f o r m u l a
There's a formula to these things. If you want to write a pop novel, a pop culture novel, you need to bury the narrative inside some serious thematic element—like the fashion magazine in Chuck Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters, the geek tech in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, or in the case of High Fidelity popular music and top five lists. Your narrator, he's neurotic and direct and accidentally witty, your supporting cast is eccentric and well-drawn, your slang is novel enough to be interesting. You write only in the present tense and in the first or second person. You name it something appropriate, some sort of a cultural reference (maybe a song title, maybe even an Elvis Costello song—like with Bret Easton Ellis and Less Than Zero).
Now when you make a breakup movie, the first thing you need is rain. Lots of rain. And you need music to go, well, mostly with the rain. You cast a bitter man-hater as the girl's best friend, the comedic type inclined toward good-natured ribbings as the guy's best friend, the overly-verbose neurotic as the guy, and the generally-idealized woman as the girl. You spend about seventy minutes on the breakup, and about twenty on the getting-back-together. The credits roll atop a romantic embrace, and a guitar ballad kicks in as the theater empties.
High Fidelity is the debut novel of Nick Hornby, as well as a very good film directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film). Named for an Elvis Costello song about infidelity (and communication), and also in reference to Hi-fi recordings, it is a story of sequential breakups, told through the streaming monologue of a thirtyish depressive named Rob Fleming (Rob Gordon in the film). Rob is an independent record-store owner, former DJ, and all-around neurotic. His most recent girlfriend, Laura, has just left him, and his response is to compile a top-five list of his most painful breakups—mostly just to make it clear to Laura that she doesn't quite make that list. It's with this list that the story starts, a list of breakups that we soon find weren't really all that horrific.
t h e m a l e e g o
What High Fidelity is about, really, is the male sexual ego. It's about these ingrained obsessions, these potentially insignificant details that we treat as fundamental. There's a point in this story where Rob asks Laura if the sex with her new boyfriend is better than it was with him. "Jesus Christ, Rob," she responds. "Is that really what's bothering you?" Of course it is. And of course she can't understand why that is—neither can he. It just is.
As he searches through his past, searches through himself, Rob does come to certain insights. Nothing really new, but rather the standard urge toward growing up that all characters in fiction who are immature at their introduction are forced to attempt. This is called "character development," and it is mandatory. This is not important. The plot line is not important. There's the beginning, the middle, the end, and the character arcs passing through them, and none of this really means anything beyond formula.
The saving grace to this book, and this film, is the establishment of character. Rob is very much an honest male narrator, in a way that few writers have been able to capture. Women may find the narrative a little alien, a little obtuse, a little exaggerated; men will simply nod their heads. John Cusack, who plays Rob in the film, is a bit younger and smarter than the character I imagined while reading the novel, but he captures the essential quirks and weaknesses of the character, and his narration is excellent. Rob's two subordinates, Dick and Barry, are drawn from the pool of specialty-store clerks that I think most of us will recognize. Dick is the frantically-shy young man who buries himself in records to shield himself from people (much like the Steve Buschemi character in Ghost World), and he is played in probably the best-acted role in the film, by Todd Louiso. Barry is the blowhard elitist, the man who pretends to know everything about his chosen field, who bitterly resents anyone who shows any possibility of knowing more than him, and who relentlessly abuses anyone who appears to know less. He is played, very well, by Jack Black. Laura, played by Iben Hjejle, is a fairly whole character, although a bit too neat and unencumbered (especially considering her past with Rob). Unfortunately, the character of Ian (played, as well as it could be, by Tim Robbins), the rebound boyfriend for Laura, is an inhuman cliché, a horrible New Age, actualized male whom only a man more immature and clueless than Rob (who is, I hope, far more clueless and immature than Hornby) would believe a woman with any respect would date, much less live with.
a d a p t a t i o n
This film and this book are very similar, so similar in fact that I couldn't see any reason to review them separately. The story has been transplanted from London to Chicago for the film, a few notable sections have been dropped (one of the top-five breakups, for example, and a good deal of Rob's sexual self-reflection). The main difference, however, is that the film is a bit better than the book. Hornby writes quite adequately, and in a style that is interesting and current. He's comfortable talking in a general monologue directed, at times, at Laura, and at other times directed squarely at the reader. He presents lists on the page (top five lists, of course) as if his manuscript were a journal for his narrator rather than one long monologue. His narrator cuts between flashbacks and the present, his own internal world and the external one he attempts to describe, quite abruptly, as if reality has cut in on his session of daydreaming.
He writes, in other words, in a very contemporary style. But beyond being an enjoyable read, this book has very little real depth. It is a light read, and it does not stay with the reader once completed.
Hornby writes scenes that are almost all more effective visually, and it is due to his influence (and the superb cast) that this film is as good as it is. Conversations and juxtapositions of characters hold more weight in the film than they do (or could) in Hornby's words. The viewer holds more empathy for Rob, for Laura, and a better understanding of Dick and Barry, than the reader possibly can.
The film plays with past conventions—the rain, the girls-best-friend, the resolution, accepting and then undercutting them. Liz (played by John Cusack's perennial co-star, his sister Joan), storms into Rob's record store at one point, calls him an "asshole," and then storms back out. This is to be expected. But, later on, she gives him a bit of advice to help him win Laura back. She's not the man-hating sister in Jerry Maguire, she's not icy and she's not one-dimensional. The resolution of the story is supposed to be, always, "do they or don't they"—do they get back together or not. That's what we're expecting, followed by credits and rushing out of the theater with the girl who dragged us along (and who damned well better be grateful). But "do they or don't they" isn't really important in this one. The resolution is really about a decision, on the part of Rob, about himself and his own life. This film, this isn't the sort that the girl's going to drag you to, this is the one you go to see on your own good judgment.
High Fidelity (2000)
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Nick Hornby (book)
Rob Gordon: John Cusack
Laura Lydon: Iben Hjejle
Dick: Scott Louiso
Barry: Jack Black
Ian Raymond: Tim Robbins
Liz Gordon: Joan Cusack
Marie DeSalle: Lisa Bonet
Sarah Kendrew: Lili Taylor
Charlie Nicholson: Catherine Zeta-Jones
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
321 pages, copyright © 1995 by Nick Hornby
ISBN: 1-57322-551-7 (trade paperback)