Thursday, January 12, 2006


10-pages-in book review: A Long Way Down

One of the best parts of the holidays is having a little bit of extra time for reading, once the chaos that is Christmas abates. By sheer luck, my turn in the queue for Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down came up after a wait of several weeks just in time for me to indulge in a little holiday reading, and I’m just far enough in to offer the latest in my ongoing series of 10-pages-in book reviews .

Even if you don’t recognize Nick Hornby’s name, you’ll recognize the titles of some of his books that have been made into movies: Fever Pitch , High Fidelity , and About A Boy. I have to admit, I’ve never read any of them, but High Fidelity is one of my favourite movies - mostly because I have a thing for John Cusack. But when I realized that the same person had written all these books, I had to take him out for a spin and check out his goods for myself. And that’s how a literary crush is born.

But back, for a moment, to the book. A Long Way Down is the story of four people whose lives, on an ordinary day, would likely never intersect. But this is no ordinary place, and no ordinary day. It is, in fact, New Year’s Day, and our four protagonists meet on the roof of a 15-story building in London, where each of them have come to commit suicide.

The story is told, by turns, through each of their eyes in a first-person narrative. Hornby does a wonderful job of making each character’s voice distinctive, so you never have to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to see who is speaking.

Martin is a smart, bitter C-list celebrity, a former breakfast television host who has become more infamous than famous after getting caught having a fling with a fifteen year old. He says of his suicidal tendencies: “On New Year’s Eve, it felt as though I’d be saying goodbye to a dim form of consciousness and a semi-functioning digestive system - all the indications of a life, certainly, but none of the content. I don’t even feel sad, particularly. I just feel very stupid, and very angry.”

JJ is an American who had aspirations to be a rock star but finds himself delivering pizzas. He quotes Oscar Wilde but can’t utter an entire sentence without using fuck as an adjective or an adverb. He tells us, “The trouble with my generation is that we all think we’re fucking geniuses. Making something isn’t good enough for us, and neither is selling something, or teaching something; we have to be something. It’s our inalienable right as citizens of the twenty-first century. If Christina Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can’t I? Where’s mine, huh?”

Jess is a wild and unstable young woman. I know her type so well, and yet am having a hard time describing her. She inhabits the polar opposite of my life of stability, sunshine and acceptance. She is shallow and thoughtless, and says whatever comes into her head. When another character mentions being engaged, Jess is shocked by the concept: “You did? Really? Okay, but what living people get engaged? I’m not interested in people out of the Ark. I’m not interested in people with, with like shoes and raincoats and whatever.” People with shoes and raincoats don’t deserve respect in Jess’ world.

And finally, there is Maureen, a middle-aged woman who has spent the last 20 years of her life as a single mother caring for a severely disabled son who can neither move independently nor communicate with her. Her innocent naivety born of inexperience is a foil for Jess’s overly well-informed naivety. In considering JJ, Maureen thinks, “without knowing anything about him [I thought] that he might have been a gay person, because he had long hair and spoke American. A lot of Americans are gay people, aren’t they? I know they didn’t invent gayness, because that was the Greeks. But they helped bring it back into fashion.”

(Sorry for the extensive quoting, but really, I could go on for days pulling lovely little bits out of this book.)

Their lives intersect on the roof, where each has come to commit suicide – some with more forethought than others. Distracted by their shared misery – misery being about the only thing they have in common – the unlikely quartet find that the moment for suicide has passed. Suspended in a strange limbo of thwarted suicidal intent, detached from the painful reality of their lives at least until the sun comes up, they band together for a kind of quest, and set off into the darkness of New Year’s Eve to find the fellow who has broken Jess’ heart. Really. When you read the book, you’ll get it. By turns madcaply comic and painfully insightful, it’s a moving and unforgettable story.

I officially have a crush on Nick Hornby now, in much the same way I have a crush on Douglas Coupland. (Is it weird that I don’t have much patience for chick lit, but am developing a thing for lad lit?) Hornby and Coupland are, in fact, very similar writers. They have the same ear for dialogue and eye for quirky characters, and both have their finger firmly placed on the pulse of modern culture. They both use humour and pathos to evoke how it feels to be alive and watching the world in the twenty-first century. Where Coupland’s work clearly echoes his own Canadian-ness, Hornby’s book is infused with what he referred to in a Guardian interview as “English miserablism”. I love this term – it captures perfectly the distinctive flavour of this novel and its characters.

I haven’t been this excited about a book since The Time Traveler’s Wife. Hornby is such an excellent writer that I'm disappointed I haven't discovered him before now. I could go on – there’s so much more to say. Except I have to get over to the library Web site and reserve a few more of Hornby’s books, because I’m going to need a really good book when this one is done.