Thoughts on "High Fidelity"

I am about halfway through the novel "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby. (It was made into a movie a few years back.) I do not think I will read much farther, if at all. The book itself is exceptionally well crafted, is detailed and honest and unflinchingly realistic, et cetera. The only problem is that it makes me want to slit my wrists. I have had to force myself to read the last few chapters, and those who know me know that's saying something...

Meanwhile, the reviewers are enthusiastic. That's fine, but I want to comment on one aspect in particular of their reviews:

New Yorker: "hilarious"

Spin: "offhand humor"

London Sunday Times: "Hilariously accurate."

Financial Times: "very funny"

And so on. It is true that the book is written with a particular sense of humor. Yet to my ear, this humor is very different from hilarity. It is cynical; it is sarcastic; it is vicious, even. The reader is invited not to laugh, but to smile knowingly. We are invited to enjoy the image of a man so incredibly shallow and self-centered that he damages the lives of others with his thoughtlessness and then complains that they have left him with sexual neuroses; a man who enjoys sex most of all because "I can lose myself in it entirely.... I could forget who I was, the time of day, who I was with."

I can understand why such fiction can appeal to some people; it is, after all, an examination of a very real type of modern person, in great detail. What I don't understand is how someone could find it not merely funny, but hilarious. Many of the reviewers spoke of recognizing themselves in passages of the book; sometimes I did the same, but that did not make the book funny for me, only honest.

If I can be permitted to speculate wildly for a time, I think much of the difference could be that I am judging the narrator, while other readers are not. I cannot get away from the narrator's ultimate cruelty and thoughtlessness, and reading the book from that angle makes it an unrelentingly depressing read. Others, perhaps, are simply luxuriating in the thrill of recognition, of confrontation with Self and the Absurd, without the discomfort of confronting the essentially flawed nature of the narrator, and by extension themselves.

Whether that is true or not, I am very much disturbed that the artsy set finds this book hilarious. Well-written, certainly. Important, possibly. Hilarious? My stomach churns at the thought.

[UPDATE July 12: Just finished the book. See my final thoughts (much more complimentary) here. I still don't think much of the reviewers, however.]

1 comment:

Josh Cohen said...

I didn't find the novel hilariously-funny either. I liked it a great deal, but I didn't laugh out loud. At least, I don't think I did.

I saw the film first, though, and I have to say the story makes a lot more sense being set in England, rather than in Chicago in the late 90s or early 00s.

It isn't a happy story. The best ones aren't. But it was a great role for John Cusack to play.