Looking for fidelity in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity
Nick Hornby's Rob is a creature of hierarchy (note his power rankings which start off his confessional narrative), and being such he is more a man of medieval sensibilities than one might at first realize. Rob, is after all, a (not-so-young-anymore) man in modern day England, whose exploits seem to have little if anything to do with Thomistic scholasticism or feudal arrangements. But there is a connection -- and the connection might just as easily be made between everyman and that bygone age. In a sense, Rob is Hornby's Everyman, a child of the modern world, of revolution, pop music/culture, and innocent (though oftentimes selfish) longing. What stands Rob apart, and elevates him, is his attachment to fidelity. On the literal sense, of course, fidelity refers to the sound quality of a specific recording (and Rob has many records); but on another level, fidelity echoes Joseph Conrad's conception of Fidelity--Faithfulness -- the lone idea that, in Conrad's estimation, had survived the shipwreck of Medievalism, weathered the storms of Renaissance, Revolution, and Industry, to arrive shaken on the doorstep of Modernity: Faithfulness, the one attribute of the human experience that still means something -- at least to Rob, and, in a wider sense, to Everyman. For without Fidelity, there is nothing to bind man to the reality of himself, his actions, his past, present, future, and (as it went in the Medieval Age) his God. This paper will explore the concept of fidelity in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, and show how Rob's journey (so often like a broken record) finally arrives at an understanding of true fidelity.
Rob's confessional begins with a top-five: the top-five list of girls who have broken his heart. The list is only worth mentioning, really, because of who is not on it: his most recent girlfriend -- Laura. But the fact that Rob even feels compelled to mention that she is not on it reveals two things about his character: 1) he is attached to his past (not necessarily in a bad way, but perhaps obsessive-compulsively, and 2) Laura has hurt him more than he is initially willing to say.
Of course, being egotistical, Rob does not want to say how much he actually longs for Laura; and to divert his attention he immediately launches into a quick recap of his top-five, beginning with Alison Ashworth, who started it all in 1972. She was an instant of beauty and passion and an object of love and (what might have been) fidelity -- but it was over before it even began. Says Rob, "There still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that has happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one" (5). The confession is revelatory of Rob's instinctive tendency to hold onto that which is unattainable -- and to repeat that which has already happened. In one sense, he clings to the memories of past break-ups because they form a sort of succoring melancholy into which he can pour himself and out of which he can fixate on his love for pop-music, which is essentially melancholic. It is a self-serving tendency. In another sense, however, it shows that Rob is a man of devotion: he is devoted to the idea of romance that seemed so near that first night he fell in love; he is devoted to the quest for true love; and he is willing to undergo the kind of rigorous self-examination that monks or Jesuitical fathers might have undergone before receiving the cloth. Rob's top-five is indicative of both his selfishness and his desire for something higher -- in terms of the novel, Fidelity.
Having not found fidelity in his top-five makes his re-cap of it even more painful. Yet, there is the sense that Rob's plight is not hopeless, for if the top-five have proved to be incidents of infidelity -- and Laura has not made the list -- there is the hope that his relationship with her may prove different (despite their break-up).
Rob's problem, however, is indicated in his top-five favorite movies list (being a man of hierarchy, every one of his lists has a meaning beyond its obvious intention): In descending order, Rob votes for The Godfather (I), (II), Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Reservoir Dogs (28). These are not the film favorites of an adult -- these are the film favorites of an adolescent filled with teenage angst, trying to ratify that angst by associating it with "high-brow," culturally significant titles. The fact is, however, that Taxi Driver is about a psycho who finally vents his frustration with everything by whacking some pimps. Goodfellas is about a bunch of psychos who vent their frustrations by whacking anyone they want, robbing, looting, selling narcotics until either they get caught or get killed. Reservoir Dogs is Tarantino's homage to Asian cinema, which is nothing more than bloody, violent, angry, witty adolescent anti-establishmentarian angst. The Godfather (I and II) pledges a kind of sophistication, but this seems at best a front, considering what follows. The fact is, Rob has never fully matured -- and the reason, as he states, is that he (like almost everyone else) has been caught in the trap of sad, self-pitying pop music since before he was even sad or self-pitying. He points to a kind of cultural conditioning for which he is not wholly responsible -- and the fact that he recognizes it is an indication of his ability to be objective. Yet, because he has not matured (or been allowed to mature), he cannot see his own faults and defects for what they are -- immaturity.
Of course, his vision becomes clearer as his story progresses through its various ups and downs, and Rob's seeming social paralysis (a result of his being "stuck" like a record in adolescent angst) is brought under control, allowing him to grow. This growth is due to his response to Laura and, what is ultimately the growth agent, his love for her. This is no sentimental, pop-music kind of love. Rather, it is the kind of love that Tolkien speaks of: love that takes work -- love that does not always feel good. It is a sign of maturity when that kind of love can be acted upon -- and it is a sign of Rob's breaking out of the bonds and chains of pop-music fever (at least to a certain extent).
The symbol of Rob's evolution is, yet again, delivered through a top-five list. His growth is foreshadowed by a singular moment in the narrative when he states a list (actually, two lists) that are not his own: for a moment Rob steps outside of himself to see what others value. It is a moment of selflessness that will allow Rob to progress towards the happiness of union and fidelity at the end of the novel (the novel is, after all, a comedy). The moment comes (symbolically) when he gives the top-five film lists for his Mum and Dad (137). Interestingly, they both share the film in the number one spot: Genevieve, a kind of goofball, romantic/slapstick comedy that involves car races and couples. It is different from Rob's top film because it is, at root, good-natured and comedic, whereas Rob's is dark, brooding, and ultimately loathsome. The fact that he feels compelled to give the lists of his parents shows that 1) he is looking beyond his own present insignificance to a couple who have made it work, and 2) that the potential to measure himself against an objective standard that is happy and comedic as opposed to sad and self-pitying is made manifest.
Rob's potential to find fidelity, therefore, is a direct result of…