Friday, March 31, 1995

REVIEW: High Fidelity
(by Nick Hornby, Gollancz)

WHAT really matters, agree the lads at Championship Vinyl, the ailing second hand record shop at the centre of Nick Hornby's debut novel, is what you like, not what you are like. The problem with this resolutely post-modern world view is that while the lads buy into it big-time, the babes ain't so sure. It comes as no surprise, then, that Rob Fleming, the owner of Championship Vinyl, high priest of home taping and all-time-top-five lists, has a problem with relationships.

Rob's past is defined by a series of women who have decided they can take no more of his listomania, his musical pedantry, and the way in which he constructs his identity through making compilation tapes. Of course, nobody here would ever express their concerns in these terms. Contemporary to the marrow, they prefer to speak about being fair, feeling terrible and "going through, you know, some kind of a what-does-it-all-mean thing".

This evasive language, in which self-obsession bumps thinking right out of the frame, is what, in the absence of plot, keeps Hornby's novel of pop and identity spinning around. High Fidelity is so insistent in its skirmishes with the shadow language of therapy and recovery, ("phychowank", as the narrator pithily puts it) that somehow we are distracted from the steely monotony of Rob's journey from bedsit to shop, shop to pub and pub to curry house.

Rob's latest "what-does-it-all mean thing" is precipitated by a new entry in his chart of all-time most memorable split-ups: Laura. The couple's relationship has just ended, unpleasantly. Worse still, Laura's new man is a New Man, fully versed in Bulgarian folk music and the talking cure. In a desperate effort to cope with rejection, Rob has decided to reorganise his record collection and call up all his ex-girlfriends, with the aim of sorting out this "love thing" once and for all.

There are perhaps more straightforward ways of coming to terms with ageing than calling up girls he once kissed in the playground, ceasing to make compilation tapes and talk to people instead, being among the more obvious. But Rob is happiest ignoring the alternatives. "Some people have opinions, I have lists," he declares with light-headed pride following a particularly humiliating Holland Park dinner party.

Rob has built in a little lagging between himself and other people and is determined to defend it. The problem with life is that people, particularly women, and even more particularly Laura, expect Rob to live it in real time. They want him to look at what it might be when stripped of Al Green's I'm So Tired of Being Alone, all three Godfather movies, Guy Clarke's entire back-catalogue, and everything that Solomen Burke ever recorded. They want him to ponder whether all this culture stuff might not just be leafy sticks, thrown dawn to disguise the dark pit of some nasty trap.

Rob's most consistent response to these demands has, up to his 36th birthday, been to sabotage his relationships with women, through his own meanness, sexual jealousy and bouts of cold-blooded low fidelity. In Rob's pop-fuelled crack-up, junking relationships is the only way of rehearsing for death.

Hornby's flair is for taking advantage of his character's splintered self-consciousness (Rob believes that "self-consciousness is man's worst enemy") to get a fix on some issues that might otherwise be too dauntingly complex. When Rob wonders whether he likes unhappy music because he is unhappy, or whether he is unhappy because he likes unhappy music, he might think he's chasing his own tail, but the rest of us know he has hold of the plug of his particular bath-tub.

As what they like and what they are like may be difficult to separate, Hornby's Londoners are condemned to engage only with what they like, forced to come together in a space created and colonised by songs, films and books. If these people want to stick together, Hornby finally seems to concede, they must admit the limitations of their relationships, and direct their attention towards sex, restaurants and records and not spend too much time contemplating the Other.

As a game-plan it is bleak, but functional. "I can sort of see how it's done," even Rob admits eventually.

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