A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. A review.
Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern. Just the slow erosion of the self, as insidious as any cancer. And, like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience. A room in hell with only your name on the door
(Martha Manning, Undercurrents).
Tackling subjects as anxiety, depression, or any form of mental disturbance is, needles to say after reading that quote, difficult. These subjects scare, they have shame tied around them, or they need patience and reasoning efforts people are not willing to put in. With these in mind, if authors manage to render such subjects in an accessible and entertaining way, they do an admirable job. In A long way down, Nick Hornby pulls off making suicide a swallowable subject.
Nick Hornby is a contemporary popular British author. He is best known for High Fidelity and About a boy, books also adapted into movies, as is the case of A long way down. Hornby is also a screenplay writer. Interestingly enough, he mostly adapted others’ books, such as An education, Wild, or Brooklyn, written by Lynn Barber, Cheryl Strayed, and Colm Tóibín.
In London, on a New Year’s Eve, four strangers strike a strange friendship. They clash into each other on “suicide’s tower”, a place traditionally used by people set on ending their troubles. They don’t manage to apply the “solution”. The encounter unsettles them, bounds them, and, finally, gives them different perspectives on life. Accordingly, they group into a gang or a band, eclectic and unglued. However, this is the opportunity they did not have until then, to talk about themselves. Besides, to talk to people as broken as themselves, each one secretly finding that the others are more disturbed.
The four characters are Jess, an adolescent girl; JJ, an American unsuccessful musician; Martin, a TV presenter that passed his prime and bypassed decent behavior; Maureen, a middle-aged single mother to a boy with disabilities. They engulf in a few activities and come to all sorts of realizations. For example, that what happened in their lives, be it unpleasant, even dramatic, or tragic, shaped them and was weaved into their being. They go through different stages of denial. They learn empathy. The wisdom they acquire can be summarized into a few main ideas. Stop looking for “saviors”. Realize that the sources of troubles are, at times, our own actions. People can not change on their own and need outside help. It is important to spend time with others and not live isolated. Action is important, even if it is limited, as acting against adversity builds character. Furthermore, people must not define themselves by one trait alone. In reality, humans are a complex of sound and not so sound traits.
Novel playlist: goo.gl/l6MO8H
Nick Hornby manages to write a book about an unsavory subject, proving he is a connoisseur of human nature. The book works as he creates relatable characters. Certainly, we might all know a ditzy, troubled “I’ll have it my way ” teenager, a laid back artist, an assholish middle-aged man, a past her prime lonely woman. In fact, they represent probable stages of life. Adolescence is the period of rebellion and it can go awry. Unused 20s energy and too much doubt devours the youth. Middle age is the time when life becomes serious, when people are hunted by their mistakes or their unlived lives.
Nick Hornby respects these possible stages, he respects his characters, also, he never goes to extremes. He keeps his characters between confused and misbehaved. The teenager girl could have been Winona’s character in Girl interrupted, but she is not that deep. The musician is unsatisfied and unbalanced but never Kurt Cobain. The middle aged man is a more responsible Charlie Sheen. The aged mother is never Eleanor Rigby. JJ, the musician, hints that if anyone wants to know about the great neurotics, they should read Hemingway, Woolf, or Plath, listen to Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain. I add Paul Celan and David Foster Wallace; Joy Division and The Doors. Therefore, the book is neither profound, nor a story about remarkable lives. However, it is a remarkable story about common people’s impasses. This book uplifts. Maybe it is not recommendable for a depressed person, yet it works considering it frames troubles and problems into the normal. Through these characters, difficult situations are normalized and made approachable. It gives suggestions about what to do, how to change, and how to connect. It inspires. That is why it is an invigorating read.
In 2014 the book was adapted into a movie. I recommend skipping it. It changes the characters, flattens them. Hornby gives all the four characters their own full voice, while the movie focuses on a few, hint: on the young attractive girl and on the famous guy. Yes, it is that banal. Also, using his musician character, Hornby mentions in the book great bands and beautiful songs: Nirvana, REM, rock, blues, Motown. I’ve created a playlist for anyone who is interested in listening to the A long way down’s music. The movie uses completely different, no substance, pop songs.
Read the grates, listen to the grates, watch their movies, admire their paintings. Yet, if you are in an under the weather mood, read Nick Hornby. Art and classic novels are amazing, but if popular means making distressing subjects digestible in a respectful way, we should sign up for that, too.