on 30 July 2012
"...This, Rob thought, was unbearable. Did this question really still come up after all these years? Clearly it did and clearly it became harder to answer as you got older. In the time before Laura, it had been easy. He was young and he liked exactly the same music as the young woman asking the question, who was either on her way to University, or an undergraduate, or recently graduated. So Rob could say that he listened to the Smiths (sic) and Dylan and Joni Mitchell and the young woman would nod and add The Fall to his list. Telling a girl that you liked Joni Mitchell was really another way of saying. "If the worst comes to the worst and we get pregnant, it'll be okay..." HIGH FIDELITY
We'll get to this quote and the reason for it in a moment.
But sigh. Why do I even get my hopes up? What was I expecting?
Well it doesn't matter because what I got was another example of Nick Hornby's breathtaking inability to write a character that doesn't act, think and talk like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
I guess I didn't notice this gargantuan talent failing in his early days. Remember Fever Pitch? His first-person memoir? It was all "I felt this, I went here, I thought that, I watched Arsenal win the FA cup final." And us readers took this to our hearts. He had a nice, chummy, chatty, email tone of voice. He sounded much like what he was - a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
(I resisted reading FP for years, actually, as it was clearly a book about life as an Arsenal supporter. Many otherwise trustworthy blokes encouraged me to read it as they said it wasn't just about football, it was about male obsessions of all types. So I gave in and read it.
And it's 250 pages about football.
Frankly, my teen obsessions were Chuck Berry, Star Wars, Suzi Quattro and Action Force and it far too little about those).
Next up? Well, he got away with his one-voice trick again. High Fidelity. Cleverly it was a story written in the first person ("I felt this, I went here, I thought that, I watched The Clash play Brixton Academy") about, yes, a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan. So it sounded pretty realistic. As it would.
But the Hornster was clearly tiring of this. He wanted to try something else. Something more ambitious. (But not too ambitious, obviously. That would involve writing).
So he bashed out "About A Boy," a novel HALF about a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan, and half - genius! - about a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, teen something North London folk music and Countdown fan.
Nice work Nicky boy.
Since then? Oh Mr Train-Set, give it up already.
"How To Be Good" was written in the guise of a middle aged woman going through a marriage breakdown. A middle aged woman who, frankly, thought, spoke and acted like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
And "A Long Way Down," which had many voices - middle aged men, housewives, teenage girls, pensioners etc - all of whom tended to think, speak and act like, oooh, let's say thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fans.
I'm being mean, I know. I've met the chap and he's thoroughly charming. And in truth, I don't mind if he can only write in his own voice. If he can only write about what he thinks about his interests in his world. That's fine. It's not a bad thing. Blimey, journalists make a decent enough living doing exactly that.
It's just, know your limitations Nick, that's all. Stop attempting fiction. Or at least, don't attempt fiction unless of course it's about - oh I don't know, the thoughts and ideas of a . . . hmm...what shall we say? A thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
Which brings us to Juliet, Naked.
The main character - Juliet - lives with a fellow. Ordinary bloke. How would I describe him? A sort of thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan type, I suppose. She falls out with him over his thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop music fandom and starts a relationship with someone else. By way of a change, a thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop star. Oh yes.
I won't bore you with the story - which is the usual guff about growing and learning to be a better person and finding out what life is about (surprisingly, it turns out there's more to life than being a thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop-music fan. But not much more. Clearly none of the characters have bothered reading High Fidelity. Or been to see "About A Boy. Which is odd, as they're designed to appeal to thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London couples).
The problems, as always, are the attempts at characters outside Nick Hornby's immediate frame of reference. The voices. Or rather, the one voice that gets passed around. The reader spends the entire book scanning for the "she saids" or "he thoughts" or the "Duncan decideds" or the "Annie believeds" because, without them, one has no bloody clue whose turn it is to have a go on the page as every character, bar none, thinks, talks and acts like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
Remember the extract above? From High Fidelity?
Well it isn't. I was playing with you then. I swapped the names to make it more tricky to spot, but it's actually a quote from `Juliet Naked' and is meant to be a middle aged female museum worker talking to an aging Northern Soul fan.
Not that you'd know.
Scroll back up and read it again.
Enjoy it? No, of course you didn't. It's exactly the same idea he's been typing out for the last decade. In exactly the same obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan voice.
I could go on. But I won't as I've just realised I'm getting all het up and crosspatch thinking about it.
So my final word in this, a bigoted self righteous hypocritical rant of a review: for non thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fans, there's not much fun to be had here I'm afraid. In fact, there's not much to be had if you are one as you've heard it all before when you wrote it in your own damned diary when you were 15.
Nick Hornby. A fine journalist and chronicler of modern life. Not very good at much more. But hell, that's okay.