Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down appeared in 2005, the year of the London bombings. The tube and bus bombings, when images of street emergency treatment of injured commuters appeared on our TV screens. A few years earlier, in September 2001, the New York disaster had taken place. George W. Bush and Tony Blair were still firmly in place.

It was a darker world. In this world, it is fitting that a book such as this should be published. Hornby is certainly a comic writer, but the themes and issues that crop up in this book make you realise how small the world is. A bunch of failed suicides meet on a rooftop in London and make a sort of pact. They get together, support each other, curse each other, and take "the long way down" (as one of them, JJ, says to another, Maureen, toward the end of the book).

A journalist would talk about 'healing' and 'putting their lives together'. Hornby talks about a whole slew of things, but one is most evident: given a crisis, even the most unlikely set of group members can find commonality where it is absent in their workaday existence.

The community they forge is set off by the trademark comic climaxes that make Hornby's books so fun to read. In a comic novel, nothing is too bad or distressing because the narrative is constantly bringing itself up against the larger reality of Real Life. It is the dissimilarity between the reality of the novel and this other reality, that causes the joke to be on.

It falls on the characters, however, not on us. We're not challenged too hard, because we've always got someone else to laugh at. The characters conform to their author's plan and this is reassuring. But in the midst of this reassuring compote of feelings and giggles we run up against a succession of truths that are hard to argue with. In this sense, Hornby is not just a comic writer, he's a writer of parables.

Perhaps comic writers have always been like this. I suspect that Hornby will become a classic, in the same way as, say, John Mortimer is. There's a recognisable riff going on that binds the reader to the narrative so strongly that a consumer pattern is established. It may not be good literature, but it is satisfying.

And reliable. I found the depth Hornby is able to reach adequate for me to feel content in my choice of this book to read in preference to any of the other 1600 volumes in my library. It felt good to be back on the pavement with Hornby and his creations and I sensed a feeling of happy abandon that I recognise from adolescent reading of books about country veterinarians and animal collectors.

It took less than a day to finish the book. It is possible that I chose this in response to my last read, which was non-fiction and quite depressing, as it chronicled the evils of the fast food industry: a massive low in contemporary society similar, in a way, to the 7/7 or 9/11 catastrophes, but far less visible in the popular press.

I feel that Hornby has found a fitting way to put the feelings these two events conjured up in the public imagination, and I respect him for that. I certainly wouldn't have been able to tackle the issue with anything like the aplomb he displays here. His motley band is a fresh type of 'coalition of the willing'.

Willing, in this case, to keep trying and never to lose hope. It's a message that should be reaffirmed from time to time.

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