- Author: Nick Hornby
- Published: 1995
- Publisher: Victor Gollancz LTD
- Pages: 323
- First Line: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order.”
- Last Lines: “When Laura hears the opening bars she spins round and grins and makes several thumbs-up signs, and I start to compile in my head a compilation tape for her, something that’s full of stuff she’s heard of, and full of stuff she’d play. Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done.”
- Film: 2000 (****)
- First Read: Spring 2000
The Novel: In the book, Barry is the one who is first obsessed with lists, who introduces them to the other two in the store. But it’s Rob who’s narrating, Rob who can’t stop making lists, who, in fact, begins the novel with a list. I read this book because the trailer was out and it looked great and Veronica and I were going to go see it (she owned the book). And suddenly, for the first time since Catcher in the Rye, I felt like I was reading about myself.
Rob Fleming owns a record shop in North London. He and his two employees sit around most of the time, talking about music, making lists. I’m the same. Less of my lists are about music these days, namely because I hate the radio and without my friends at Powells or working at Borders (where we sold and I had to listen to new music), I don’t hear a lot of new bands. But music lists do pop up (like 100 great lines, or the Top 100 U2 Songs, or my Top 100 Albums, which probably won’t ever get put up). I also had a tendency, before I met Veronica, to think about my past relationships, to wonder what went wrong, if I wanted to go back or move on and sometimes, in those first couple of years out of college, I was searching for old names on the web.
It’s not just Rob’s profession or his past reflections that I saw myself in. I have some of the same ideas: “The lesson I learned from the Charlie débâcle is that you’ve got to punch your weight.” I agree. You end up with someone much better looking or much smarter than you, then things end up uneven and one of you ends up with too much power in the relationship. There is a much longer rant that I mostly agree with:
A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases. It was intended a) to dispense with awkward conversation, and b) to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, turn out to have every Julio Iglesias record ever made. It amused us at the time, although Barry, being Barry, went one stage further: he compiled the questionnaire and presented it to some poor woman he was interested in, and she hit him with it. But there was an important and essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.
That’s the kind of piece that helps show the bitter humor that works so well throughout the book (“I mean, I know we don’t have any customers, but I thought that was a bad thing, not, like a business strategy.”). It also doesn’t hedge on Rob’s character, even though he’s the narrator: “I kiss her on the cheek and go to the pub to meet Dick and Barry. I feel like a new man, although not very much like a New Man. I feel so much better, in fact, that I go straight out and sleep with Marie.” Rob knows he’s not the world’s greatest guy and he tells us the truth, although sometimes it’s a little slowly. But that’s part of what makes the book so honest and true.
But the thing about the book that really spoke to me is something that wouldn’t work as well for a younger audience. It’s the making of mix tapes. “I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter – there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again.” That’s the beginning of a paragraph where he describes the rules. I know the rules and sometimes I made use of the rules by breaking the rules. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half-a-dozen girls I made mix tapes for over the years. The last several were for Veronica.
“We went to see High Fidelity. Is that film about you?” That’s my mom asking me that question. My answer was, yeah, pretty much. It was about me in so many ways and it’s ironic, of course, that I saw it on an early date with Veronica, the person in my life who made me stop looking for things, stop trying to figure out what went wrong and if I wanted to go back to anyone, the person who made me focus. On lists, but still, focus.
This film had me won over before I ever saw it. That’s because of the trailer, which is magnificent. Then I read the novel, so I knew what to expect. And the film was everything I hoped it would be.
First, there were the ways in which it embraced the book so perfectly. A book like this, with a solid first person narration, needed something that would stick to that narration. The film makes great use of John Cusack, constantly talking to the camera. And he’s interacting with us, challenging us, reminding us that he’s not perfect and that we aren’t either. His narration is among the best in film history. And so many of the classic lines in the book come to life. But then there are all the ways in which the film is different from the book, the way the novel is adapted. The main thing, of course, is that the film is transplanted from London, where Hornby lives, to Chicago, where Cusack grew up. Or moments like when the discussion of what film Rob hasn’t seen yet (though he has seen it) changes from Reservoir Dogs to Evil Dead II (which made Veronica really happy since she had made me see it) or the slight change in the Top 5 First Tracks.
There is also the cast. It’s not just John Cusack, who gives what might be the best performance of his career (it’s close between this and Say Anything). There’s the way he interacts with Tim Robbins, someone he’d been making movies with as early as 1985 (see the great cameo in The Sure Thing). There’s the way he interacts with his sister Joan, so different from the way they interacted in Say Anything or Grosse Pointe Blank. There is the great supporting performance from Jack Black, who I was completely unfamiliar with before seeing this film (and who works so perfectly, both when he’s obnoxious and over the fact that he’s supposed to be able to sing and his performance of “Let’s Get It On” is fantastic).
But what might be most important is what should be the most important about this film: the soundtrack. In a year where I own multiple soundtracks, this was the one that I chose as the best for the year in the Nighthawk Notables. In my long ago post about the best use of rock songs in films, this film made the list twice, once for the moving, perfect use of “Most of the Time” after the funeral and the great use of the Beta Band, not just by the filmmakers, but by Rob himself. Then there is the end. By the time I was growing up, Stevie Wonder was considered kind of a joke, as such the scene about “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, so it was always hard for me to realize how big a deal he was in the 70’s. His song, “I Believe”, really is an amazing song and it comes as the perfect ending to those final lines, the same final lines from the book, to show how much Rob has grown, how much he has learned. Then the dialogue ends and the music kicks in and we get those perfect end credits over the spinning record.