In terms of plot, it might have been written at any point. Rob, a record store owner, has recently split up with girlfriend Laura, and goes through (as one of his ex-girlfriends puts it) ‘some kind of what-does-it-all-mean thing’, with Laura lurking all the while in the background, and Rob himself lurking just outside her house.
Hornby’s writing style also certainly endures. He ingeniously captures the self-conscious internal monologue of anti-hero Rob, particularly in the virtuoso opening where Rob recounts his ‘all-time, top five most memorable split-ups’: ‘Sometimes I got so bored of trying to touch her breasts that I would try to touch her between her legs, a gesture that had a sort of self-parodying wit about it: it was like trying to borrow a fiver, getting turned down, and asking to borrow fifty quid instead’.
Besides Rob himself, the novel’s other characterisations are also brilliantly drawn. Barry and Dick, who both work in Rob’s record shop, are definitely highlights, and the interaction between them still rings true. Rob’s parents (and his relationship with them) are also terrifying believable: ‘Going to the pictures aged thirty-five with your mum and dad and their insane friends does not take your mind off things…the most pathetic man in the world gives me a smile of recognition’.
Of course, the passage of time (not to mention music technology) does create difficulties in understanding. Young readers now will find the concept of vinyl dated, not to mention the vast range of music the book covers. This, though, is not purely the result of time – right from the beginning Rob is clearly part of an exclusive clique. Just as you need to know vast swathes of classical literature to fully understand The Waste Land, you cannot fully appreciate High Fidelity without a comprehensive grasp of late twentieth century pop music.
A bigger problem, though, is that Rob simply isn’t very likeable. His sharp dissection of others verges of simple cruelty, and when turned on himself becomes (at times) frustratingly self-pitying. At times these problems threaten to overturn his likeability, making his appeal to women mystifying: Hornby has succeeded in creating a character who is less of an everyman than he might think. On the other hand, these deep-set character flaws make Rob’s growth in the novel significantly harder won than its equivalent in the average romantic comedy.
Overall then, Hornby’s writing talent is never in doubt, even in this his first novel (Fever Pitch, a memoir, came in 1992). The test is whether you are willing to put up with a barely likeable music snob as he struggles, like a thirty-five year old gap year student, to find himself. Overall, there are probably enough brilliant comic set-pieces to ensure the juice is ultimately worth the squeeze.