Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

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Many critics identify Nick Hornby as reflecting contemporary English middle-class issues concerning social relationships in urban settings. About a Boy contains many elements similar to his earlier works, Fever Pitch (1992) and High Fidelity (1995), such as the relationship of one’s identity to one’s pastimes and interests. Hornby’s personal interests in music and football are highly visible in the novel, as are other autobiographical elements, such as a setting in North London (where Hornby grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s), divorce, and the complexity of relationships. Some critics also contend that Marcus’s character is inspired by Hornby’s son, who has autism. Hornby’s straightforward, conversational writing style includes an element of advising the contemporary individual. These stylistic aspects are considered unique and responsible for his large following.

Hornby is among the group of contemporary authors involved with McSweeney’s, an independent publisher experimenting with new ways of creating and disseminating accessible literature, reaching out to diverse communities online, in print, and through social programs. In About a Boy, Hornby widens his scope, incorporating two protagonists with great superficial age differences to explore and expand traditional conceptions of family and relationships. As a result, About a Boy goes beyond a simple coming-of-age story to represent a contemporary literary view of the potential for newly envisioned interaction between individuals and groups, even as many places become increasingly urbanized and traditional definitions of family and community may appear to be dissolving.

A short bildungsroman with a humorous tone, About a Boy combines the beginning of the customary journey to maturity of a serious young man who at times seems old with the journey to maturity of a thirty-six-year-old man who acts like a teenager. The book alternates chapters between Marcus’s and Will’s points of view, emphasizing their interdependent journey toward understanding their own areas of naïveté. Marcus becomes increasingly self-reliant, self-aware, and savvy regarding contemporary popular culture. Will, whose identity is founded on the connoisseurship of possessions, becomes increasingly aware of others and opens himself to the difficulties and benefits of long-term, well-maintained relationships.

Throughout the novel, media and popular culture play an important role, made notable in the ways they are inevitably or by choice part of individuals’ and groups’ lives. Characters often relate to events, problems, and other people through media or popular culture references. Marcus references television programs and films frequently when attempting to understand events and life. References to media and popular culture within the first two chapters provide contextual definitions of the protagonists’ personalities and their positions relative to general middle-class social norms.

Marcus chooses a documentary on fish as a safe film, free of violence or upsetting events, to watch with his mother. This choice, like the magazine quiz through which Will is introduced, reveals each character’s outlook on life. Trying to cope with school, Marcus employs a fantasy about being tutored at home like Macaulay Caulkin (a child actor). Will plans his day around popular culture: watching Countdown and buying new CDs, his funds generated by royalties from his father’s famous Christmas pop song. Ellie defines her life around a rebellion against racist, classist, and sexist traditions. She sees Nirvana and lead singer Kurt Cobain as embodying this rebellion, and she emphasizes her self-expression by daily wearing a Cobain sweatshirt instead of her school uniform.

As the novel develops, these media representations become part of a greater exploration of identity and connections. Marcus, Will, and Ellie are all presented as extremely individualistic and alone in a sea of unreachable individuals. Fiona also displays this sense of isolation and inability to find connections, especially in London. Marcus dresses and acts so differently that even the designated outcasts in his school do not wish to be associated with him. Will is a self-described island. He has lost contact with his only remaining family, a stepbrother and stepsister, and avoids long-term, serious relationships, even friendships. Ellie’s aggressiveness and extroverted behavior make her appear to be more involved with others than she really is. She has one good friend, Zoe, before becoming friends with Marcus. The repeated references to Nirvana, along with Ellie’s ever-present sweatshirt, make Cobain a representative figure as well. Divorce has affected each of these individuals, including Cobain, as a child or as an adult. As a group, they represent contemporary splintered relationships that generate only partial ties to the communities with which they interact.

As Marcus, Will, Ellie, Fiona, Rachel, and others form relationships with one another, the paths they follow unfold along with a straightforward, contextualized examination of topics such as gender identity, personal responsibility, community development, and representations of social interaction in media forms such as television, film, and music. As noted by critics Jonathan Alexander and Matthew Bannister, the resulting development of these characters’ extended family-friend community reveals a breaking up of traditional conceptions of family and social norms. Although none of the characters is homosexual, the lack of insistence on the need for certain structured, narrowly defined familial and social relationships challenges heterosexual stereotypes of such relationships. The emphasis on taking personal responsibility for and action toward building relationships and communities is also supported by the program depicted in Royston, where Ellie meets and connects with the shopkeeper whose store window she damaged. The figure of Cobain as a cultural icon, an embodiment of angst, and a vehicle for self-expression adds a larger, societal dimension to this theme. Cobain’s death as described in About a Boy is depicted as an event that, despite its tragedy, connects many people in vastly different locations.

Community and family can be defined in different, more or less inclusive ways. Marcus’s theory, echoing the saying that there is safety in numbers, stresses that there is a need for, and perhaps a turn toward, finding new and more inclusive ways to define these groups. By expanding and attending to the variety of connections that make up such relationships, one can see these connections as meaningful and necessary for contemporary societies, whose complexity and fragmentation render traditional, less inclusive models insufficient.