Sunday, 8 July 2007

Book Review - High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Laugh-out-loud midlife crisis hilarity for boys and girls alike

First published in 1996, 'High Fidelity' is now a million-copy bestseller, a Hollywood film starring John Cusack, and perhaps lesser known as one of those frank, honest novels that will occupy a place amongst the much-loved-easy-reads of the 90s, perhaps forever. It follows the story of pop-musically obsessed Rob Fleming, the owner of a record store in his thirties, who has just broken up with his long term girlfriend Laura and is in the midst of a sort of mid-life reassessment of his attitude towards women, and his inability to ‘settle-down’.

Unsurprisingly for a man who measures everything in his life by writing ‘top-five lists’, this reassessment takes the form of his ‘Top Five Most Memorable Break-ups’, on which Laura does not appear (a mark, perhaps, of Rob’s inability to come to terms with another failed relationship). By describing these break-ups one by one, Rob tells us of his past misery with women, whilst reminding us of his present struggle through colourful and heart-wrenchingly familiar descriptive renditions of his life at the record store and his interactions with his two desperately sad best friends and employees, Dick and Barry.

In the hands of lesser writers, such a plot could easily have dissolved into unreadable psycho-babbling trash about the condition of the nineties’ ‘new-man’, and yet Hornby has managed to avoid this fate entirely. What emerges from the ashes of Rob Fleming’s past relationships is a witty, insightful comment on a man stuck in a post-adolescent obsession with his favourite records, entirely confused as to the nature of the opposite sex.

Hornby’s ability to create archetypes dominates: you will undoubtedly know someone just like Rob Fleming. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, at other times touching, and always starkly insightful, Hornby’s first novel cannot fail to entertain even the most reluctant of readers.

Book Review - The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

High-quality conceptual thriller to hit the box-office bigtime

I can already see the celluloid blockbuster that will come of this novel reflected on the specs of so many moviegoers, as they sit anesthetised by the dark warm cultural voids of their local commercial cinema. Hall has woven a plot so bogged down by his precious concepts that it begs the sticky-sweet simplification of a Hollywood director with a garish fake tan and a silver-grey beard: just the kind of pop-culturally tuned-in kind-of-guy, in fact, who would jump at the chance to change the protagonist from Eric to ‘Erica’ and cast Nicole Kidman with all her middle-aged pouting appeal in the main role. And this is no whimsical metaphor, in fact, the actress herself is rumoured to have personally contacted Hall to suggest such a move upon finishing reading his book. While Hall purports to be ‘firefighting my own excitement’ in the growing furore surrounding his debut release, literature lovers might find 'The Raw Shark Texts' a little too written-for-screen, as though the author saw his novel as just another rung on the pop culture ladder to a moneymaking nirvana where film is king.

Despite this, 'The Raw Shark Texts' is a remarkable achievement. It manages to be at once wide-eyed Alice-in-wonderland simple and sci-fi Matrix complicated, intertwining layers of inventive storytelling with poignant realism that make it both incredibly marketable (as Hall’s publishing house are doubtless aware) and also an excellent read. The story centres around Eric Sanderson, who finds himself gasping for air on the floor of his bedroom one morning, with no recollection of who he is. He finds a note from ‘The First Eric Sanderson’ instructing him to contact his psychotherapist, Dr Randle, from whom he learns that he is suffering from recurrent amnesia known as ‘dissociative fugue’ after the trauma of losing his girlfriend, Clio, in a tragic scuba diving accident in Greece. However Eric is soon confronted with another reason for his memory loss as a incessant series of letters from the First Eric Sanderson persuades him that he is, in fact, the victim of a conceptual shark called the ‘Ludovician’, which feeds off memory. The Ludovician has detected Eric’s scent through his communication flow and will follow him, consuming his entire identity, if Eric is not prepared to fight it.

And so we are plunged into the depths of a watery conceptual world where Eric and his sickeningly kookily-named cat, Ian, will join the beautiful Scout on the run from the shark, as they attempt its destruction by pitting it against a multiplying communication machine by the name of Mycroft Ward (Microsoft Word, perhaps?). Hall pushes his conceptual world to the absolute limit, using startlingly original hieroglyphical devices and an imagination surprisingly childlike in its readiness to succumb to Walt Disney magic to fill out a story that, in its essence, is about the horrors of losing the person you love most. 'The Raw Shark Texts' is, like the central character, sometimes inches from losing the plot. But the clattering thud with which the novel returns to reality at the end makes this arrogant surrealism forgivable in a way that will bring tears to your eyes. If you love big, confident books, this is a must-read. Or if, like the author, you are plagued with cinematic preoccupations, you could always choose to wait for the inevitable film.