Nick Hornby,
High Fidelity
(Penguin, 1995; Riverheard, 2005)

After modestly enjoying Stephen Frears' theatrical adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I was overcome with the feeling that the story would be told even better in print. So, like any person stuck in such a conundrum, I took it upon myself to test my hypothesis, even though in the back of my head I knew I had to be right.

I knew I had to be right for two main reasons:
A) There were bits in the movie that either felt rushed or simply would work better in a novel.
B) Over 99 percent of film adaptations -- a made-up statistic, but many would agree -- fail to live up to their literary companions.

OK, I was wrong. Hornby's novel is no good. And this is not just in comparison to the 2000 film, but to most other novels I have read as well. I hardly looked forward to reading the book following my commute home from work, and certainly breathed a strong sigh of relief when it was finally over. Of course, I could have given up long before the end, because I already knew how the story wraps itself up thanks to the movie. But that, unfortunately, isn't my style.

Now, why continue reading something I simply wasn't enjoying? I guess I figured at some point High Fidelity would turn a corner. Who knows, maybe Rob Fleming would transform himself into a more likeable literary figure? Or a subplot deleted from the film's final cut would turn out to be a fun piece of reading? I'd accept anything, really. But alas, it never happened.

Hornby's novel, set in London, focuses on a record store owner named Rob whose girlfriend, Laura, left him -- for very solid reasons I might add. The book chronicles his adventures at work with stiff-as-a-board Dick and fun-loving, free spirit Barry, and tracks Rob's efforts to win Laura back.

My biggest beef with the novel was the fact that it is told in the first person by Rob. On top of this, he is a very despicable, slobbish guy, which made the book's main action -- Rob's pursuit of Laura -- that much harder to swallow. (Because throughout most of it, I would have rather had Laura smarten herself up a bit, remember why she dumped Rob in the first place and then fail to allow Rob to convince her to take him back). On top of this, Rob narrates the story while breaking the fourth wall constantly, as if High Fidelity is nothing more than his personal diary, which he fills up with pretty much whatever he feels like discussing.

I also could have done without the novel's unofficial prologue, where Rob lays out his top five break-ups, which are told in chronological order and are supposedly there to convince readers that since Rob's dating record isn't that strong, he could really do without another troubled relationship (i.e. the Laura situation). This section, at 30-plus pages, felt rather unnecessary and could indeed be skipped. Rob later reconnects with each of the women much later in the novel, but nothing stated in the prologue is of importance there.

However, I do not wish to knock Hornby's style in this space, because my problems with the story were never a matter of style. Hornby in fact is a very fine writer, and I may indulge in another of his stories sometime down the road. High Fidelity was simply too much Rob too much of the time. On film, director Frears made it bearable, but in print Hornby failed to follow suit.

review by
Eric Hughes

23 August 2008

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