(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Nick Hornby began his career as a novelist promisingly with High Fidelity(1995), a witty, cogent depiction of a thirty-five-year-old man’s inability to keep a girlfriend. A kind of Underground Man for the London hipster scene, Rob clings to his music store for a fragile sense of identity even as he stalks his previous girlfriend and recounts in gory detail his disastrous former romances. Hornby’s prose combines a precise understanding of contemporary male rituals with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture. Immersed in a world of video recorders, compact disc players, and television shows, Hornby’s characters prefer constructing top-ten lists to dealing with the emotional wreckage of their lives, and within that discrepancy lies the charm of the novel.

In his second novel, About a Boy (1998), Hornby turns from his earlier first-person narrative to a more ambitious, limited, third-person point of view that mostly shifts from Will Freeman’s perspective (another bachelor in his thirties) to that of twelve-year-old Marcus Brewer and back again. While the first novel kept its focus on one man’s desperate attempts to grow up, this one moves logically into the more sobering world of parenting in 1990’s London, a bleak societal landscape littered with divorces, working mothers, neglected children, and delinquent dads. Scorning family life and its responsibilities, Freeman hits upon the idea of inventing a child and a missing spouse to help seduce single mothers. For a time his plan works, but Freeman gets gradually entangled in his lies. For example, he buys a child seat for his car and then has to sprinkle cookie crumbs over it to lend his car a family look. Soon enough, others start to catch on to his ploy, and Will finds himself unwillingly drawn into the lives of actual children and their unwed mothers.

Will’s character closely resembles that of Rob in High Fidelity. They are about the same age, with the same ambivalent opinions toward commitment and parenthood, but while Rob runs a record store, Will is financially independent thanks to a steady supply of royalties from a Christmas song his father wrote in the 1930’s. Lacking the ambition to pursue a career, Will passively lets popular culture supply the shape and substance of his days. In half-hour periods, Will turns from television shows to books to movies to club-rock bands to keep himself amused. He is ironic distance incarnate, preferring music that fakes emotion to anything more genuine. In his perpetual distraction he could remain the most poignantly time-wasting of all the characters in the book, but Hornby means to bring him into the therapeutic fold of outside friends. In this respect Will shows up the limits of total immersion in popular culture. He talks of having his time neatly arranged until he dies, but in the meantime he is not really alive. Marcus shows up in part to jolt Freeman from his solipsistic spectatorship.

While Freeman succeeds as a character, Hornby has more difficulty conveying the consciousness of Marcus Brewer, perhaps because here he takes on more pathos than he can easily integrate into the comic flow of the novel and because he has a harder time articulating the viewpoint of a child. Marcus arrives as a slightly out-of-focus bundle of adolescent problems. His single working mother suffers from depression and tries to kill herself with pills, the first of several suicide attempts in the novel. After Marcus moves with his mother to a big new London school, older kids beat him because he does not know how to look or act under his mother’s idealistic hippie care. His hair is a frizzy mess, his clothes reveal that he has no sense of fashion, and he is completely cut off from the music scene, a state devoid of grace in a Hornby novel. All Marcus has going for him is a sharp wit and a strange ability to bring people together to provide a supportive substitute for a family.

Working through Marcus’s problems is considerably less entertaining than a comic novel might presuppose. Too often, Will’s conversations with Marcus resemble therapeutic dialogue in which he works through his fear of his mother’s suicide attempt. Later, when Marcus starts to acquire a reputation as a comic, Hornby has his other characters chuckle at his jokes, thus providing his novel with an awkward laugh track. By having his characters laugh,...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)