High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)
An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel. I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up. I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire. I loved this novel. Loved it. The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?
The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura. The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups. This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her. Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much. Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense. It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen. The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.
Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl. Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally. His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it. He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia. Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past. Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music. He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words. Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.
I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go. This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel. Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship. I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence. He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest. Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators. He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face. The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment. One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels. Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship. There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.
Now, don’t get the wrong impression. Rob is far from perfect. He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical. He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours. He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it. But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much. Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely. This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.
Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character. It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them. I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time. Still, I highly recommend this book. It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope. High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.