15 December 2005

Nick Hornby: Off the Fiction Island... For Now

It's exam week in my casa and I've been desperate for a little literary distraction. I tore through Karyn Bosnak's I-canceled-my-debt-with-the-Internet memoir SAVE KARYN last week -- it's not just entertaining, it keeps me off stress shopping! -- and this week my friend Mel lent me Nick Hornby's latest novel A LONG WAY DOWN, which I saw all over bookstores this summer but never picked up.

One of the first books I read this year was Hornby's collection of essays THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE, a compilation from his columns in anti-snark mag The Believer. Hornby's column chronicles the books he receives each month and the ones he actually reads, along with facts about those books and about his life in general (and, not occasionally, the confession that as a successful author he has both money and time that most people don't have). The columns are charming and actually inspired me to keep my own lists by month of books going in and out. (I also use mine as a damper when I'm tempted to One-Click a cartload of books from Amazon. I mean, sometimes it works...)

Well, as far as finals week went A LONG WAY DOWN did the trick as far as distracting me. But the story? As my theatre professor say, it's precious. The book got some terrible early reviews (I think this one was my favorite, although I disagree on SONGBOOK) but I gave it a shot anyway... and was, really, quite disappointed. I was willing to forgive a certain contrivance in the set-up (four would-be suicides meet at the top of a building in North London and attempt to straighten out each others' lives), but it never left Twee City on its way to believable. The funny moments (like the invention of a miraculous vision for the tabloids) are outweighed by the tiresome, the unbelievable and the lazily written. And I found that strange, because THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE is jammed with minor tender moments from Hornby's life, which (with little to do with his reading life) still enliven the narrative. Is this the same Hornby who wrote HIGH FIDELITY?

The Hornby case is troubling because it seems to suggest that writers can't be masters of both fiction and nonfiction (at least not simultaneously), which I guess is what I've been feeling a little bit lately. I started out writing only fiction (well, along with my journal, whose version of the truth is occasionally questionable) but these days when I'm in front of a computer what comes out is usually some form of nonfiction. I still read as much fiction as I used to, but I feel like now I read it as a reviewer, not as a connoisseur. Besides NaNoWriMo, I don't write much fiction any more. I miss it, but I'm not sure if I can go back.

I'm not saying Nick Hornby is feeling the same way, but if his last two books are any indication he may be at some kind of crossroads. I don't know if Hornby should stop writing fiction or if he needs to take a break from nonfiction in order to work on his fiction. I'd like to believe he can do both, but I'd rather one more POLYSYLLABIC SPREE than six more LONG WAY DOWNs. But whether that's true for me as well... I don't know.

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