal and estranged from his family, a teenager battling personal demons over her dysfunctional family, a single mother who is tired of caring for her challenged son and an aspiring rock star who is reduced to delivering pizzas, find a support system in each other and actually go on to find some kind of minimal albeit realistic redemption in the end. The theme of suicidal depression is discussed objectively through the points of view of the four main protagonists and Hornby lets the point of sticking on to life slip through smoothly without resorting to sentimental excesses or melodrama.

I started reading Hornby’s first book Fever Pitch with a lot of expectations, having heard much about how it was one of the best of Hornby’s work, but the book simply did not work for me. Perhaps as I have neither interest nor knowledge in any kind of sport and as sport related writing generally goes right over my head, I could not go beyond the first fifty pages. I hope to return to the book sometime soon to read more about Hornby’s sense of alienation and search for identity and meaning in football matches.

About a Boy tells the story of rich, idle Will Freeman and his unlikely friendship with a preteen boy Marcus. After a chance discovery that single mothers in search of the perfect man are the easiest to date, Will pretends to be a single father and joins a single parent support group for easy access to such women. His plan works until he runs into Marcus’s mother Fiona who is clinically depressed and tries hard to balance her sanity with parenting of a precocious boy, almost losing it when she attempts suicide. Marcus conspires to have Will date Fiona as he thinks that having a boyfriend again in her life will keep his mother happy and alive, but even after it becomes clear that Will and Fiona cannot come together, Marcus continues his friendship with Will reasoning that he needs a father figure in his life. Will finds himself forced to mentor Marcus and through a series of bittersweet encounters with punk girls, school bullies, Christmas dinners with weirdly related extended families and discussions on what it means to be cool, Will helps Marcus  turn from an introverted child into a normal twelve year old and in the process finds himself finally grown up. The dialogues in this book were sheer joy to read and one can only repeat what the blurb says about Hornby’s writing ‘which demonstrates a fluidity and lack of self consciousness that other writers would envy‘.

How to Be Good was part angst comedy, part fable and part musing on that all important existential question – what does it mean to be good? Told from the point of view of Katie Carr, a doctor who is trying to explore her midlife crisis by having a discreet affair, the book deviates from its main theme and rambles about without coming to a conclusion. The spiritual overtones brought in by the character DJ GoodNews were partly insightful and partly comical but do not go anywhere in the end.
Hornby chooses an interesting question to explore, but he loses his direction quite early in the book and flounders, wandering into philanthropy and the meaning of charity and the impact of kindness on society and tries to tie it up with the individual’s question of self, family and identity. Not the best of Hornby’s work, How to Be Good fails to work in spite of the immense potential of its premise.

Juliet, Naked is my personal favourite of his works. Annie who has inadvertently spent fifteen years of her life and youth in a godforsaken little town called Gooleness finds hope and a fresh chance at life at a place that she had least expected. Through her dysfunctional ex-boyfriend Duncan and his manic obsession with the faded pop singer Tucker Crowe, Hornby explores the world of pop music and the obsession that fans share for an artists’s art that overlaps with the artist’s life. The narrative which spans a few months during which Annie and Duncan take a vacation visiting places that are milestones in Tucker’s life and art, their break up and the events that follow, throws up a series of weird, comical and heartwarming situations such as Duncan secretly using the washroom in Tucker’s ex-girlfriend Juliet’s house, Tucker’s fans obsessive interpretations of Tucker’s art and life and the impact of his life on his art and the reconciliation at the end when Duncan talks about how his connection to Tucker’s music validated his very life and Tucker’s acceptance and understanding of the fact. Tucker’s complicated life, many loves and his strained relationship with his five children add to the poignancy of the tale.

Everyone finds redemption in the seemingly vague ending of this beautiful novel – Annie, Tucker and even Duncan who repents over his enthusiasm for Juliet, Naked and returns with full force to trash Tucker’s new album.

Nick Hornby’s novels are stories of present times, with sparkling dialogue and characters to whom readers would instantly feel a connection. His writing should strike a deep, reassuring and happy chord in anyone who has ever been touched by depression at any point in their lives.

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Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality

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