In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s pop music-obsessed narrator Rob Fleming asks, following his most recent in a spate of romantic failures, while slumped in his apartment feeling desperately sorry for himself: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Having recounted a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups,” Rob becomes increasingly revolted by his decidedly unmanly tendency to completely disintegrate following each new failed love affair. It’s romantic to believe that pop music supplied a language through which he could identify and express his angst and longing. But what if that “language” had started to supplant his feelings altogether? Without pop music, were things really that bad?
Literature, like pop music, can be dangerous, to those who love it best, and who therefore take it the most seriously. And just as tragic love songs are often the most beloved in pop music, tragic love stories are often the most beloved in literature. But what happens if feeling miserable becomes your way of getting closer to the books you love, rather than the books you love enabling you to get closer to your feelings? This is the scenario I’m describing: when you find yourself storming about, banging your head against a tree and bellowing in rage like Heathcliff for Cathy, and a feeling of hideous familiarity overtakes you. “I’ve felt this way before,” you think. Possibly even several times. And that you can’t remember who inspired this, or when, or why, is the most worrisome part of the altogether worrisome situation. Do you love… (what was his name again)? Or do you just love Wuthering Heights?
Young people (or so it is comforting to think) are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As a teenager, I read The End of the Affair, or more accurately, I fell for The End of the Affair. The prose is gorgeous, but the intensity is searing. The story covers a short time span, only a smattering of events that occur after Henri Bendix’s affair with Sarah has already ended, but so intense are Bendix’s emotions that in scope it felt comparable to The Divine Comedy: we’re in the depths of hell, then we’re up in the clouds, and then we’ve plunged deeper than ever before.
By no means is Greene encouraging you to want to be Henri Bendix. He is not an enviable character. The man has a private detective follow around his married ex-lover. He lives in a black hole of misery. He mostly loathes himself. But his love for Sarah enables him to routinely run the gamut of all existing human emotions. He was one of first characters I read outside of the science fiction genre capable of effectively taking trips around the world in a matter of seconds, without applying any sort of effort. What teenager could help but envy that?
So ardently did I love The End of the Affair that it wasn’t nearly enough to read it; I had to embody it. And if its extreme philosophy on love was a virus, I was more than happy to play host, spreading its insidious gospel to many of my unfortunate friends. During one late night phone call with a friend in boarding school, we quoted from the novel to each other while mourning recent romantic failures. But did we quote from The End of the Affair because of our romantic failures, or were we failing romantically because we could quote from The End of the Affair?
“I keep thinking of this line in particular,” my friend whispered fervently, “after Sarah dies, when Henri says, ‘I recognized my work for what it was – as unimportant a drug as cigarettes to get one through the weeks and years…’”
“There’s just no more point in going to class,” I said heavily.
Resigned, she could only agree.
But declaring like Bendix, “I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever” seventeen times by the age of twenty is only part of the problem. It’s one thing to repeat yourself; it’s quite another when people catch you in the act. In this matter, I think I’m entitled to throw a little frustration toward Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate as well. Like The End of the Affair, Strait is the Gate is the story of young love sacrificed for religious dedication, of man losing out to God. But Strait is the Gate might win over The End of the Affair, and perhaps even The Age of Innocence, for documenting the most maddeningly unsuccessful of love affairs. Hamlet has nothing on the main character, Jerome, for sheer ability to endlessly dither while doing absolutely nothing. Thus the most agonizing scene in the novel occurs when Jerome finally, mercifully, is presented with the chance to declare himself to his love Alissa, the closest he gets to doing so in years. But as Alissa shuts the door behind her, “her eyes filled with an unspeakable love,” he does nothing. He could have knocked on the door, he admits. But instead he chooses to just stand there, “weeping and sobbing in the night.”
It is a credit to Gide that he dares let his narrator make such an aggravating decision: only a great novelist would risk the reader washing her hands of him entirely at that point, trusting that his creation is so fully-realized so as to withstand the subsequent censure. And so Jerome defends himself:
But to have kept her, to have forced the door, to have entered by any means whatever into the house, which yet would not have been shut against me – no, even today, when I look back into the past and live it over again – no, it was not possible to me, and whoever does not understand me here, has understood nothing of me up till now. (emphasis mine)
Fantastic line, isn’t it? It could win any argument. It could compellingly justify even the most erratic of actions. The moment I read it, I knew I had to use it. I committed it to memory. It would be my line, the same way Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction memorizes Ezekiel 25:17, because he “thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker.”
So once, during what may have been either an unprecedented blow-out or a fairly innocuous skirmish with a significant other, I declared in ringing tones: “And whoever does not understand me here… has understood nothing of me up till now!”
A beat. A furrowed brow.
“That’s that quote from that book, right?” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned it before.”
“Oh.” Extended, humiliated silence. “I usually only use it once per person,” I finally offered, miserably.
“That’s all right,” he said, with encouragement. “I’ve a really poor memory of quotes. It was almost like hearing it for the first time.”
A cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker, indeed.
So what came first – the literature or the love? I blame literature. Literature, no doubt, blames me. It might not be possible to tell. But just be careful which books you fall for: some of them might get you into trouble.
We’ll skip the part where I talk about the graphic novel’s underappreciated place in contemporary literature/art. Firstly, because I haven’t read enough in the genre to be one of its ambassadors. Secondly, because I suspect the graphic novels’ marginalized niche is what allows their creators to be so inventive and unpredictable. Without the scrutiny that comes with critical acceptance, there are no established rules to follow. It’s like pirate fiction.
But even within this unruly genre, the Scott Pilgrim series is unique in its flexible relationship with convention, borrowing freely from anime, video games, movies, and pop culture. Created by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the sixth and final volume was published earlier this month by Oni Press. The basics of the story are as follows: Scott Pilgrim is an unemployed, bass-playing 23-year-old from Toronto who meets Ramona Flowers, an American delivery girl, and they start dating. Soon after, Scott learns that he must defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes, who each come to kill him in turn, at the average pace of one per volume. Scott, we soon find, is a skilled fighter, and the fight sequences are elaborate, martial arts battles. His life also shares some of the traits of a video game. Whenever he defeats an evil ex, he earns gold coins, a la Mario Brothers, and on one occasion a mithril skateboard.
When not fighting for his one true love, Scott leads a pretty normal life. He is in a band, Sex Bob-Omb, with his friend Stephen and his high school sweetheart Kim. He and his friend Wallace live together and, because Scott doesn’t have a paying job, they share a bed in their one-room apartment. Scott’s younger sister Stacey works at a coffee shop with Julie, who who is Stephen’s sometimes girlfriend. Scott’s ex-girlfriends, one of whom is now a famous pop singer, certainly don’t make themselves scarce. (Although none of them are as homicidal as Ramona’s exes. Scratch that, one of them is.) You see what I mean. It’s a group of friends, they’ve know each other a long time, and their relationships can get complicated. They’re a really likeable bunch – sarcastic, offbeat, underemployed, wearing clothes that even in line drawing look like they came from thrift stores. It’s as if all the oddball sidekicks, usually relegated to comic relief, are playing the main roles. They spend a lot of time at cheap food joints and unproductive band practices, where they bicker and banter and make fun of Scott.
The gang’s dynamic – comfortable, static, routine – is a nice counterpoint to the drama of Scott’s relationship with Ramona, but after a while even that world turns out to be a lot more tricky than it seems. Scott is a sweet but often oblivious guy, and he learns little by little that his carelessness has hurt people. His friends and ex-girlfriends are loyal to him, but tend to roll their eyes at what an idiot he can be. It becomes clear that if he wants to have a stable, mature relationship with the girl of his dreams, he has to do a lot more than roundhouse kicks. Throughout the first five volumes, as Scott contends with one ex after another, he also has to contend with the emotional enormity of Ramona’s past, and his own.
Ostensibly his quest is to fight his way through Ramona’s dating history so they can be together, but while he’s doing that, they’re also struggling to put themselves together as a couple. By the end of volume 5, Scott has turned 24, got a job, and moved in with Ramona, but their future is more tenuous than ever. At some point he starts wondering what kind of chick has seven evil exes. At this point, does Scott have the strength to defeat another ex? Has the enormity of his quest overwhelmed him, to the point that a simple victory isn’t possible? Do he and Ramona even stand a chance after all they’ve been through? It’s a bit like Harry Potter. It’s a bit like High Fidelity.
And no, the fact that a handful of lazy twenty-something Canadians are skilled in martial arts is never acknowledged as a paradox. Scott Pilgrim wears its mythology lightly. The only time the volumes truly lag, especially volume 6, is when O’Malley tries to explain the overall premise – why Ramona’s exes are evil, why they want to kill Scott, why they’re so organized. For the most part, elaborate kung-fu fight sequences come to pass much like the musical numbers in Glee, as if they were natural and unremarkable. And even though they are the series’ signature, they are far from its strong point.
What I like best about the series is how intuitive it feels. The characters and plotting haven’t been structured for narrative perfection. The fight sequences come at odd times, in some volumes they serve as the final climax and in others they happen offstage while we’re out on the balcony with other characters. O’Malley often begins scenes in the middle of a conversation and ends them as soon as it stops being interesting, with nothing but the words “SO YEAH” as a heading to segue into the next chapter. When the gang has a dinner party, we get the recipe. When they have band practice, we get chord charts. This air of the lackadaisical in his storytelling is most likely carefully crafted, but it’s very successful. The books are suspenseful, engaging, and heart-winning, while maintaining the feeling of a choppily edited reality show. That may be why, despite the fight scenes and the video game references and the hard-to-believe coincidences, the series is so relatable. It doesn’t feel like a writer’s description of 24-year-olds, it feels exactly like being 24.
This is one aspect of the books that I’m worried the movie adaptation, which comes out August 13, won’t get right. With puppy-eyed Michael Cera as Scott, it would be so easy for the movie to become just another tale of an unconventionally attractive young guy trying to find love. The books never over-emphasize the fact that the characters are maturing and figuring out their relationships. If anything, they emphasize the fact that when you’re in your early twenties and all you do is eat burritos, you don’t realize that all that maturing is going on. Graphic novels don’t have the written word’s capacity to dwell on an idea. After a (kung fu) fight, or a (girlfriend) fight, or a concert, or a party, O’Malley can’t give us 20 pages inside Scott’s head while he walks home and thinks over what just happened. Maybe he can give a frame or two to an emotional close-up, but for the most part he has to move on to the next time people are moving or talking. Despite the fact that all the action comes from the desire for human connection, it avoids being contemplative.
Because how great would it be, after all, if getting the girl was just like winning a video game? Difficult, yes. Dangerous, yes. But ultimately achievable, concrete. What Scott lacks in emotional intuition or sensitive courtship demeanor, he makes up for in his unblinking willingness to fight for Ramona. It’s the best thing about him. When, after some bashful falterings, he finally admits that he loves Ramona, he goes up a game level and pulls the Power of Love sword out of his chest. Only in Scott Pilgrim’s world, where you earn points for emotional milestones and you can break down the barriers between yourself and the love of your life with literal force, does this seem like a normal part of growing up. It’s such a great world.
Suicide is a funny thing. At least, it is in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Unlike his earlier pop-culture riffs, High Fidelity and About A Boy, Hornby’s glance into the lives of four suicidal characters takes a broader look at life, transcending issues such as relationships and maturity in an attempt to portray a multidimensional struggle that revolves around life and death.The novel has a fluid narrative, thanks to short passages told from the points of view of the main characters – Martin, Jess, JJ and Maureen – in rotating fashion. The style not only moves the story along in a quick pace, it also keeps one interested in the characters by providing bits of information about why each one ended up on top of Toppers’ House on New Year’s Eve. That is, why they picked the most stereotypical night and the most popular building to jump off of in London to end their lives.The gang, which forms rather organically with a little push from Jess, is a most unlikely one. Martin is a washed-up TV presenter, estranged from his wife and daughters after sleeping with a 15-year-old and landing in jail; Maureen is a middle-aged woman with a disabled – “vegetable” – son, Matty. She has withdrawn from life to take care of Matty and talks only to God; Jess is an 18-year-old with a propensity for getting smashed on drugs and booze, an inclination to abuse her parents and a loathing of long words and complicated sentences – as well as literature; and, JJ is an American rock-star-wanna-be whose failed band and relationship left him reminiscing about the not-so-good, good old days and delivering pizzas.It’s hard to see why any of the characters, minus Martin, would want to hurl themselves off a building. A Long Way Down is funny like that, it gets one contemplating what circumstances could/should/would justify or call for a seemingly quick and easy end to life. It’s also funny because Hornby masterfully groups together four potentially stereotypical and boring, yet in their own right odd and interesting, characters. With their self- and outward-loathing stance on life, they are incompatible from the first moment.Yet they get along. And they need each other like a comatose patient needs life support. Hidden in their interactions and sarcastic humor are hints of despair – of the same vein that any ordinary person might go through at one point or another in life. And though Martin, Jess, Maureen and JJ may be not be alike at all, one is apt to identify with parts of each character. Be it total financial, social and emotional ruin as with Martin, a completely unselfish life lived with remorse as with Maureen, teenage angst borne from a troubled family as with Jess, or plain, downright self-pity and denial as with JJ, one has been there.Hornby gives his audience a chance to reflect on moments of doubt and despair through his characters. And, not to worry, just because the subject is rather grave does not mean you are spared Hornby’s brilliant modern-culture observations or his penchant for showing off his knowledge of rock music and contemporary literature. Reading A Long Way Down will make you laugh, and, who knows, maybe you’ll be laughing at yourself.