October 16, 2021

High Fidelity by Nicky Hornby

“When young boys dream of the future, they equally hold an idea of how they don’t want to turn out. Pictures of becoming one of those unshaven, long haired thirty-somethings, clad in Boon like black leather jackets and consumed by some fad of the 1960s occasionally hold their minds in fearful moments of contemplation. And to heap more frightening on the pile: to be single as well! Not only wilfully entombed and engrossed in some retrospective inner sanctum that you call your life, but undesired as well. In short: a sad bastard.

Such a forewarning character is close to the focus of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Rob Flemming is a thirty-something running an independent record shop in North London that deals in sixties and seventies in particular. Despite the quaint images that such a profession conjures up, the dusty hovel of a shop is hardly a success, flickering from mediocrity to dismal failure – reflective of Rob’s life in general and his relationships with women in specific. In fact the only thing that can be attributed any success in Rob’s life, is his all consuming passion – his music collection.

Being so enamoured with music, working in his own record shop is both a satiating and numbing experience for Rob. Together with his employees Barry and Dick, he passes most of his time away by sorting through the vinyl, talking music, making compilation tapes (on which he can wax lyrical) and preparing top fives. The latter being the medium of communication through which Rob, Barry and Dick and a fair proportion of all males favour to explain all aspects of their life. Rob explains that while other people hold opinions he just has top fives: top five best films, top five records, top five records to dance to, top five most memorable split-ups…

Which brings us to the one remaining dimension of Rob’s life, and that is his melancholy thoughts on relationships with members of the opposite sex. The book starts with Rob taking you through his (top five) most memorable split ups – all of which ended up with his rejection. Together he takes the reader through the well worn and vicarious path of teenage relationships, explaining that a great deal of his endeavours were fired up by the need to be seen to perform in front of the lads (here sex is something you do with boys – girls are just facilitators). The various rejections throughout Rob’s life demands his constant self-reflection over why he is so rejectionable – a problem which he resolves to understand by getting back in touch with all the girls in question.

The story culminates in his latest split-up Laura, a lawyer working in the city who amongst other reasons, leaves Rob for his stultifying nature. Consequently, Laura and Rob share many petty arguments – which are pretty funny to read. Most would find them childish but what such arguments really do is destroy the myth of an essential difference between the way adults and children behave. Rob then, is not so much a new lad, but a sad old bum with laddish sentiments. The narrative is also replete with many boyish observations on life that make one laugh in empathy. And other observations, such as this one on sex: ‘It’s hard to imagine, in fact, that the thrill of actually doing it will be any greater than the thrill of finding myself in a position to do it’. However he is also fairly open minded and humble. For example he was much in agreement with Laura’s decision to have an abortion on the basis that he would not be a good bet for a father: ‘if I’d got pregnant by me at the time, I would have had an abortion for exactly the same reasons….’.

Rob’s essential problem is that he is a bit of a drifter, a reflective drifter but a drifter nonetheless – and that he is unable to dig himself out of the holes which he often perceives himself to be in, nor to forge a new direction for himself. The result of the novel is then unsurprisingly, directionless. However, although it meanders from one place to another and comes to no great earth shattering conclusions, it is a highly amusing, if slightly unrealistic slice of how some men try to make sense of their lives. If you want something light for the train or for the sake of reading something light then it comes highly recommended. I’ll leave you with one of Rob’s most profound moments into the nature of music, ‘It seems to me that if you place music (and books probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the centre of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it as the finished product. You’ve got to pick at it, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again. Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realised.’

Nick Hornby
High Fidelity
Indigo Press
1997