Obsession and the Slacker
by Satyajit Sarna | December 02, 2010
Image above is from Wolf Gang's photostream on Flickr.
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All obsessives belong to the same tribe. Surely you know a member. The subject may be different – matchbox covers, vintage cars, ice hockey, Tibetan Buddhism - but the phenomenon is the same. The pathology of the obsessed is universal; it encompasses limitless research, listing and numbering like a librarian, the performance of elaborate rituals, and an overriding first charge on the victim’s finances.
In High Fidelity, Rob runs Championship Vinyl, a record shop specialising in “everything for the serious record collector”. He frequently has no customers before lunchtime and spends his time doing crosswords and formulating top-five lists. He has top-five lists of Elvis Costello songs and of Dustin Hoffman movies. He spends weeks reorganising his record collection at home. Every time he meets a girl he likes, he makes mixed tapes. Music is Rob’s life, but it no longer makes him happy.
In some ways, this was not Rob’s choice. He did not intend to be thirty-five years old and working at a record store, even if he does own it, single, poor, and wondering why. But since one disastrous breakup in his university years, he dropped out, wandered about, spent a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, and has not made a big or active decision since. In fact, Rob never made any choices that mattered and one day, he woke up and his life had settled in around him like a tight sweater.
But High Fidelity isn’t just about a loser and his music. Rob also has a top-five list of breakups, and the last one doesn’t even make the list. Laura has just left him and Rob feels better at first; he feels great. Gradually, the façade crumbles. He spends all day fantasising about beating up her new lover and half the night calling his house. In order to figure out what went wrong, he starts at the beginning, and goes in search of his top-five breakup ex-girlfriends, starting from the fifth grade.
Reading about Rob’s desperate, tortured circling makes me shift uncomfortably, because I’ve seen something ugly in the mirror. We men are fucked up. We’re pathetic. We never have enough. If we have company, we want sex; if we have sex, we want compatibility. If we have sex and compatibility, we want something new because what is the point of being happy with what you’ve got?
Fever Pitch is non-fiction; the story of Hornby’s own obsession with the Arsenal Football Club. Every since his dad took him to the Arsenal match as an eleven-year-old, the world of masculinity and achievement and self-actualisation for Hornby merged inexorably with being a Gunner. The book is divided not by chapters, but by fixtures, spanning decades. Through thick or thin, Hornby is bound by the code of the football fan to his team. If the Arsenal win 3-0 away at Leeds in the FA Cup semis, it’s been a grand week; and if they lose narrowly to Swindon Town at Highbury, then even before you leave the stadium, you know that your boss will shout at you, the bills are coming in, and the weather’s looking shite.
Keep in mind, this isn’t Wenger’s Arsenal that Hornby would head out to keep vigil for. This is dirty physical old Arsenal, 1-0 Arsenal, offside trap Arsenal. Football in England before the advent of thePremier League or foreign players was a miserable sodden smelly trip once a week to terraces where drunk punters would puke, piss, or spill on you while you struggled to watch hefty clunkers thump balls upfield in the rain. But this was the world of the football fan, before prawn-cocktail sandwiches and tickets that cost fifty quid and wriggly little French players and red cards handed out for intent.
The troubling thing is that Hornby, and Hornby’s character Rob (who are now starting to look a bit similar, aren’t they?) have absolutely no adult interests. Neither could give a fig about the National Health Services or the falling dollar. Again, reading this, I feel a discomforting association. When do young men stop being boys? And is it right for them to actually be allowed to make decisions that have any impact whatsoever on anyone else? After all, if you still get excited by the Xbox or you can spend days cataloguing Chuck Berry B-sides, are you really fit to have a child or get married or for God’s sake, even have a woman expect anything of you?
"Nick Hornby is a one-trick pony. All his books are actually the same book.
You realise this when you’ve read about four of them and feel a strange sense of déjà vu."
Image above and on article thumbnail is from the Wikimedia Commons here.
Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Hornby’s forte is recreating scenes of emotional power and conveying their impact on the character. At the trough of his depression, Rob visits the Harry Lauder, with “ceilings so high that the cigarette smoke gathers above your head like a cartoon cloud. It’s tatty and draughty, and the benches have had the stuffing slashed out of them, and the staff are surly, and the regular clientele are either terrifying or unconscious, and the toilets are wet and smelly, and there’s nothing to eat in the evening, and the wine is hilariously bad, and the bitter is fizzy and much too cold; in other words, it’s a run-of-the-mill North London pub”. For some reason, cutting through all his music snobbery and carefully nurtured taste, he finds himself crying at a cover of Peter Frampton’s Baby, I Love Your Way and realises that he is crying because he misses Laura with a passion, and simultaneously, without contradiction, he has fallen in love with the singer. This is the lot of men, and somehow, Nick Hornby gets it. He gets it in Rob, and he gets it in himself, and thrillingly, he gets it in me, poor sods all.
Likewise, there’s a scene in Fever Pitch, when, at the end of the 1989 season, at the end of a long decade of not winning anything, Arsenal are left needing a two-goal victory at Anfield to win theChampionship. Liverpool have not conceded two goals at home in four years. In the dying seconds, Michael Thomas latches on to a through ball, untidily bundles it past the last man, and pokes it in at the near post. At this juncture, despite this being the moment he has waited for the entirety of his life as a fan, for the first time, Hornby feels the compulsion of something greater.
Nick Hornby is a one-trick pony. All his books are actually the same book. You realise this when you’ve read about four of them and feel a strange sense of déjà vu. It doesn’t matter that Fever Pitch is about football and relationships, that High Fidelity is about music and relationships, that A Long Way Down is about suicide and relationships, and that Slam is about skateboards and relationships. They’re all pretty much the same story, but what a story – that ordinary people with screwed-up lives can make decisions to make their lives meaningful. If you can keep pulling it off, it may grow old, but it doesn’t get any less wonderful.
Ultimately, the most empowering thing about mania and maniacs is what it reveals about the everyday:
“‘Have you got any soul?’ a woman asks the next afternoon. That depends, I feel like saying; some days, yes, some days, no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it around a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.”