For me the most pertinent question raised in High Fidelity is this: Can you really like a book with such a thoroughly unlikable protagonist? For the non-initiated, High Fidelity centres around whiny, self-absorbed man-child and record shop owner Rob Fleming and a variety of failures in his unremarkable existence. We begin by learning that his de facto partner has recently left him, and he is in a world of hurt. (Later we find out why she left, and we wish it were hurting more). His two closest friends and employees are barely-socialised music nerds and scathing barb-traders who are either incapable or unwilling to show any kind of actual positive human emotion. His pretentious, shabby-chic music store is headed down the gurgler. Get the picture?
What Nick Hornby does with this character Rob Fleming and his story is quite astonishing. Rob has a something of an arc, yes, and his story has a passably satisfactory conclusion. Still, to create a main character and first person narrator that is so completely unbearable pretty much throughout an entire book is a brave move by the author. Some of the scenes where Rob contacts his ex-girlfriends to find out whether or not there is something romantically wrong with him had me squirming in my chair with mortification.
The quality of Nick Hornby’s writing in High Fidelity, the naked, unforgiving view of the inside of his character’s head and sharp, palpable observation of London life in all its dreary glory keeps you hooked into reading until the end. The book also manages to have an excellent soundtrack, pretty much the entire way through. Nice trick, if you can manage it. I came to the conclusion that any piece of art that can generate a strong emotion, even a negative one, has served its purpose. Would I read it again? No chance. Bring on the watered down American film version with the impossible-to-dislike John Cusack any day. Still, it’s a worthwhile piece of modern art that deserves its accolades.