Book Review: High Fidelity (1995) by Nick Hornby

Rating: ★★½ (out of 4)

I bought High Fidelity about a year ago on the recommendation of fellow Earn This writer Grant. Earlier this week, my computer crashed. I was too lazy to fix it that night, so I grabbed the first book I saw on my bookshelf and started reading. It happened to be Fidelity.

I was hooked right off the bat: Hornby displays a remarkable, conversational tone that compels you to keep reading. It didn’t bother me that not too much happens in the plot, which covers a pretty unremarkable span of about two weeks. The novel is a brisk 323 pages, chronicling the protagonist Rob’s break-up blues.

What did bother me, though, was the mopey attitude of the central character. The book details the protagonist’s thoughts to the point that High Fidelity feels almost as much like a manifesto as it does a novel. And I couldn’t stand Rob’s mindset. He’s self-centered, whiny, spoiled — and no fun to read about.

What are enjoyable are the well-rounded supporting characters, pop-cultural specificity, and — most of all — distinct London vernacular. This was the first book that Hornby published, and it’s comfortably unconventional. The writing style and pacing feels unique but polished.

If only Rob wasn’t such a misanthrope. He’s so caught up in the breakup that drives the narrative — along with his “top 5” breakups ever — that it comes to define him, and it becomes almost dreadful to read at the lowest points. I almost had to stop reading during one section: Rob’s ex-longtime girlfriend, who just moved out, loses her father to a terminal illness. When it comes time for Rob to comfort her, all he can think about and talk about is whether the new guy she’s dating is invited to the funeral.

I can see how this situation could be funny. I don’t oppose the juxtaposition of the dark and the petty. In fact, one of my favorite scenes from The Fault In Our Stars, which I loved, makes a similar joke: A teenager with cancer has his eyes removed in surgery to save his life, making him blind, but when he wakes up, the first thing he does is complain about a recent breakup. It’s a hilarious scene that captures the brain’s ability to feel the wrong thing at the wrong time.

But the scene in High Fidelity just plays as miserable, and Rob is equally insufferable throughout the book. One big supposed turning point for him comes when he makes the downright extraordinary realization that part of his fear of commitment is because he’s afraid of losing someone once he’s fully invested in the relationship. No shit, Hornby — your character only implied as much every other page. Thanks for spelling it out, though.

And when Rob finally does turn the corner and make a commitment? Here is his stunning insight:

“If you got married to someone you know you love, and you sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things.”

That’s the powerful undercurrent of this book: Familiarity and practical laziness. It’s hardly inspiring, hardly thought-provoking.

Again, I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this book. I quite liked much of it. The characters are well-drawn, it’s funny, and it has a great voice. It effectively captures a specific psychology.  And maybe that’s what depressed me so much as I read the book: Its voice was so clear, so internally consistent, that I saw a depressing bizarro version of myself in it.

It’s like: this is what I might have been if a few things hadn’t gone my way. If I hadn’t escaped with my college degree (and it was up in the air for quite awhile), if I hadn’t gotten lucky meeting the right girl at the right time, if my family was just a little bit less supportive — maybe this would be me. I can see little nuggets of myself in the character, from the obsession with lists and ranking, to the reading too much into someone’s personality based on the music/movies/etc. that they like. It’s almost disturbing how much of myself  is in this miserable character.

And so I’m stuck between admiring the author’s method and disliking his content. I suppose the fact that the character’s behavior bothered me enough to remove me from the story is a mark against the writer, or maybe it’s the point entirely. It could just be there’s another layer that I failed to connect with. The book is British and a dark comedy, so maybe the stuff I found depressing is actually funnier than I give it credit for. (On the other hand, I loved the UK Office.)

I walked away from the book feeling worse about myself and more confused, rather than enlightened — even as I admired and enjoyed much of it. So I’ll settle with some cognitive dissonance and give it two and half stars.

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

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