Snap, crackle and pop

HIGH FIDELITY Nick Hornby Gollancz £14.99
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The Independent Culture
Nick Hornby is an incorrigible romantic. Fever Pitch, his brilliant love letter to Arsenal Football Club, demonstrated a touching commitment to lost causes. High Fidelity, Hornby's first novel, is a love letter too - to pop music and its place in people's lives; to an ex-girlfriend called Laura; and to the condition of bitter-sweet melancholia which all romantics love to lose themselves in.

It's a book that begs several questions. Is it possible to maintain a serious relationship and a large record collection at the same time? Can you be friends, let alone lovers, with someone who goes "Whoooh" to Brown Sugar at parties? Why can women never deliver exactly the "Look of Love'' that the impressionable listener has been led to expect - no deserve - from repeated submersion in the Dusty Springfield song of the same name? Above all, can the inflated romantic expectations of pop songs ever be realised in real life?

Rob Fleming is 35, single and sad in more ways than one. He is a pop addict who has grown up believing in the redemptive power of music - not in the rock `n' roll, man-the- barricades, rebellious sense but in the infinitely more complicated and problematic sense of believing that music can provide a route map of emotional experience. But Rob has lost his way and, to borrow a song title, is on the road to nowhere.

The specialist record shop he runs in Finsbury Park is slowly going bankrupt. Rob whiles away the hours with his friends Dick and Barry, drawing up lists - the best five Elvis Costello songs, best guitar solos, records by blind musicians - a displacement activity for negotiating the real world, smug in the belief that its what you like not what you are like that's important. Never has the order ``Get a life'' been more applicable.

Rejection has become second nature to Rob. When Laura leaves, he retreats into what he does best, drawing up a list - in this case, the Top Ten Romantic Rejections in his past - and rearranging his record collection. Rob can't control his life but he can control the order of a tape compilation ("You can't have white music and black music together unless the white music sounds like black music and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side''). If you can't have a good life, you can always have great songs.

Hornby's description of a male adrift is beautifully observed, alternatively wounded and cocksure, pathetic and defiant, consoling himself with Robocop videos and six-packs and meditating on the eternal question: Why can't life be more like a Solomon Burke record?

For Rob, constant exposure to the emotional textbook of popular music has resulted in emotional retardation. Torn between his instinctual laddish tendencies and the baffling complexities of post-feminist woman, he fantasises about "women who talk back, women with a mind of their own, women with snap, crackle and pop . . . but they are also women who seem to need the love of a good man. I could rescue them . . . I could redeem them''. It takes a (female) friend to point out that in fact he cannot cope with women who have better jobs and prospects and emotional horizons larger than the size of their record collections.

Hornby is brilliant on the vagaries of the sexual and emotional dance.There are passages that make you laugh out loud (or wince) in recognition; the fumbling anxieties of seduction; the inanities of young professionals' dinner parties; and the "sad single person culture'' of unmarried girls of a certain age with their cars, their Eurhythmics records and their empty drinks cupboards. Even his walk-on parts bypass caricature: the anally-retentive Barry and Dave; Marie, the American country singer with whom Rob enjoys a brief fling. In Laura, he has fashioned a wonderfully knowing and sympathic portrait of a woman with a mind of her own, but a woman capable of saving Rob from himself.

High Fidelity is a book that leaves you believing not only in the redemptive power of music but above all in the redemptive power of love. Funny and wise, sweet and true, it is modern fiction's equivalent of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' Greatest Hits.