Boyish Smarm

About a Boy
Penguin; 320 pages; $22.95

When the young male protagonist in a novel lives by himself, resisting deep human attachments, doting on his expensive up-to-the minute hairstyle, contempo wardrobe, and encyclopedic music collection, you can bet money that the fix is in: He’s going to get his comeuppance before long, invariably in the form of an unexpected relationship that will crack his carefree detachment like an egg. In the same way the movies don’t like single women who keep to themselves, wear glasses, and read books – not until they let down their hair and swing, that is, going from ugly duckling to dazzling swan in the mandatory mythic makeover – literature doesn’t like superficial bachelors, except as they offer the raw material for turning out rounded, caring human beings, If popular art has an iron law, it’s this: Unattached women need romance to complete them, and unattached men need emotional commitments.

About a Boy, the second novel by young British writer Nick Hornby (his first, High Fidelity, was also a comedy of maturation), is actually about a man; a man, it’s implied, who’d better grow up fast or face the slow and lonely psychic decline that our culture assumes is the fate of footloose males. (Until this fixed idea loosens: Good luck, gay rights.) Will is a Londoner, and at 36 – roughly the year of spiritual decision in contemporary fiction – he has no family, no close friends, no worries, and, thanks to a healthy royalty stream from a cutesy Christmas song written by his late father, no need to work. He’s a free urban agent, disposable income incarnate. The closest he comes to self-scrutiny is taking personality tests in glossy magazines: “… and if Will had anything approaching an ethical belief, it was that lying about yourself in questionnaires was utterly wrong.”

Hornby is a comic traditionalist but with added bounce and spin. He sets up conventional expectations but pays them off with pastel funny money. When Will invents a fictitious son so he can join a club for single parents, reasoning that lonely women with kids can’t afford to be picky about men – particularly men who’ve proven themselves as fathers – what springs to mind is every other episode of Men Behaving Badly, yet Hornby manages to freshen the gag, to make it more than a sitcom juggling act. As Will’s white lies predictably compound themselves and his made-up son sprouts a made-up family tree, the issue becomes Will’s capacity for optimistic self-delusion, not just his agility as a con man. “Once, years ago, when he was a kid, he told a school friend (having first ascertained that his friend was not a C. S. Lewis fan) that it was possible to walk through the back of his wardrobe into a different world, and invited him round to explore… . The thing was, he could still remember feeling genuinely hopeful, right up until the last minute: Maybe there will be something there, he had thought, maybe I won’t lose face.”

No mere heartless libertine willing to tell a woman anything to get her into bed, Will is something more subtle, and more perniciously modern: a serial self-inventor. Having managed to digitize his soul, he can rearrange his psychic pixels at will. He doesn’t wear masks – there’s nothing to wear them on. In fact, he’s not even dishonest in the usual sense, since he has no inner truth to hide. (A certain American president comes to mind.) And though Hornby is bound by the popular novelist’s code to disapprove of Will’s condition and pour cold water over him to cure it, one senses that he really doesn’t want to, which is what makes the book a guilty pleasure and not just another sweet, life-affirming romp. Hornby half admires Will’s digital soul, treating it as a wonder of evolution even as he dutifully deplores it. He sings the body electronic, but in an undertone.

The agent of Will’s emotional redemption is a wise little boy named Marcus with a stock comic motivation of his own: he wants to trap a man for Mom. Mom is Fiona, an unhip aging hippie, all vegetarianism and natural fibers, who forces Marcus to listen to Joni Mitchell albums and wear homely loafers instead of flashy sneakers. Will meets her through the single-parents group, and he’s horrified by her sincerity. To Will, Fiona’s soulful earth-mother parenting – she sings sad songs with her eyes closed in front of Marcus – amounts to child abuse. Kids are vulnerable enough when they’re born, Will feels; to tenderize them further is inexcusable.

Modernizing Marcus becomes Will’s mission. Meanwhile, Marcus sensitizes Will. It’s a formula symbiosis that even Hornby can’t mold into new shapes. The gods of musical-comedy storytelling can only be toyed with, not finally defied, and the rest of the book just fills in the details of the old Pygmalion switcheroo. Will buys Marcus a Nirvana album and outfits him with new Adidas, enabling him to finally walk tall. Marcus teaches Will empathy and kindness, enabling him to feel, to fall in love. And the burden of having to carry all this corn makes Hornby’s sentences – normally lean and flexible and resilient – buckle at the knees. “Will couldn’t recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human.”

Hornby is a fine writer, swift and pointed, with a lighter, more mischievous heart than he lets on and more sympathy for the devil than he admits to, but he still left me feeling that there’s something slightly fraudulent about the maturity drama as a form these days. It’s all a bit too open-and-shut, too smug and deterministic somehow, this business of going from cold to warm, hard to soft, self-centered to sensitive. All the questions that seem, in life, to grow vaguer and more nuanced by the day – do people really improve and grow, or do they just genetically unfold? Is it better to stand on principle or swerve with circumstance? Is bad behavior a choice or a disease? – are answered in this sort of novel before they’re even asked. The prescription is simple: Open up. Bond. Reach out. Turn off your TV and get a life. Ah, but what kind of life? And at what price? In far too many novels these days, even some quite good ones, it’s as if we’re just supposed to know.

Boyish Smarm