Borderline by Numbers

Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (2005) is laugh-out-loud funny in parts but I found large parts of it to be terribly dull. Soccer-bore dull, people talking for the sake of talking kind of dull. And for a novel that deals with depression and suicide, it mostly avoids psychology.

“It’s always someone else’s fault. Boo-hoo-hoo. Well, I happen to be one of those rare individuals who believe that what went on with Mummy and Daddy had nothing to do with me screwing a fifteen-year-old.”

The speaker is Martin Sharp, a former morning TV presenter who has served time in prison for having sex with a 15-year old girl. His career is in freefall, his ex-wife won’t let him see his kids and his girlfriend has recently cheated on him. Depressed enough to consider jumping off the top of a London tower block, he dangles his feet off the edge of Toppers’ House and, instead of jumping, meets three other similarly depressed people in Jess (an 18-year old drug abuser), JJ (a has-been American rocker) and Maureen (a single mom with a severely disabled child). The premise of four depressed people meeting up on the roof of a tower-block, having a bonding moment and helping each other out of the depths of their respective depressions is a reasonably good one. Jess comments that the four of them are like the Beatles except without the talent, humour or skill. But scratch the surface of this comical idea and it all starts to seem a little ho-hum.

Hornby’s novel alternates between four narrators (the four would-be suicides) and I think this is part of the problem. As a reader I never really warmed to any one of the charactes because the focus keeps switching between them. The characters also strike me as rather two-dimensional and their back-stories are not developed in any real detail. They also speak directly to the reader rather than to each other, which can make for a rather tedious read.

Jess’s dad is a Junior Minister in Tony Blair’s government and her sister disappeared in circumstances which suggest suicide. Her dad is too busy with his job to provide proper supervision for his daughter and so allows himself to be manipulated into giving her whatever she wants. One glaring omission for me was the absence of Jess’s mother. On the one or two occasions that we do meet her she has a false smile plastered on her face and is little more than a cardboard cut-out of a politician’s wife.

The absence of psychology (except for the self-help kind) in a novel about suicide also puzzled me until I realised that serious psychological engagement with the issues is exactly what Hornby is at pains to avoid. Too unfunny perhaps in the way that considering your characters’ early development is also not likely to result in any one-liners. But in a country which has (as far as I know) largely free counselling services available through the NHS, why would a character such as Maureen not seek some sort of psychological help before deciding to end her life? Similarly, if what Jess is desperate for is connection and a ‘real’ relationship, then why does she not seek some counselling herself?

Jess appears to meet the requirements for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and it’s as if Hornby googled these and fashioned Jess accordingly. However as a psychologist I wasn’t convinced that Jess is actually Borderline. Here are the criteria for BDP:

1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. [Not including suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5]
2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., promiscuous sex, eating disorders, binge eating, substance abuse, reckless driving). [Again, not including suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5]
5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats, or self-mutilating behavior such as cutting, interfering with the healing of scars, or picking at oneself.
6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness, worthlessness.
8. Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation, delusions or severe dissociative symptoms. [DSM-IV, as provided by Wikipedia.]

To qualify for a diagnosis of BPD you need five out of the nine criteria and on superficial consideration Jess meets this requirement. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment? Tick. Impulsivity in at least two areas …? Tick. (And so on).

Leaving aside the difficulties and controversies of a BPD diagnosis (see the Wikipedia article), Jess doesn’t really “fit” the diagnosis of Borderline. For a start she’s a bit too dull:

You won’t believe this — I don’t think I do now — but in my head, what happened to Jen had fuck all to do with New Year’s Eve. I could tell, from talking to the others and reading the papers, that no-one else saw it that way, though. They were like, Ooooh, I get it: your sister disappeared, so you want to jump off a building. But it isn’t like that. I’m sure it must have been an ingredient, sort of thing, but it wasn’t the whole recipe. Say I’m a spaghetti Bolognese, well I reckon Jen is the tomatoes. Maybe the onions. Or even just the garlic. But she’s not the meat or the pasta.

Jess: If you’d seen me leaning on the wall and looking down at the water, you’d have gone Oh, she’s thinking, but I wasn’t. I mean, there were words in my head, but just because there are words in your head it doesn’t mean you’re thinking, just like if you’ve got a pocket full of pennies it doesn’t make you rich. The words in my head were like, bollocks, bastard, bitch …

That doesn’t strike me as “affective instability”. And to cut a long discussion short, Jess just “feels” all wrong. I would be interested to read “Girl, Interrupted” or another book that effectively describes a young woman’s sense of desperation. Nick Hornby’s book doesn’t evoke a feeling of desperation (other than that of the reader’s wanting the book to end). But I was interested enough to wonder about other post-9/11 novels. The attacks on the Twin Towers get two (very brief) mentions in the novel and, for me at any rate, there’s a sense that those events cast a long shadow over contemporary urban fiction.


10 Responses to Borderline by Numbers

  1. You’re right about the lack of desperation in A Long Way Down. To me the only character who had a right to be desperate was Maureen. It’s as if Hornby was at pains to write a funny book about suicide – a topic that is not remotely amusing – and in order to be funny none of his characters could be really, truly desperate.

  2. doctordi says:

    Pete, kind of frightening to read that BPD criteria and think, “Gee, that sounds an awful lot like my late-teens, early twenties…”!!! I think I had a solid three, partial four – a little too close to the qualifying five for comfort! Haven’t read the book, and thanks, I don’t think I will now. I assume you’ve read McEwan’s Enduring Love? Pretty interesting from a psych point of view, I would think. Certainly parts of it gave me the genuine creeps.

  3. Pete says:

    Charlotte – Thanks for confirming my thoughts on this one. I was quite disappointed with it and thought about not reviewing it at all – but then thought that it would be a worthwhile exercise to explore why I was so disappointed by it.

    DoctorDi – Yes, I can relate to that too! And apparently lots of psych students see themselves in many of the diagnoses (just as medical students imagine that they’re got some terrible disease). Our lecturer said that falling in love is a bit like being Borderline! I think it’s dangerous to pathologise “normal” human behaviour but I suppose it is when this type of behaviour is taken to extremes and becomes a ‘chronic condition’ that it becomes harmful. I think a bit of desperation is a good thing. And who really wants to be abandoned? But I guess most of us, while similar at times to the criteria above, are more flexible in how we relate and cope with setbacks. “People with BPD” (and it is really only a convenient – and quite pejorative – label) often have little insight into why they behave the way they do, or are unable to behave differently.

    This is a topic for another discussion but I think it comes down to what you do with that diagnosis. Do you put people in a box called “dangerous” and basically write them off? Or do you try and help them to more insight?

  4. Litlove says:

    Pete, this is a really excellent review because you show how something that scores as a ‘concept’ to sell to the zeitgeist ends up empty and unreal. It’s fashionable to be anti-psychology, but a novel that is dead to the profound and intricate and powerful movements of the internal world is inevitably going to be frustratingly shallow. Well, I think so, anyhow! Interesting on BPD as well.

  5. […] although readers know that concept-driven books are often disappointing (and see Couchtrip’s wonderful post on Nick Horby for an excellent example of this). Alas, the concept that’s going to be attached to me is that of […]

  6. Pete says:

    Litlove – thanks for the good review of my review! And I agree about really interesting books having something to say about the “profound and intricate and powerful movements of the internal world”. I guess it’s difficult sometimes to say those things in an accessible way.

  7. verbivore says:

    Great review. I am meant to be reading Nick Hornby’s Slam this month for my Swiss book group and I’ve never read any of Hornby’s other work so this is interesting for me to look at as I go into his other book. It’s a shame perhaps that Hornby tried to write something funny about a serious issue and ultimately failed…because I suppose it could have gone the other way, he could have found a way to write something meaningful in a funny away about a difficult experience.

    I did read Girl, Interrupted a few years ago and I enjoyed it. I don’t think I understand enough about psychology to say whether this book did a better job of actually exploring a real experience. Kaysen’s is a memoir so at least she probably tried to keep to the truth as she felt it.

  8. deepblue says:

    I haven’t read A Long Way Down, but I just wanted to put in my 2-cents worth on the other book you mentioned. I have read Girl, Interrupted and did not find it as interesting or as powerful as I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a similar story. I also recently read a Young Adult novel called Cut (about a young girl with cutting issues), but I didn’t think it went into nearly enough depth about the complexity of that issue.
    So, my recommendation would be for I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, from the books I’ve read. If you’re looking for an inside look at a hospitalized girl with mental illness. For what that’s worth. 🙂

  9. Pete says:

    Verbivore – I’ll be interested to hear your perspective on Hornby. Hopefully Slam works a lot better. And thanks for the thoughts on Girl, Interrrupted.

    DeepBlue – Welcome and thanks for the recommendation re I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I remember the movie vaguely from quite a few years back. Will be interested to check it out again. Always interested in reading good accounts of people’s experiences of being in a mental hospital. After I wrote this review I remembered The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie Lennox (also reviewed here and by many other bloggers) which provides an excellent account of how a woman’s quite justifiable desperation is pathologised and results in her being locked up for a long time.

  10. Make Tea Not War says:

    I don’t really disagree with most of your criticisms of the book. I didn’t find the characters terribly believable or likable – but yet, overall, I liked it. I’m not sure Nick Hornby set out to write a funny book, as such. I think it was intended more as a hopeful book. Maybe some of things he was trying to convey about finding meaning in life and coping with it all seem rather trite, especially if you are expecting to read a nuanced character study- but sometimes, when you are in a dark place, hearing those trite seeming things can be exactly what one needs. I know I was going through some hard times when I read it, not suicidal but upset and worried and facing having to potentially bring legal action against my employer- and I found the simple message in the book that 3 months from now everything will have changed actually gave me hope & helped me to keep going when I needed it. (And three months later everything had indeed changed.)

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