January 16, 2007

Summer Reading, Pt. 2

On the way back from Sydney I bought myself a copy of Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down. I'd never read Hornby before (though I have seen most of his film adaptations), and ALWD had sounded interesting to me ever since I'd read its initial reviews.

Well, what an enormous disappointment. I can honestly say that this is the most insipid piece of writing ever to have had a compliment from Johnny Depp printed on its cover – not to mention the bafflingly enormous array of obsequious British newspaper reviews that litter the first few pages. How much did the publisher pay these book critics?!

My biggest issue was the narration. The book is divided between four different narrators: a disgraced middle-aged TV personality, a devoutly Catholic single mother, a rebellious teenager, and a washed-up amateur musician from the States, and Hornby draws these characters with masterfully subtle strokes: the devout Catholic disapproves of people swearing (imagine!); the American says “man” all the time (never!); the TV presenter is bored of being recognised (surely not!).

Teenager Jess’ characterisation is particularly tenuous: she in general likes to act like an uneducated prole who doesn’t understand big words (which is, of course, hilariously ironic, as she’s actually the daughter of the Junior Minister for Education); and yet she has a fleeting ability to trade French quips with the other characters, which comes and goes according to Hornby’s whim (or hangover, or whatever).

Essentially, with the exception of a few overused stylistic watermarks to indicate ‘voice’, they are all quite palpably Hornby, which would be fine, if there were only one narrator – but having four people all maundering and prevaricating about the same events in more or less the same way becomes intensely irritating. Here’s how pretty much every idea is set out:
It’s like [X]. Well, I mean, obviously it’s not exactly like [X] because that would mean [absurd extension of the analogy for comic effect]. But if [X] were more like [Y], that’s sort of how it would be.
Which would be aggravating enough every five pages, but, even worse, the analogy is usually just there for a cheap laugh because the idea being ‘clarified’ is something blindingly straightforward like “I was unhappy because my boyfriend broke up with me.”

That’s symptomatic of my other big problem with the book: it’s about 20% plot and 80% pointless exposition. Between every interesting story movement, you have to get through pages and pages of flat, plodding, train-of-thought soliloquys. It’s like Hornby just threw up on a manuscript. Well, obviously it’s not exactly like that, because then you’d just be buying a book of vomit-stained paper! But if people threw up typed, asinine rambling, that’s sort of how it would be.

See? Kind of grating, isn’t it?

The last big problem is that any dramatic tension that might exist in the book is efficiently deflated within the first fifty or so pages. The plot, if you don’t know, is that these four people meet by chance on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, because they’re all planning to kill themselves – and the rest of the book deals with how they develop friendships in the course of persuading each other not to go through with it.

But for some reason Hornby makes repeated reference to the fact that they’re all writing this long after the fact, so it’s clear almost immediately that none of them are actually going to kill themselves, and in that case why do we give a shit? Not that a story needs to include a suicide in order to be interesting, but if you’re going to premise a book on four characters contemplating suicide, it might help to leave open the possibility that, I don’t know, at least one of them might actually commit suicide in the end, don’t you think? The whole book just feels like Hornby going through the motions to illustrate, in painful detail, why they’re not going to do what he’s told you they won’t from the start.

Basically, the problem is that Hornby (and everyone else, apparently) is so masturbatorily obsessed with his own coolness, that he can just write two hundred pages of weak jokes stitched loosely around a interesting concept, and have it accepted as a valuable contribution to contemporary British literature. But it’s a dull novel, and its few meagre flourishes in form can’t make up for an utter lack of empathy for its characters. Boo, hiss, and heartily unrecommended.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Geez. Generally i don't read books because i am too lazy, have other things to do, or i don't know they exist. This one, though, i will make a special effort not to read.

Thanks for the heads up.

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