Nick Hornby’s How to be Good

Over the last three years, I’ve made an assidious attempt to avoid Nick Hornby’s novels. I’m not entirely sure why this is – after all I rather enjoyed the movie version of High Fidelity (if you’re a reader of this blog you can see why I relate to people who think in song titles and are obsessed with making top 5 / 10 lists) and for all my general snobbishness, I’ve never really been against popular fiction when it comes to books (witness my avid reading of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels). But something, some obscure instinct has always warned me to stay away from Hornby. Then a week back a friend insisted that I try him out, and because she’s someone who’s judgements on books I trust (usually), I did.

Sometimes I think I should learn to trust my instincts more.

Not that How to be Good is a bad novel, exactly – it certainly has its moments. The central conceit is intriguing – the book is the story of a woman who in unhappy with her marriage and wishes her husband could be less angry about everything; and then one day her wish is granted and her husband suddenly becomes the kind of person who’s too good to be true – caring, soft-spoken, so committed to social causes that he won’t just talk about them, he’ll actually act – and she discovers that she hates that almost as much. This notion lends itself to some hilariously funny scenes, and some of the writing is truly brilliant – the observations acute, the pop culture references exactly right (there’s this amazing section where Hornby lists all the people the husband and his friend think are losers / wankers – it’s a stunning, laugh-out loud list).

Unfortunately, all these scattered nuggets of brilliance completely fail to come together into anything approximating an interesting novel. One reason for this is that Hornby is, quite simply, not funny enough. His idea of writing funny dialogue seems to be to take an inherently funny situation and to then keep prolonging it with meaningless banter until the audience finally gets tired of the joke. The result is that episodes that could leave you gasping for breath if they’d been condensed into a few lines or a single paragraph, now go on for pages and pages, leaving you feeling faintly annoyed. There are few surprises here – oh, there may be a few plot twists you didn’t expect, but most of the jokes can be seen coming a mile off and the tone of the book changes so little that you could easily read, say page 85 to 150 of the book and get the general feel of all 300 pages. Worse, Hornby seems to feel the compulsion to be ‘serious’ and ‘deep’ every now and then, with the result that just when you feel he’s starting to find his comic rhythm, he goes off into some vapid meditation on the nature of life.

And that’s the second reason the book doesn’t work – because as anything remotely approaching a serious meditation on the nature of goodness the book is a total failure. One gets the feeling, reading the book, that Hornby has some visionary idea of making this an insightful exploration of the perils of morality in the modern world. While the basic storyline certainly affords the opportunity for such an exploration, however, Hornby completely fails to take it. Instead of showing the reborn husband as a practical, serious minded individual looking for intelligent ways to make a difference to the world (and therefore exploring the wife’s reaction when threatened by someone who is genuinely more ‘good’ than her) Hornby chooses to turn the husband into a clueless do-gooder, with the result that the whole book seems less like an honest exploration of the issues of right and wrong, and more like the diatribe of someone trying to push his own personal point of view on you. It seems to me that Hornby lacks the distance from his main character (the wife) to make this a truly compelling book. So anxious is he to protect her from being shown up, that he either turns everyone she meets into a caricature, or simply refuses to explore the identities of the more peripheral characters in the story (who are, quite frankly, the most interesting).

Bottomline: How to be Good is an amusing enough way to kill the time if there are no decent movies playing in your neighbourhood theatre and you’re feeling too lazy to walk to the library. If it’s the only book you’re likely to read this month, though, you probably want to pick something, well, better.