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Lightweight but vastly entertaining
on March 3, 2003
I decided to give this book a read after seeing the excellent John Cusack film for the second time (and shame on you if you haven't seen it!). I wasn't sure what to expect of the novel, knowing as I did that, among other things, Cusack and director Stephen Frears had taken the liberty of relocating the story from London to Chicago. What other things might have been messed with?
Not much, as it turns out. Never in the history of book-to-film translations (with the possible exception of Fight Club) have there been fewer alterations and deviations from the novel than in the case of High Fidelity. This is aided, of course, by the fact that the book, in trade paperback, consists of a slim 323 double-spaced pages. The end result is that in the film, no important scenes are omitted, and hardly any characters got the axe either. The flip side of the coin is that the book, as fiction, is a bit of a light lunch. Like the movie, the novel is narrated by Rob, the beleaguered owner of one of those wonderful out-of-the-way (translation: customer-free) used record stores, this one being named Championship Vinyl. After being abandoned by his pretty and smart girlfriend Laura for an aging, hawaiian-shirt- and ponytail-sporting, incense-burning New Age hipster named Ian, the perplexed Rob - who thinks in Billboard-style lists - goes on to tell us the stories behind his "all-time desert island top five" breakups, while in the present day desperately trying to win back his skeptical ex. Comedy ensues.
This sort of story's been done before, of course, but one of the neat little twists is the tour Hornby gives us of the musical culture, where respect is earned by stumping people with encyclopedic knowledge of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, and the undisguised contempt that the music elite, like the elites of all niche groups, express towards the everyday civilian. The pop culture at large permeates every facet of High Fidelity - certain passages don't make much sense unless you know what Rob means when he says, for instance, that someone reminds him of a character from Reservoir Dogs. This, of course, makes the book very much a novel of the 1990s - probably not something to be read twenty or thirty years from now - but unlike similar name-dropping books and movies, this novel is introspective about its own inseparable connection to the transitory. And this cuts to the heart of Rob's problems, because he's let the worship of the impermanent take over his life. "Do I listen to pop music because I'm miserable," he muses, "or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?" Like all mass-culture junkies, Rob mourns for the loss of old favorites while simultaneously trying to get his hands on the next big thing. So it is with his love life.
Rob could easily come off as a narcissistic jerk, but Hornby neatly pulls off the trick of making us see where he's been sabotaging his relationships with women with sympathy rather than scorn. And the mistakes Rob makes are the mistakes that many men have made, though perhaps not so hilariously. The book is short (another way of putting it, of course, is that it never outstays its welcome) and full of suitably quotable lines. The London setting really makes no difference to the story one way or another (though the British school system continues to confound me: for a while I was under the impression that the "sixth form" was akin to our sixth grade, and thus was in for a shock when Rob's youthful counterpart began indulging in heavy petting). As a comedy, High Fidelity is excellent, though as literature it's basically junk food; but for the eight or ten hours I was reading the book, I was fully under its spell. If we're being honest, how many other books can we say that about? I don't want to seem like I'm damning with faint praise: good comedy is harder by far than it looks, and even rarer is a book that leavens the humor with thoughtful characterization and crisp prose.