high fidelity

Rob Fleming’s top 5 books:    

  1. Cash by Johnny Cash;
  2. Snow Crash by Neil Stevenson;
  3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig;
  4. The Trouser Press Guides to Rock
  5. and “I don’t know, probably something by Kurt Vonnegut.”

Nick Hornby gave me my all-time favourite icebreaker. Imagine you’re at a live-music bar in the early naughties and someone comes up and asks you:  ‘what’s your all time, top five [insert cool, pop-culture thing]?’ It’s hard to resist giving your opinion, right? Also, this icebreaker had the added bonus of referencing the cult film High Fidelity, which is worth at least fifty street-cred points.

I’m going to have to stop here and make an embarrassing admission. I didn’t know High Fidelity was a book until I saw it in my friend’s bookshelf last year. Naturally I was very excited and had to read it, and it was short enough to consume in one day (sorry Jen, I’ll return it soon, I promise).

It was hard to read High Fidelity without visions of all of those Cusacs (who I love) and Jack Black (who I really don’t love, sorry), that guy who played Dick (?), and also the second most attractive woman on the planet: Catherine Zeta Jones. But this isn’t a review about the film. Or the brand-new television series, which I obviously haven’t watched because even though there is a little Lisa Bonet, there are no Cusacs…

This is a book review, about Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which I was ‘shook’ to realise was published in 1995. We have come a long way in twenty-five years, haven’t we? We as a species, we as a gender, we as users of technology. Maybe we haven’t. I still think I could name half-a-dozen men who currently aspire to be like, if not go out of their way to imitate, Hornby’s protagonist Rob Fleming. In fact, I was thinking about how old-school (and by virtue of that, ‘indie’) vinyls were, when I stumbled upon this article, where the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) says that “the revenue generated from vinyl sales would outstrip both CDs and digital downloads at some point this year.” Hello, what? Then I found out that even Tay-Tay has released her music on records, and now I just don’t know what to think.

Anyway, I digress…

For those who have managed not to know the High Fidelity storyline – Fleming is fresh out of a long-term relationship with Laura, and he goes to great effort to convince himself that he is fine with this (even though he’s obviously devastated and beginning to question his entire life’s trajectory because of it). He owns a record store called Championship Vinyl (which somehow doesn’t automatically make him super cool or popular – I don’t buy it) and employs two other social pariahs, Barry and Dick. He is a retired DJ, and a self-obsessed, vinyl collecting, alcoholic with a penchant for listing his top five of everything. I wouldn’t think he was attractive, but I secretly know he looks like John Cusack so…


So Fleming decides to visit his top five ex-girlfriends (ranked by their emotional impact – those “were the ones that really hurt”) to determine why he can’t seem to maintain a relationship, why he was “doomed to be left”. And also, to do that thing like how you go to your high-school reunion just to see how badly everyone else’s life has turned out – this goes on for the first twenty-two of thirty-five chapters.

I have two main critiques of High Fidelity. Firstly, I’m obviously not cool enough, and reading this book made me acutely aware of this. I mean, where he could just say ‘oh dear, look at my poor life choices,’ Hornby writes this:

“In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.” (p. 105-6)

My second critique is that nothing even happens in this book. Hornby tricked me into thinking that perhaps Fleming had been enlightened throughout his pilgrimage-of-exes, but actually I think that it just sort of ends where it begins. I think he is more interested in Fleming’s obsessive inner voice than in writing any conventionally thrilling storyline, and I think this is also part of what makes his writing so great for screen-media. Here’s a snapshot into the protagonist’s mind:

“‘Have you got any soul?’ a woman asks the next afternoon. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.” (p. 59)

Most of the characters are awkward, insular, a bit rude and everything else you could expect from British, music-nerds in the 90s (I mean, I think). But I should mention some really well-formed female characters: I admire Marie De Salle for not being a hopeless female and for being liberated (although this is mostly attributed to her being American), Liz is the good friend we all need, Laura is kicking her career goals, and to be honest, Charlie is my ultimate ‘goals’.

Hornby is dry and hilarious, and reading High Fidelity is every bit as good as watching the film. Read this book if you like rockstar biographies, if you collect vinyls, or if you like calling your friends horrible names even through they’re the only friends you’ve got. Aww heck, also read it if you’ve got an afternoon free, it will only take a few hours.

I give High Fidelity 4 out of 5 Cusacs siblings (I’m keeping John… or Joan… haven’t decided).

I stole my copy from my friend’s bookshelf, but you can buy it here.

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