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The New Republic Online
Thursday, July 28th, 2005


 

A Long Way Down: A Novel

by Nick Hornby

Attempted Suicide

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

Suicide is a daring topic for a fiction writer. In addition to entering a macabre genre teeming with vaunted authors, he or she must mine personal darknesses to find inspiration for a life not worth living. It is perhaps no wonder that so many who write about suicide end up in its clutches -- grappling intimately with demons may lengthen the shadows already closing around a writer's mind, not to mention that authors who write about suicide are probably drawn to it anyway. "Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well," wrote Sylvia Plath.

Color Nick Hornby artless, then, for his latest novel, A Long Way Down (yes, it's exactly what it sounds like), does not explore the brain's loamy swaths of despair, nor does it poignantly examine the crisis of spirit those looking into oblivion face. Instead, Hornby falls (no pun intended) somewhere between Woody Allen and Sartre: Failed suicide attempts and neuroticism provide the humor, and the idea that hell is other people (i.e., every character in the book) provides the despair -- at least for the reader. The plot revolves around four people from different walks of life who all arrive at the roof of a London building on New Year's Eve to take the big leap into nonexistence. Would that they had. Instead, Hornby's menagerie of lost souls form a gang, and hilarity ensues.

Reading about Martin, J.J., Maureen, and Jess for more than 300 pages is like being forced to be nice to people you loathe for hours on end. If you're not prepared to slit your wrists after that, you're at least ready for the foursome to check themselves into the Horizontal Hilton. Alas, in utterly predictable fashion, these four losers find each other, discover new reasons for living, and conclude that perhaps they didn't want to die after all (did you really think it would end any other way?). It's enough to make you want to ... well, you get the idea.

Hornby's real talent is for dialogue, which is sharp, funny, and dripping with sarcasm. Take out the inner discourse, the ill-conceived group vacation, and the bewildering circular rants in between, and you've got a pretty salty bit of black humor. That is, take out all the bits that make A Long Way Down a novel, and you've got a tidy little comic screenplay. If Meg Ryan is the cutesy muse to Nora Ephron's romantic comedies, then Hugh Grant is the cynical playboy to Hornby's work. In Hornby's novel-turned-movie About a Boy, Grant played a selfish cad who makes wry observations and is transformed by his friendship with a young boy and a circle of quirky characters. Here, in the character of Martin -- a morning-show personality la Regis Philbin who lost everything after bedding a minor -- Grant could play a selfish cad who makes wry observations while being transformed by a circle of quirky characters: "I happen to be one of those rare individuals who believe that what went on with Mummy and Daddy had nothing to do with me screwing a fifteen-year-old. I happen to believe that I would have slept with her regardless of whether I'd been breast-fed or not." (Where does Hugh Grant the man end and Hugh Grant the actor begin?) I envision Shirley Knight as the mournful, repressed middle-aged naf (Maureen); Paul Rudd as the sensitive, American, pseudo-intellectual failed rock star (J.J.); and Keira Knightley as the waifish, punk-rock imbecile with severe anger-management problems and a poignant vulnerability (Jess).

Unfortunately, A Long Way Down is not a cheeky British Hugh Grant snark-fest but a novel with pretensions at depth, theme, and story -- and a lazy one at that. Not only do these four widely divergent depressives have mind-numbingly similar voices, they are all given the absurd opportunity to narrate their own chapters. Trying to decipher whose point of view you are reading at any given time can be like trying to divine a straight answer from Scott McClellan. Can you guess who is who?

1. "What I'd done is I'd pissed my life away. Literally. Well, OK, not literally literally. I hadn't, you know, turned my life into urine and stored it in my bladder and so on and so forth."

2. "The ten minutes I spent talking to Bong made history. Well, not history like 55 B.C. or 1939. Not historical history, unless one of us goes on to invent a time machine or stops Britain from being invaded by Al Qaeda or something."

3. "They could come to one of only two possible conclusions. OK, strictly speaking, there was a third conclusion -- we were telling the truth. We saw an angel that looked like Matt Damon, who for reasons best known to himself told us to get down off the roof."

4. "That's what everything comes down to: ladders. Well, not ladders literally; the Middle East peace process doesn't come down to ladders, and nor do money markets."

(See answers at bottom of the page.)
Now try to imagine this kind of meandering stream of consciousness winding on for hundreds of pages, with snippets of the narrators' horrible, pathetic lives mixed in for good measure, and you've got some idea of the interminable serio-comic stylings of Hornby's latest effort.

Why is this run-on sentence of a book about taking one's own life faring so well during a time of rampant suicide bombing and general disregard for humanity? Who wants to read about a bunch of mopey losers trying to commit suicide when there are real suicide bombers on the Underground? Given that this novel is about the misgivings of four irritating Westerners with risible woes and melodramatic tendencies, I suspect people are buying it for a very different reason than, say, taste. The reason can be summed up in two words: High Fidelity. It was a great book (I hear), and it was a fantastic movie (I know). It was funny and charming and filled with tidbits about music and life that everyone can relate to; it was, in other words, the kind of book that might tempt you to look for more from that author. You might read or watch About a Boy, and you might dig that, too, and so it's perfectly reasonable that you and a few hundred thousand more Americans would become Hornby fans. I've walked that path, too, and was struck by the horrible inevitability that has burned me in the past: Authors you like will stumble, and sometimes they will fail miserably. In the case of A Long Way Down, I'd say it's somewhere between the two. The good news is that, after being reduced to pure dialogue, it'll be a fun movie.

Answers: 1) Martin; 2) Jess; 3) J.J.; 4) Martin again (trick question!)


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