Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down

Right at the end of Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, there's a scene where the main characters stand around staring at a Ferris Wheel for a while, and come to the conclusion that:

"It didn't look as though it was moving, but it must have been I suppose".

That's about as good a description of Hornby's latest novel as any I can offer. A Long Way Down is a meandering, pointless and exceedingly dull novel that confuses cliche with profundity, and whiny unattractiveness with depth of character. That bit with the Ferris Wheel, for instance, is the most 'poetic' moment in the book (you know: it's a Metaphor for the Ferris Wheel of Life, etc.). Shudder!

Here's the story: It's New Year's Eve. Four unhappy people – a TV celebrity whose life has been destroyed by scandal, a mother with a disabled son, a failed rock star and an extremely confused teenager – all strangers to each other, have decided to kill themselves, and make their lonely way to an appropriate high-rise to do the deed. High-rise buildings in London being in short supply, of course, they all end up bumping into each other up there, and decide that before they leap into nothingness they might as well have an impromptu little pizza party first. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, they've decided not to kill themselves (BIG surprise) and instead are going to form a self help group all on their foursome, a sort of kitty party club for the terminally depressed, if you will. This happens by about page 50. What follows has all the ghastly inevitability of a Nora Ephron film (with much less of the charm) – the four of them interact, get to know each other better, are a source of strength for each other. Eventually they all find a way to live, albeit unhappily, ever after.

The biggest problem with the book, it seems to me, is that Hornby just doesn't have the credibility for it. Martin Amis could pull this kind of thing off. With Hornby, it's like watching a character consider killing himself on Friends. You know he doesn't have the balls to actually do it. So as soon as you make it to that oh-so-touching first meeting, you know how the book is going to end. And the fact that you have to listen to these four losers whine about their lives in the interim just prolongs the matter needlessly. Hornby fondly imagines, no doubt, that he's taking on the Big Questions – but this is not The Bell Jar. It's more like Chicken Soup for the wannabe suicide's soul.

Oh, the four-unlikely-strangers-forming-a-de-facto-family bit is clever, of course, but it was clever when we first saw it done in About A Boy. By now it's just formula, and goes over with the sickly taste of mush. And it's not like Hornby's particularly good at doing multiple narrative voices (for a good example of that, see Ali Smith's Accidental). Most of the time his four characters sound fairly alike – to the point where you sometimes have to turn back to the start of the chapter to remind yourself who's speaking – and that, when you consider how different they are supposed to be in age, background and temperament, is plain scary.

The end result of all this is that the whole book seems entirely fake. Hornby tries very hard to make the book 'realistic' by insisting against all the odds that nothing particularly miraculous or good happens for any of his characters. Their lives don't get any objectively better by the end of the book, because (presumably) that wouldn't happen in real life. As if everything else in this book happened everyday. This afterthought realism only makes the ersatz feel of the book worse, because by insisting that the book be true to life (heh), Hornby only underscores how incredibly contrived the plot is and how weak a premise the entire story is based on. If Hornby had actually had the guts to make this a straight up feel good fantasy, it might have worked better. That way we could have just had a good laugh, and not pretended that he needed to be taken seriously.

It would also have been a better book if his characters had ever become more than mouthpieces for clever dialogue. Everything you need to know about why the characters in this book are miserable has already been conveyed to you in the first quarter of the book. After that, all you get is them repeating their woes ad infinitum, just in case you didn't get them the first time. So endlessly belaboured are these 'reasons' that by the close of the book you find yourself swearing that if that JJ guy tells you once more about how empty his life is now that he can't play music, or if that Maureen woman tells you about one more thing she hasn't done in 19 years because of her son, you will personally hold the ladder and help them jump off the Empire State. And it's not like Hornby ever manages to come up with any really deep reasons why his characters are so messed up. Maureen's difficulties lie, apparently, in the fact of her being a devout Christian; Martin's problem is that he's got, like, this kink in his head. You can almost see Freud slapping his brow in disgust.

At his best (such as in High Fidelity) Hornby combines a jaunty, hilarious style, with sharply observed insights into human nature, and the ability to create characters who echo the immaturity of our own attitudes and relationships. In A Long Way Down, the only part of that equation that's still around is the humour (oh, there is some wonderfully clever dialogue here, and some genuinely funny passages) and without the rest of the formula to back it up, even that starts to seem cloying and out of place.

Bottomline: Avoid this book. And hope that Hornby can find it in himself to stop taking himself so seriously. Because otherwise we're in for one long, tedious decline.

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