Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343
In About a Boy, Nick Hornby shows the maturing and growth of two individuals who seemingly have nothing in common: Will Freeman and Marcus Brewer. Through the course of the novel, however, we see there is a common theme between them: they both need to act their age.
Will is a wealthy 36-year-old living off the royalties of his late father’s famous Christmas song. While his friends are settling down and starting families, Will is trendy and social; he feels sorry for his friends with wives and children. After a relationship with a single mother, Will realizes that single mothers make great women to pursue, and he invents a 2-year old son and heads to a support group for single parents.
It is there he meets twelve-year old Marcus and his mother Fiona. Marcus is in some ways more mature than Will, the result of his parents's divorce and his life experiences thus far. His mother suffers from depression and is suicidal, and this is an enormous burden for young Marcus. He wants desperately for Will to become part of their family, that way he has another family member to rely on in case something should happen to his mother. Marcus doesn't know how to be "normal" like the kids at school and is bullied because of his hair and clothes. His tastes resemble those of his mother's more than those of a 12-year-old.
Will and Marcus end up as friends (though Will is not eager at first), and this friendship benefits them both in unlikely ways. Will mentors Marcus on how to fit in and Marcus discovers Will’s lie, but is forgiving. From Marcus, Will gets a different perspective on how his life is playing out and sees how lonely he is. He meets and falls in love with a single mother Rachel, and eventually accepts and looks forward to a life with them. By the end of the novel, both characters have learned from one another and are ready to continue living in a more rewarding (and age-appropriate) way.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1789
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, Hornby seems complacent with his comic abilities, while the reader revolts against his self-congratulatory tone. In its effort to have its characters get somewhere and achieve something, Hornby’s comedy is reduced to a means to an end instead of being an end unto itself. Considering how thinly sketched everyone is, such a shift in focus puts too much pressure on the slim plot. In a story in which the characters spend much of their time passively absorbed in popular culture, the narrative thread gets pretty thin indeed.
There are several ways in which the narrative machinery underlyingAbout a Boy starts to show. For example, given that Hornby uses popular culture trivia to establish characterization, Marcus’s lack of movie or television knowledge makes him something of cipher. Without that great pool of reference, Marcus’s voice has to create itself out of the quotidian reality of his life, and so he repeatedly thinks of Home Alone movies as a weak correlative to his neglect, and he analyzes the tone of recent conversations with adults. Later he gains more of a sense of identity as he learns things from Will, but until then his struggling voice slows the pace of the novel.
In addition, Hornby’s style, reminiscent of American minimalists such as Raymond Carver, tends to include precious little description and action. Instead, he tends to betray his teaching experience by emphasizing analysis, commentary, and exposition. The results are often repetitive and static, with a strong leaning toward the therapeutic, leading one to wonder if Hornby had market pressure to complete this novel much more quickly than the last one. Sometimes Hornby summarizes a scene before dramatizing it, thus ruining any suspense in the process. For example, Marcus gives away that he fought with his school’s headmistress before it happens in the narrative. At other times characters reflect on their conversations with an almost Jamesian attention to nuance. While Rob’s increasing desperation kept High Fidelity moving along with high comic momentum, About a Boy depends on Marcus’s slow maturation for its narrative drive, and the shifts in point of view overlap in such a way as to further slow the story line.
Moreover, when unable to bring his characters together naturally, Hornby tends to force connections between them. Kurt Cobain, singer of the band Nirvana, hovers like a grunge divinity over the whole novel. He makes his appearance as an ironic celebrity Christ on Ellie McCrae’s sweatshirt, and his suicide attempts and final successful suicide provide milestones and echoes for the quandaries of the characters. As a structural component for the novel, Cobain provides correspondences, but Hornby never makes any kind of direct correlation between Nirvana’s output and the disenchanted fictional world of the novel. If anything, Nirvana’s rage and angst make About a Boy look pallid; watered-down punk prose turns rage into nonconventional family bonding. When Will considers Cobain’s connection to Marcus, he finds that Marcus brings local people together much as Cobain brought together millions of fans with his art. Such connections beg the question as to why Cobain is included at all, except perhaps to lend a little celebrity glow to Hornby’s novel.
Marcus discovers the limitations of celebrity hero worship when his punk female friend, Ellie, burgles a record store display to set the image of Kurt Cobain free on the day of his suicide. Protesting the exploitation of Cobain’s death, she takes his life-size cardboard cut-out and sits with it on the side of the road until the police arrive. All of the principal characters descend into the police station for one last scene, and one senses Hornby straining to weave his plot strands together. Characters chuckle over Ellie’s gesture, but it is her only way to respond to a crisis that remains locked away behind the newspaper print, the television screen, and the compact disc player. Her impotence is emblematic of Hornby’s aesthetic.
In About a Boy Hornby searches for an effective fictional means to negotiate the media jungle. Complete ignorance of popular culture plainly has its risks, as does total immersion. As long as characters like Will Freeman remain locked in a solipsistic relationship with the media, they can humorously comment on spectator culture. Once Hornby leaves that culture, however, his prose tends to flatten out, and his lack of description can suggest a corresponding lack of depth.
As part of Britain’s recent renaissance in the arts, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy joins a wide array of readily exportable cultural products. Popular books by young authors such as Trainspotting (1996) and The Diary of Bridget Jones (1998) have earned appreciative international audiences, but one could also include the punk-inflected fashion designs of John Galliano, the music of the Spice Girls, and movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) as other manifestations of a surge in all things British. People describe London as the most vibrantly creative city in Europe at present; thus, Nick Hornby’s humor is uniquely situated to take advantage of this trend.
Following on the critical and financial success of High Fidelity, About a Boy merits attention as the product of an up-and-coming author competing with the popular cultural interests of youthful readers. Hornby considers the trendy themes of unconventional parenting after the break-up of the nuclear family, the dictates of fashion in society, the travails of the working mother, the effects of clinical depression, and the womblike effect of total immersion in popular culture. In many ways British fiction has less and less difficulty appealing to American audiences, because increasingly British and Americans both see the same movies and watch the same television shows. When not shooting for humor, Hornby increasingly examines the pros and cons of growing up in the media’s constant presence. While other authors might resist the increasing hegemony of the media, Hornby negotiates with it instead and uses it as the cultural backdrop for his characters.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, April, 1998, p. 1304.
The Economist. CCCXLVII, May 16, 1998, p. S13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 24, 1998, p. 2.
New Statesman. CXXVII, May 8, 1998, p. 48.
New York. XXXI, May 4, 1998, p. 128.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 28, 1998, p. 13.
Newsweek. CXXXI, May 11, 1998, p. 84.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 16, 1998, p. 53.
The Times Literary Supplement. April 10, 1998, p. 24.
The Wall Street Journal. May 8, 1998, p. W10.