High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995)


Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity came out in 1995, when I still resolutely read only genre fiction, and thus although I heard of it as a popular novel that was being made into a movie and so forth, I never read it. I have finally done so, and while it was interesting, I did not enjoy much about it. It is very much of its time, a sort of ‘lad lit’ about men who refuse to grow up, men for whom women are alien creatures to be manipulated into providing sex and companionship and validation. Rob, the protagonist, reminds me of many men I knew in the mid-90s; he wears all black, works half-heartedly at running a record shop, and is an obsessive fan of ‘good’ pop music — that ‘good’ is in the quotes because it is not as though Rob has an aesthetic which is shared with the reader, he knows what he likes and he uses his opinions as ways to judge who is worthy and who is not. The unworthy he mocks; the worthy he half-befriends, but he is always waiting for them to fall from grace, and even more so he is always waiting to fall from their grace. For Rob and his friends, what a person consumes is who they are, taste is self, and those with bad taste are inherently bad people.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Rob navigates his life based entirely on these kinds of judgements. Reviewing his various failed relationships, he claims that people “run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.” That certainty that people are commodities, objectively comparable with one another and able to be labelled and traded around, is at the heart of the book, and while Hornby makes some effort to question it with an excellent dinner party scene in which Rob really enjoys spending time with a couple only to discover that they have terrible taste in music, on the whole this view is allowed to stand. Indeed, when we finally hear Laura, Rob’s most recent girlfriend, speak at some length, she shares the same point of view; she is dating Rob not for who he is now, but because he has “potential as a human being,” and she hopes “to bring it out.” It is perhaps not an unusual worldview, but it makes my skin crawl.

The novel is not without its pleasures; Hornby is a funny writer, and I did have the sense now and again that he realised how limited his narrator was, that he was telling a story about Rob rather than voicing his own cultural point of view. When the women in the novel begin to speak it is more interesting, although I have my doubts about Hornby’s sense of women’s interiority. Still, in the end I found Rob to be yet another privileged white boy throwing little tantrums because he feels entitled to pleasure without effort, and while there is nothing amiss in writing a novel about such a person, I have known enough men like this in my own life that I do not gain anything by reading about one.