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May 31, 2006

Misreading High Fidelity

During an otherwise provocative post on Fight Club, Amanda offers up a fairly serious misreading of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. She characterizes Laura, Rob's ex-girlfriend, as representing adulthood by being dull. Where they met as 24-hour party people, she's now a lawyer. Where Rob clings to his rundown record store and dingy flat, she's begun transitioning out of young adulthood and into a more affluent, traditionally professional lifestyle. Where Rob lacks direction, she's found success. Laura, Amanda writes, has "one major quality, which is that she’s dull." This makes the book "not only lazy and sexist, it ends up concealing the very real struggle to get by in the capitalist system that is the genuine source of the modern man’s (and woman’s) malaise."

Not to sure about that last, but whether capitalism births boredom strikes me as a thornier issue than I feel like engaging at 1 in the morning. Mischaracterizations of one of my favorite books, however, cannot go unchallenged. Laura may be dull, but Rob is duller. She, remember, rejected him. She broke up with his ass and shacked up with the cosmopolitan peacenik who lived nearby. She recreates the club he DJ'd at to give him a kickstart, offering him a rare chance at recapturing what made him interesting in the first place. She fucks him after her father's funeral. If Laura is dull, she's dull in a real way -- in the way that even the most fascinating personalities are after a couple years of cohabitation. She's rendered uninteresting not because she's a staid person -- Rob freely admits that she's smarter, kinder, better, prettier, and more successful than he is, and the book makes her out to be an infinitely more attractive partner -- but because he's familiar with her. And there's nothing diversionary or easy about taking on that dynamic.

Disney movies stop either at the cute meet or the glorious reconciliation -- High Fidelity starts after the relationship has lost its initial luster. Laura lives adulthood, but she represents commitment, monogamy. What's scary about her is that she isn't dull, it's that she's a good bet, that she's likely the best Rob will ever do. But accepting the better life she offers means sacrificing the higher highs and lower lows of singlehood. And that's hard to do. I know plenty of young adults who struggle mightily with exactly that choice, and taking it seriously isn't cowardice in the face of capitalism. Indeed, if Amanda, as she suggests, thinks an alternative economic model would solve the tradeoffs inherent in monogamy (or other arrangements), I fear she'll be rapidly and fully disappointed.

May 31, 2006 | Permalink


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Excellent reading. Of course "smarter, kinder, better, prettier, and more successful" is not really incompatible with "dull," in fact it's kind of a standard way of indicating dullness by damning with unexciting praise. But as you say, it's dullness in a way that even the most fascinating personalities will fall prey to after long familiarity; Laura represents grown-up choices, not a compromise of standards.

Posted by: Sean Carroll | May 31, 2006 1:36:40 AM

Ezra: But accepting the better life she offers means sacrificing the higher highs and lower lows of singlehood

An acute observation. The routine is the enemy of adventure and stimulation.

Sean: ...it's dullness in a way that even the most fascinating personalities will fall prey to after long familiarity; Laura represents grown-up choices, not a compromise of standards.

I used to think that males were the partners that the greatest difficulty with the 'grown up choices', where the biggest choice was monogamy - even serial monogamy with different wives. Now, I'm increasingly aware that females may have the same issues - perhaps because the female partner is not so confined to household routine anymore. But I'm not sure of any of this, except through life observation that is very hard.

I have a sibling just past their 55th wedding anniversary living in a major city suburb and I'm quite sure that monogamy and relatively peaceful coexistence has prevailed. Frankly I can't imagine that many years together. My guess is that kind of situation is very rare today and those grown-up choices aren't actually very prevalent now, if they ever were.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 31, 2006 2:19:46 AM

Is it worth pointing out that the construct of 'grown-upness' to the point it was ever relevant, is probably less so, at least with the 15 job-careers, relative comfort and longer lives Americans live today?

It's not like someday soon, I'm expected to join my father in his life's work at "Papa Pooh & Son," wherein I don the blue suit with the white shirt and the power tie every day for the next forty years.

Posted by: Pooh | May 31, 2006 3:45:10 AM

What I especially disagreed with was the idea that this phenomenon of stop being laddish and settling down with woman as symbolic of maturity & grownup-ness was something recent. One of the two great pillars of Western art besides the taboo allure of homosexuality has always been the dullness of married life.

In the last 60 years, that traditional Patriarchal system that expects Women to sacrifice their hopes & dreams and resign themselves to domesticity, marriage & motherhood, and Men likewise to embrace Marriage, mortgage, fatherhood, church going and sacrifice indulgences for a life of Calvin Coolidge-esque stoicism & self-sacrifice has been turned on it's head.

Now it seems the very people that celebrate women breaking from the bonds of this system as domestic cow & broodmare for the state, are now puzzled & troubled that Men likewise seem to be shedding the constraints of this system, and discarding the supposed traditional masculine values of "honor" "duty" "stoicism & "self-sacrifice" (as the article Amanda links to describes them.)

Therefore, for a culture that gushes over a life represented in shows like Sex & The City, where hip, urban signle women, lead fulfilling professional lives, party with their girlfriends at the hottest clubs & nightspots & bang whichever hot guys strike their fancy thate evening up inot their fourties, for that same culture to be puzzled & troubled at the phenomenon of vain, narcissistic men who view marriage as a trap who play videogames & late night poker, watch cartoon network, & "lad it up" with their buddies in bars & nightclubs long after their traditional adolescence has passed seems naive or hypocritical to me.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with the evils of "Capitalism" as Marcotte sophmorically proclaimed. At least not in any way that the Russel Kirk's & Albert Jay Nock's of thw world wouldn't equally condemn, if Amanda wants to sympathize with them. It's 80% to do with the fact that traditional interactions between men & women have changed & will continue to change, as Marriageism declines in influence.

Posted by: Dustin | May 31, 2006 5:53:42 AM

We all have areas that cut a little to close for us to be objective in our views. When that happens, we tend to project our own experiences and expectations onto the situation, ignoring that the source of resonance is internal to ourselves and not the greater truth we take it for. I think this may have happened to Amanda; given the topic areas she regularly wades into, I'm mightily impressed it doesn't happen more often.

Posted by: modus potus | May 31, 2006 7:19:15 AM

Ezra Klein is simply a tool of the patriarchal oppressor, and his words are meant to advance the cause of masculine hegemony. Look away!

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 31, 2006 8:30:20 AM

If it's got words and ideas, Amanda can misread it. And then defend her asshattery on the basis of her being, y'know, all cool and fun, and stuff like that.

Posted by: Jimmm | May 31, 2006 8:51:09 AM

Well since it's been brought up (and I don't read Pandagon anymore), this foray ala "Capitalism" as culprit of the death of traditional masculinity, and her recent foray at Michael Berube's place where she argued that women making fun of the way other women's "cutting board" chests & hips look in unflattering dresses ala Go Fug Yourself is not only not misogynist (not that I think it is) but is actually a righteously feminist undertaking aiming to strike a blow at the patriarchal system of the fashion industry. All this leads me to believe that while Ms. Marcotte may be one of feminism's most vocal champions & proponents in left blogistan, she is sometimes one of it's least insightful representatives.

Posted by: Dustin | May 31, 2006 10:01:49 AM

She has a bit of a point, but not, I think, as strong a one as she's stated. Laura is a cipher in the book. She's identified as an interesting, worthwhile person, and there's no reason to think that she isn't (that is, I don't see the 'damning with faint praise' thing going on), but she's a dull character. The book takes place inside Rob's head at a time when he's being self-centeredly introspective -- he's not paying enough attention to anyone else to allow them to be seen as a rounded person.

That's fine, and not sexist in itself -- a book written from the perspective of a self-centered man is going to be like that, and there's not a thing wrong with writing such a book. If you get a broader tendency to generally write books where only men are fleshed-out characters and the women are all cardboard lay-figures like Laura, on the other hand, even if each individual book isn't a problem, the broader tendency is. I don't know that any such tendency does exist, but to the extent that it does it would support Amanda's point.

Posted by: LizardBreath | May 31, 2006 10:18:59 AM

the phenomenon of vain, narcissistic men who view marriage as a trap who play videogames & late night poker, watch cartoon network, & "lad it up" with their buddies in bars & nightclubs long after their traditional adolescence has passed

Oh man, you totally just pegged me!

Posted by: Adrock | May 31, 2006 1:39:59 PM

Rob, even in his lowest low periods, still believes that he has a very rich life. He doesn't just like music and the lifestyle, he really truly believes in it. Rob is certain that if he sold a record for a hundred grand or if he won a lottery that his lifestyle would not really change so much - he'd probably just upgrade his amp and speakers and pick up the tab more often. Rob feels like he understands Laura's choices in life, it's just that he can't buy it himself.

Posted by: sprocket | May 31, 2006 2:02:45 PM

Yeah, well, now I remember why I quit visiting the Pandagon site.

Posted by: sglover | May 31, 2006 3:30:03 PM


Accusing Amanda of a "misreading" belies a very defensive posture, suggesting some emotional disturbance on your part. Were you actually _upset_ at her reading? B/c, you know, her interp is every bit as valid as yours -- there's no "misreading," just different readings we can discuss to see if anyone else is won over to the other's side. There's more hidden venom in this post than in anything I've seen you write, actually. Very odd considering the harmlessness of the subject matter.

Posted by: punkass marc | May 31, 2006 3:36:26 PM

Now, the meat:

Interestingly, you and apparently some of your commenters are some of the first people I've ever come across who were not bored to tears by Laura.

Sure, she tries to turn him back into some version of himself that he used to be back when she had some personality herself, but all that suggests to me is that Laura's actually trying to get _her_ interesting soul back. Rob still has one; she just didn't keep up.

The way she disdainfully speaks of and to him shows me she can't even see that, despite malaise on his part, he's still got tons of interesting things to say pretty much all the time.

Of course, Laura shouldn't be defined only by Rob. Shouldn't she be able to share interesting thoughts or ideas of her own? Sadly, she has a job even she doesn't seem to find exciting, and the guy she leaves Rob for stinks out loud.

Bo-ring. Give me any other character in that book, please. Laura's the wrong choice for Rob, because she doesn't see his core person as valuable (and even then it's not b/c he's shallow and vain, it's b/c he has "given up" or whatever) and I think Hornby winds up trying to justify mediocre monogamous relationships over being yourself.

No one has to settle for a Laura. Someone better is out there, someone who is actually capable of appreciating all the little things about you. Maybe Hornby didn't wait for one himself, and that's why he keeps doing these things to his characters.

After all, How to be Good is even worse about it.

Posted by: punkass marc | May 31, 2006 3:57:20 PM

I don't know man, Rob is one of the least likable characters, um, ever. He's pissy, moody, frustrated, depressed, self-involved, and deepy, deeply uninteresting. The only part of the book that didn't make sense was why she saw any value in him. It's played differently in the movie, but the book makes Rob out to be a lug.

As for your first comment, I'm legitimately baffled. Venom? This post? Because of the word "misread"?

Posted by: Ezra | May 31, 2006 4:04:42 PM

Indeed, if Amanda, as she suggests, thinks an alternative economic model would solve the tradeoffs inherent in monogamy (or other arrangements), I fear she'll be rapidly and fully disappointed.

Well, I think this is a serious misreading of what Amanda wrote. I don't think she so much as implied that capitalism itself was to blame for "the tradeoffs inherent to monogamy."

As to the rest, I should probably read the book before taking a side.

Posted by: Jedmunds | May 31, 2006 4:23:07 PM

Amanda's promised a fuller explication of her comments on capitalism, so I'll await that before defending my read. She did say, however, that capitalism was to blame for Rob's dissatisfaction, and in my read, it was clear that much of it was the simple end of his relationship's honeymoon period.

Posted by: Ezra | May 31, 2006 4:25:18 PM

Well, if you like Laura more than Rob, then we're very far off on our tastes and preferences in life and art in general. I am actually stunned someone could like the book and not like Rob.

Laura is a "better person" but I can't find anything worth liking, as I noted in my previous comment. Calling Rob uninteresting, wow. He's got problems, he's an asshole, but damn is he _interesting_. His tastes captured the essence of indie hipsterism like no mainstream lit before it. You may hate that crap, but again, I can't see how you like the book.

Wait, wow. Yes I can. Holy cow.

There are those of us that see Rob as a broken version of some things we like about ourselves. His tastes, his lifestyle, his choices -- there's much to nitpick, but we feel him. He is far too shallow and nearsighted for me to consider him any kind of role model or what have you, but I identify with him strongly. We're the people who see Laura as the death knell of the good that remains in Rob, that she's bringing him over to the dark side of generic adult life. Boooo.

But if you hate Rob's taste, his lifestyle, and his choices, then maybe bland old Laura IS for you. And you see this book as a tale of redemption whereby you see some crappy indie hipster dude grow up and accept "adult" responsibility.

Man, I have almost zero in common with anyone who would ever read the book in this fashion, but it's one way to look at it. Amanda's reading is much more up my alley -- and the fundamental difference b/t the camps appears to be the extent to which you identify with or like things about Rob.

As for the venom, sorry if I accused you of something that isn't there, but phrases like "fairly serious misreading" and your final sentence looked kinda screechy to me, but maybe that's just _my_ misreading.

My final thought on the issue is that if you think Rob sucks, that's fine. But those of us that think Rob is deeply interesting, if flawed, have a very legitimate read on the book, as well. Pretending like the only way to perceive that book is by seeing Rob as a dullard is waaaay too narrow.

Posted by: punkass marc | May 31, 2006 4:39:48 PM

But I never pretended that the only reading possible is seeing Rob as a dullard. I said Laura wasn't one. Now you're misreading me ;-)

I do think Rob resonates much more with folks who inhabit similar subcultures. Write the same book about bookworms rather than music snobs and you'll probably have me. I found Laura's intellectualism and ambition more compelling than Rob's sort of scattershot contempt. What I could read into her seemed more interesting than what I was seeing in him, but again, that's a personality thing. I, after all, have a lot of friends wsho are lawyers, but not a lot who own vinyl stores.

Posted by: Ezra | May 31, 2006 4:56:23 PM

She did say, however, that capitalism was to blame for Rob's dissatisfaction, and in my read, it was clear that much of it was the simple end of his relationship's honeymoon period.

Well, did she? I read "conformist culture" as being a significant part of the blame for the problems in their relationship, with Laura opting into, and Rob resisting. I think this "conformist culture" is closely entwined with capitalism and materialism. But I don't think you can take that and read her into thinking that "an alternative economic model" would "solve the tradeoffs inherent in monogamy." Or that an alternative economic model is going to solve interpersonal relationship issues.

But I guess we'll both wait.

Posted by: Jedmunds | May 31, 2006 5:11:21 PM

I have always feared Ezra was going to grow up and become a Republican.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 31, 2006 5:18:29 PM

"I think this "conformist culture" is closely entwined with capitalism and materialism." ...jedmunds

Protesting the Lack of Protest ...via Mark Thoma

"ll of these explanations have merit, but I want to offer an alternative hypothesis. The reason that youth aren't protesting about anything, let alone the war in Iraq, is because ... this generation does not believe in its ability to alter, or even slightly disrupt, the status quo. Community service and volunteering is at an all-time high, so young people do, in fact, care. But this generational shift from activism to volunteerism reflects our lack of faith in our ability to affect broad social change.

We were force-fed the ideology that there is no alternative to the existing model of neoliberalism and corporate- controlled globalization. If we tried to suggest that we could play a role in molding our own destinies, we were laughed at. What's best for business is what's best for the world, we were told, and if you disagree..., too bad, because no one's going to listen."

Read the whole thing, of course. "Only connect" Including, or especially, Marxism and High Fidelity

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 31, 2006 5:43:08 PM

Well, marc, I think you just illustrated my point far better than I could. Like Amanda -- and probably Ezra, for that matter -- you read yourself or your situation onto a character or plot, then wonder why everyone else doesn't see it the same way. This is probably a strong sign of a good book, but save that discussion for another time.

I could just as easily read my own experiences into it, that of seeing immature "artists" use career women as a source of financial and emotional support -- an "anchor." Except there's a whole 'nother side to that -- several of them, in fact. Sides, layers, dependencies, forbearances, and all the other complexities of a relationship and its context.

Amanda's post digressed awfully far beyond discussing relationships, though, heading off into discussing how "it’s obviously just incredibly tempting for the corporate media structure to get the heat off of them and recast women as the enforcers of the conformist social structure." I mean, really. There are a lot of monsters under the patriarchal bed, but she's got to make a better case for some of the ones she brings up, like this one.

Posted by: modus potus | May 31, 2006 5:58:38 PM

Hornby's books are romance novels for guys. In High Fidelity, you have interesting, poor guy who gives his interestingness to his girlfriend, who is more mature and more economically secure, in return for a viable relationship with an economically viable woman. And so learns to love. Now see if you can imagine that same story with the gender roles reversed. Oh, you can? And it's every romance novel ever written? High Fidelity is not only not sexist, it's transgressive.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 31, 2006 6:38:26 PM

Considering that Rob's failure in the capitalist record industry game because of his refusal to bland out his shop is paralleled neatly with his inability to hold together a relationship with Laura because she's just a lot more mainstream than him, it's hardly a "stretch" to say that the two streams of failure in Rob's life are related. In everyone's eagerness to jump all over the naughty feminist you neglected to check if you weren't accidentally jumping all over the naughty B.A. in Literature who has a relentless need to read books for their symbolism instead of just the rousing good tale. (Not mutually exclusive, by the way.)

Also, in the repeated eagerness to jump all over me for being a tad too literate whilst also being a feminist, it passed the attention of many in here that Ezra and I actually read the book pretty much the same--Rob is having to compromise/capitulate himself for Laura. Where we differ is in whether we think this is a good decision for him or not. When I was 20 and first read it, I thought it was. Now I'm 28 and I think it's a bad idea.

My reading of it is here:


Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | May 31, 2006 6:59:27 PM

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