Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Long Way Down - Nick Hornby

A Long Way Down is a recent novel by Nick Hornby (published in 2005, if memory serves) which I read roughly five months ago. Of Hornby's oeuvre, I have read High Fidelity and Songbook. No About a Boy, no How to be Good, no Fever Pitch, et al. It is perhaps worth noting that Hornby achieves what, to my mind, is the greatest contribution a novelist can make to a society at this odd juncture of superfluous entertainment options. That is, to coin a phrase recognizable to a mass segment of the population: Do I listen to pop music because I'm miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music? The other achievement of course, is that Hornby's books enjoy a very high percentage of film adaptation, most of which are generally approved by audiences. High Fidelity is of course his biggest hit to date, and the film version certainly added a lot of mileage by bringing in John Cusack and switching the city from London to Chicago. About a Boy and Fever Pitch had films made out of them to slightly lesser degrees of success, but the fact remains Nick Hornby is certainly in the Top 5 Novelists in their Prime in 2008.

I bought A Long Way Down from Borders because it was part of a Buy 1, Get 1 50% off deal but it was not necessarily a waste of money. I also bought it for egotistical reasons. Immediately upon reading the description, I realized that Hornby's novel was extremely similar to my first novel, and I had to read it to see how he made it work. Someone famous like him could certainly give me some pointers in the way of getting published. He read in L.A. last October 26 or so, and I wanted to interview him afterwards to ask him about these sorts of things, but I did nothing that night instead.

The novel concerns four characters--Maureen, Jessica, J.J., and Martin--who accidentally meet each other on New Year's Eve on the top of a building. Each of them planned to commit suicide. Maureen has an invalid son that she must constantly attend to, denying her much of any social life, as she wades through her early fifties. Jessica is an 18 year old girl who has recently broken up with her boyfriend and who generally, amongst all the characters, is the stupidest and most annoying. J.J. is a 27 year old American musician who moved to London to be with his girlfriend, who recently broke up with him, and likewise his band, and is now delivering pizza. Martin is a formerly successful ex-host of a TV show like Regis & Kelly in his mid-forties who slept with a 15 year old girl, ruining his marriage, family and career.

Each of them wants to die, but they keep each other from doing it, and they have a variety of adventures as a "foursome," most notably when Jessica claims they didn't jump because they saw an angel, and then all three others have to lie and agree with her so the tabloid story holds water.

The problem with the novel is the same problem with my first novel--it floats around aimlessly, content to record the characters' witty asides instead of finding a proper resolution for the narrative. I did like the ending, however, because it refused to make any concrete declarations about the futures of these characters. The characters do go through changes though--Maureen lives a little more and grows to appreciate the little things, Jessica begins to act slightly more grown up, J.J. makes amends with his girlfriend and his best friend/bandmate, and Martin even sees his ex-wife and daughters and begins a difficult climb back to respectability.

What is most endearing about the novel is the way the characters latch onto one another and become friends and support one another through their life's obstacles, as trivial as they may sometimes be. At times it seems as if they are having fun, but usually they are really just trying to make sense of why they wanted to kill themselves, whether their life is really worth living or not, and what they are going to do now that they are still alive.

While High Fidelity may be about as perfect a modern novel as there is, A Long Way Down attempts a more experimental, almost philosophical, story, and in return loses a certain charm. One criticism of my first novel is that many people do not know which character to care about (there are 10). That is one similar thing I could say about this. I want to care about all of them, but I end up caring most about Martin, to be honest. Maureen also, is very sweet, but J.J. and Jessica are both young and their issues seem more trivial somehow, though one knows from experience that their problems are probably just as psychically traumatizing. It is much easier to care about Rob in High Fidelity than any single character in this novel, because there is a definite plot to his life. In a plotless atmosphere, Hornby attempts to diagnose modern depression and define the suicidal impulse, an admirable goal for a novel. However, one feels it might have been more effective to have focused on a single character, rather than four, but I am sure the ensuing adaptation (one can only assume...) will be highly entertaining and more original than 90% of the fare Hollywood shovels out in 2010.

No comments: