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.