I like Nick Hornby. I might’ve said this before. I don’t think I’ve ever qualified it as it needs qualifying though. I like Nick Hornby even though I’ve not really liked the majority of his books. What is that about? Well, I kind of know what’s it’s about: it’s Nick Hornby’s tone of voice. You see it in his nonfiction best – 31 Songs, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and Stuff I’ve Been Reading. He has a way with the everyman. He writes in a way that you can easily identify with what he’s saying. He’s straightforward. He doesn’t play games or tricks. You know in a sense what you’re going to get. Something genial. Something sad. Something true. Something that hankers after the best we can muster without probably quite getting there. It comes through in some of his novels, too – High Fidelity best, probably, but you can certainly see it in About a Boy too. But talking about About a Boy brings up what we don’t like too. Because there’s a flipside to that everyman, the way in which Will, for example, at a low moment ‘listens to the music we all listen to at such moments’, Hornby reaching out to share a communal moment with the reader, as if he is trying too hard to make his characters cyphers for our emotions rather than true products of their author’s imagination. For a long time, like Chuck Palahniuk, Hornby’s fiction dealt in diminishing returns – About a Boy wasn’t as good as High Fidelity, How to be Good wasn’t as good as About a Boy, A Long Way Down wasn’t as good as – well, anything pretty much (that is Hornby’s dog right there, Hornby’s nadir).
And then something changed. Whether it’s the novel, Juliet, Naked, which was terrific – both typical and untypical of him, but easily the best thing he’d done for years – or the screenplay of An Education, which bagged him an Oscar nomination, something changed. Suddenly he was marrying those things we liked about Hornby’s style to different kinds of stories. He was moving out of his comfort zone and we liked it. A lot. Stuff I’ve Been Reading clued us in to the fact that Hornby was continuing to work on screenplays – he was adapting Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and he has now also seen the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail written by Cheryl Strayed to the screen as Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. There is a sense in which Hornby has become more ambitious, more focused, more interesting and more willing to reach for the stars. All of which we applaud. His latest novel, Funny Girl, provides us with even more evidence that this is the case.
What we have here is the story of Barbara Parker, Miss Blackpool 1964 for all of five minutes. Raised by her dada after her mum legged it, Barbara has always hankered after more. She wants to be the British equivalent of Lucille Ball at a time when such things were inconceivable. She sets off for the Big Smoke, takes a job in a jeweller’s shop and struggles, somewhat naively, to understand how things work in that there London. Thankfully she’s beautiful and busty so one or two doors open to her, but not necessarily the doors she wants opening. Her own ambition and drive, however, have her butting heads with her agent (who sees her as a model and nothing else) until he gets her an audition, with a couple of writers, a producer and an actor, all of whose work she once listened to on the radio with her dad. At this point, Funny Girl becomes a much broader book, attempting to tell the story of all of these people: the writers, Tony and Bill, one married, both possibly gay, struggling in their own ways to come to terms with who they are and what they want to do with their lives; the producer, Dennis, a BBC man through and through, unhappily married to a woman having an affair with an unpleasant intellectual who scorns what Dennis does; and the actor, Clive, who, Barbara quickly realises, will never probably be the person he wants to be (although, by the end of he book, he comes pretty close, only to learn that sometimes getting what you want isn’t all it’s cracked up to be).
The novel follows this ragtag band as they create a sitcom called Barbara (and Jim) that goes on to ne a massive success, for a short period of time, taking lessons learned from the likes of Sillitoe to fashion something kitchen sink and yet comedic, something that leads the way until Alf Garnett comes along and shows them how quaint their revolution actually was. You can see from Hornby’s reading at the back of the book – David Kynaston is a big influence on Hornby right now – that he’s worked hard at his first historical novel and he does a good job at recreating a view of the sixties that isn’t often told (like Mad Men, Hornby’s sixties is the 50s for the most of the people involved, and those elements of the 60s who show up tend to be viewed with suspicion by the majority of the characters here). Hornby also does a really good job of setting up points of view that within the book we want to disagree with because they are voiced by unpleasant characters – only with our perspective of history we know that the unpleasant characters are right, in a sense (the intellectual Dennis’ wife has an affair with views all light entertainment with scorn and believes catering to common folk opens the doors to basically watching people on the toilet).
All told, it’s sweet and it’s funny and it’s well observed and it’s thoughtful and it has interesting things to say about the world in which we live and it’s entertaining and doesn’t put you through too many hoops and sometimes that is just about all you can ask for from a novel. It’s evidence if evidence were needed that Hornby is getting better and better. You can’t say fairer than that.
Any Cop?: Hornby’s first historical novel provides an original perspective on a transitional period of British history and is well worth a read.