A Long Way Down, which came out in March, is the fourth of Nick Hornby’s books to reach the big screen.
First there was the semi-autobiographical Fever Pitch, in which Colin Firth played a fanatical Arsenal supporter. (An American version was also released featuring Drew Barrymore and the Boston Red Sox.) Then came High Fidelity, in which music-lover Rob reflects on a string of failed relationships. About A Boy featured the laddish Will, played by Hugh Grant, who befriends a young boy with a troubled home life. Now A Long Way Down presents an unlikely foursome as they contemplate suicide. With subjects like these, it’s little wonder Hornby is known for his dry, dark humour.
I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s writing. I admire his understated, self-deprecating wit. I like his wry observations about the seemingly trivial details of human relationships and family life. I appreciate the insight he offers into the psyche of a certain brand of bumbling nineties males. I love the way that he handles heavy topics with a relaxed, cheerful and poignant tone that feels utterly appropriate. I’m not the only one to praise his so-called invisible style, which is often described as being ‘deceptively simple’. There is, of course, a good dose of bad language, adultery, obsessiveness and family breakdown in his novels. But what else would you expect from a writer committed to exploring the emotional and social responsibilities of 21st-century individuals?
Hornby returns repeatedly to the same question: to what extent are people entitled to live selfish lives? His characters make various attempts to work out the answer to this question. In About A Boy, Will is determined to do as he pleases and disprove the idea that ‘no man is an island’. David and Katie in How To Be Good find themselves in all kinds of moral quandaries as they struggle to live selflessly. The characters in A Long Way Down consider cutting their ties altogether. But, try as they might, Hornby’s characters cannot seem to isolate themselves from the world, and the people, around them. They’re constantly drawn back to relationships and community.
Resorting to religion
Hornby’s website features an interview in which he responds to the question, ‘How vital a force is religion in contemporary culture?’ He claims: ‘Most contemporary Western writers are a pretty godless lot, myself included, so religion plays less of a part in contemporary fiction than perhaps it should, when you think about what kind of a role it plays in contemporary life’.
His novels do make vague attempts to engage with the idea of spirituality and organised religion in a godless culture. In How To Be Good, the Christian faith is enacted as a ‘sad, exhausted, defeated’ duty. In Juliet, Naked, one of the characters claims that religion is supposed to make you ‘love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions’. However, great art somehow seems more capable of performing this task. Perhaps art is, in some cases, a kind of religion?
In fact, in one of Hornby’s early short stories, faith is defined as ‘one simple thought that renders everything else in life temporarily insignificant’. Whether a religion, a hobby, a career, a musician, a football team, a love affair, or children, faith is just some kind of all-consuming idea.
Hornby does seem drawn to the idea that Christianity ‘might be used to assist thought’. It might, he suggests, help us to consider ‘who we are and what we’re doing here and how we intend to negotiate the difficulties and tragedies that are unavoidably a part of being human’. At times he even seems slightly nostalgic for the seriousness of Christian thought, quoting Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going: ‘And that much never can be obsolete, / Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.’
In his own life, Hornby finds it hard to escape the emotional narratives of Christianity. When his youngest son was troubled by the death of pop star Michael Jackson, he found himself relying on the language of faith. He said: ‘The terrible thing is how quickly one resorts to religion. I have staunch atheistic principles, but the moment Jesse became upset, I’m going, “It’s alright, don’t worry. Michael Jackson’s gone to heaven” ’. Yet elsewhere he claims to be repelled by the Christian idea of the afterlife. It seems that, for Hornby, religion is something which may have emotional benefits at particular moments in life, regardless of whether or not it is true.
One of the characters in How To Be Good says: ‘I don’t believe in Heaven, or anything. But I want to be the kind of person that qualifies for entry anyway. Do you understand?’. You have to wonder how closely Hornby would align himself with this view, and how strongly it would resonate with many of his readers.
Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com