Novels in the first-person perspective allow non-psychics to surmount their mindreading limitations and enter another’s head. But some minds aren’t worth reading, and books about such characters end up the same.
The novel that set the stage for Nick Hornby’s popularity (About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity adapted to the big screen; screenplay for An Education; songwriting for Ben Folds) is written through the lens of an uninteresting brain. The narrow worldview of record seller, failed DJ and self-described loser (it’s hard to dissent) Rob Fleming leaves little room for High Fidelity’s depressing cascade of events to amount to anything important.
In the midst of a failed relationship and midlife crisis, Rob reflects on his social life and career. He makes same feeble attempts to fix them, meeting a few entertaining characters along the way, but mostly mopes and obsesses over music.
Lyrics, melodies, musicians and genres are his codes for discussing people he doesn’t like and problems he’d rather not face. He lives in his head, writing relationships like songs instead of experiencing them. His accounts of events are imbued with the exhibitionist melodrama of much popular music; he revels in the culture of glamorized depression surrounding love songs.
Except, rather than containing them in an album, he turns his narrations “into life, which is much messier, and more time-consuming, and leaves nothing for anybody to whistle.”
Rob feels like the entire world is trying to shut him up, and he’s largely right. He spends the course of the novel shuffling in and out of his outdated record shop, making small talk with friends who aren’t actually friends, and sulking over his ex-girlfriend Laura — who ultimately gets back together with him because she doesn’t have the energy to deal with singlehood after her father’s death. One gets the feeling Hornby set out to make the point that life can’t unfold as romantically as fairy tales and daydreams. But instead of being realistic, the plot succumbs to a sad view of reality based on desperation and settling.
Some of High Fidelity is astute and humorous, and the narrator’s droning is satirical – he talks about the importance of “self-conscious ironic detachment” in social interactions — though excessive.
The novel is a quick, sometimes entertaining read. The pages don’t beg for turning, but they ask politely enough to persuade a reader with nothing else to do. Its popularity is partially due to music fanatics who relate to Rob’s obsessive-compulsive documenting of favorite artists, albums, etc.
Still, most of the scenarios are hard to care about. The characters are underdeveloped, except the overdeveloped, insecure protagonist. The climax of his life occurs when a journalist from an unknown magazine asks about his top five albums. He revises his response nonstop during the interview and calls three times afterward to redo the list entirely.
High Fidelity also has been praised for its exploration of gender dynamics. But Rob’s musings on such issues are incredibly shallow (which doesn’t come as a surprise: Hornby once wrote for Cosmopolitan). His discussions of gender roles stop just short of critiquing them. Laura’s best friend Liz, who becomes the antagonist —because Rob antagonizes her — is “one of those paranoid feminists,” he complains. But after 300 pages of Rob objectifying the women in his life and whimpering about how they disrespect him, Liz’s paranoid delusional voices start to sound more like the voice of reason.
Rob ultimately realizes he will never find a woman who describes him with the words he hears in ballads. This is a valid point. But he and Laura go to the opposite extreme, sticking with each other because they can’t get anyone better and want distraction from their worries. High Fidelity ends on a note of hope: perhaps Rob will finally get his shit together. But it’s doubtful. The way his mother suggests that her 36-year-old son is finally growing up is cringe-inducing, not heart-warming. At the end, it’s easy to picture Rob’s entire history repeating itself, given the unproductive nature of his thoughts. His surroundings have changed, but he has not, and the reader has not.