OK, I am stooping to posting papers. I think this one was a pretty good review of Nick Hornby’s book How to be Good, though, and worthy of posting, if only to draw attention to Hornby’s books. I have only read that and About a Boy. That movie is a favorite, and one which I think raises some substantive questions. Other Hornby based movies include Fever Pitch, which features Colin Firth in a dishevelled, depressed moment as a soccer obessed teacher with father issues, and High Fidelity starring John Cusack. I think Fever Pitch, is being remade in an American setting. How to be Good was a departure for Hornby, of sorts, as instead of having a hapless male as the central character, he has a pretty-together, sophisticated woman as the lead, that is, at least until her husband gets religion, or at least something akin to it….
Neil E. Das
Prof. Jerram Barrs
Cultural and Biblical Hermeneutics
How to be Good by Nick Hornby
I first became aware of the author Nick Hornby through the film About a Boy, which is adapted from his novel by the same name. The film provided me both pleasure and challenge. The pleasure came from viewing a good story, with humor and poignancy, acted by talented actors. The challenge came from realizing Hornby was raising excellent issues; issues, in fact, which the church should be raising, for which the church should attempt answers. What responsibility do we have for one another in modern society? Where does true fulfillment come from in our individualistic, consumerist culture?
If the discussion of these issues in About a Boy were to be represented as a square, then the discussion of them in Hornby’s next book, How to be Good, is a cube. Indeed, it is the title of the book which is its major theme, ensconced in the story of a couple on the verge of divorce. Their relationship and the complexities of marriage and communication is another major theme. In delving into these related themes, Hornby says much that is true, both in his deftly crafted description of the world and his implied prescriptions as to what the answers might be to the questions he raises. This will be the substance of the first section of this paper. Hornby, however, was not a believer when he wrote the book (one prays that a “yet” may one day be added to this phrase), and though the story brushes tantalizingly close to the Christian faith, it ultimately rejects the faith as the answer to the questions. This rejection calls for a reply from a believer; a reply which is sensitive to the worthiness of the question and questioner. This reply will be the aim of the second section of this paper.
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One of Hornby’s strengths as a writer is his ability to both skillfully describe contemporary culture from the position of an insider and also to subtly call into question its assumptions. His description of intimate relationships, seen in the interactions of Kate and David in How to be Good, is illustrative of this point. Their marriage is on the verge of divorce. She is having an affair, principally in an effort to reestablish a sense of herself as an interesting and valuable individual. This affirmation is something her husband has long since failed to provide. Instead, he is consumed with anger, writing a weekly column entitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway” and a novel, which also mocks aspects of society which he loathes. Hornby’s sensitivity in conveying the internal dynamics and conversational nuances of such a relationship is remarkable. His dialogue and descriptions ring true, sadly for many both inside and outside the faith:
You don’t get conversations like this when things are going well. It is not difficult to imagine that in other, better relationships, a phone call that began in this way would not and could not lead to talk of divorce. In better relationships you could sail right through the dentist part and move on to other topics—your day’s work, or plans for the evening…topics that form the substance and perhaps even the sustenance of an ordinary, forgettable, loving relationship. David and I, however…this is not our situation, not anymore. Phone calls like ours only happen when you’ve spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play…I was even struck by how clever we had been to invent our code: it takes years of miserable ingenuity to get to this place. (4)
Nested in this bleak description of a marriage, are some of the questions that Hornby takes up in the remainder of the book. Can a couple recover from such dysfunction and pain? What role does goodness and forgiveness have in the equation? There is also an implied and commendable hope for things to be better, a desire for wholeness; a desire to which not many in contemporary culture aspire.
Instead of hopefulness and looking for the best in people, contemporary culture is bound up in cynicism and sarcasm. In the book, David undergoes a conversion, which begins with the healing of his back by a Gen X guru called DJ GoodNews, who also takes away his anger. This is somewhat unexplained but serves emblematically as conversion, and leads David to change his and his family’s lifestyle, and also to dramatic changes in his interpersonal relationships and conversations. In fact, over the course of the book the central conflict shifts from Kate’s alienation from and disdain for her insufferably boorish husband to her alienation from and disdain for her insufferably good, and seemingly insipid, husband. Her take on his changed conversational patterns occurs when David and Kate are visiting a couple with whom they had a set pattern of communication, which principally consisted of the husbands spewing vitriol and disdain on just about everyone:
I got sick of hearing why everybody was useless, and ghastly, and talentless, and awful, and how they didn’t deserve anything good that had happened to them, and they completely deserved anything bad that had happened to them, but this evening I long for the old David—I miss him like one might miss a scar, or wooden leg, something disfiguring but characteristic….I had become comfortable with his cynicism, and in any case, we’re all cynical now, although it’s only this evening that I recognize this properly. Cynicism is our shared common language, the Esperanto that actually caught on, and though I’m not fluent in it—I like too many things, and I am not envious of enough people—I know enough to get by. And in any case it is not possible to avoid cynicism and the sneer completely…you are obliged to be sour, simply to prove that you are a fully functioning and reflective metropolitan person. (163)
In the final analysis, Hornby does not quite escape the cynicism he describes, particularly as it relates to the faith, yet it is remarkable that he so accurately describes, and subtly decries, the poison that so tinges the very air of our times.
In addition to his descriptive skills, Hornby also asks questions that could well lead to some prescriptions for society. Prescription is a strong word, and one that is truly anathema to postmodernity, and, so, I do not think that Hornby would be comfortable with such a framing of the issues his book raises. Yet, the questions are valid and good, especially for those of us inside the faith, who, ideally, should have an appropriate framework to assess and act on questions of “How to be Good.”
David’s conversion is not a conversion to Christianity, but a conversion to good works. He begins his good works by giving a homeless boy 80 pounds; then moves on to giving away one of his children’s two computers; then encourages his children to give away their extra toys; then invites his homeless guru to live with them; then devises a plan, together with his guru, to encourage his neighbors to take in homeless children; and the list goes on. He is torn about eating a roast with his family while there are hungry people on the other side of town. He, in essence, immediately acts on anything which he sees as an injustice and which he feels he can do something about. He says to his wife “I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare….I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it” (99).
Throughout the bulk of the book, Hornby has Kate unable to respond logically to any of David’s plans to do these “good works,” as any argument seems petty and morally wrong. Yet, ultimately, it is Kate that wins the day. At the end of the book, David is disturbed and defeated by his and his GoodNews’ inability to be able to enact any real changes on intimate interpersonal levels as they have been attempting to do on societal levels. Kate finally brings the family back into line with more normal levels of middle class charity. Indeed, Hornby seems to believe that this is the best that one can hope for, as extremism simply leads to more dysfunction. In an interview on his publisher’s site, he notes:
I think that’s the bargain we all seem to have made. We have a moral duty to our nearest and dearest and if there’s anything left over we’ll put a few bob in a tin somewhere. I read somewhere that there had been a lot of research done, on ‘activists’ and good people, with a capital G, capital P, and they always found the same thing. The immediate family was in complete chaos; I mean what must it have been like to have been a child of Gandhi? (par. 10)
This, indeed, is a valid point, which has so often proven true, and, yet, I was somewhat saddened by retreat made by Hornby at the end of the book. The questions of how to be good, or rather more specifically how to do good, in our modern world are worthy questions. They need to be asked, particularly inside the church, shaking us out of the lethargy of our consumerist cultures to which we so readily succumb.
Perhaps, it is enough that Hornby raises the questions. Kate comes to a balance of what is involved for her to be good, which includes purchasing things which enrich her soul:
Maybe I can’t live a rich and beautiful life, but there are rich and beautiful things for sale all around me, even on the Holloway Road, and they are not an extravagance because if I buy some of them then I think I might be able to get by, and if I don’t then I think I might go under. I need a Discman and some CDs and half a dozen novels urgently, total cost maybe three hundred pounds…And I could shave even that pitiful amount down. I could go to the library, and I could borrow the CD’s…but I need the Discman…I want to be able to block out every last trace of the world I inhabit, even if it is just for half an hour a day. And yes, yes: just think how many cataract operations or bags of rice could be bought for three hundred pounds. And just think how long it would take a twelve-year old Asian girl to earn that in her sweatshop. Can I be a good person and spend that much money on overpriced consumer goods? I don’t know. But I do know this: I’d be no good without them. (304)
It seems that any conscientious person, Christian or non-Christian, must balance similar concerns, coming, admittedly, to divergent and highly personal conclusions. Upon reflection, this is a good lesson to school and subdue traces of legalism and fundamentalism in myself, which reflexively seek universal norms for such issues, none of which are specifically provided in Scripture.
What Scripture does provide clear teaching on, however, is the larger question at the center of the book. It insists, indeed, that no one can “be good,” and that our attempts at goodness outside of the context of a right relationship with God appear to God as filthy rags. Hornby is principally interested in the horizontal, sociological dimensions of goodness. An individual’s Christian faith must incorporate this dimension in order to be genuine, but must be preceded by teaching on how one becomes good in the vertical, or spiritual dimension, between God and humankind. Hornby brushes up against this dimension, even having his central character visit a church and converse with a vicar. Yet, Kate, and one presumes Hornby by proxy, does not find any answers there. The sense of guilt is only horizontal, it seems. The Christian insistence that it is our sins in relation to God which is the central problem of our existence is not addressed. Nor, is the forgiveness that Christianity maintains is offered for those sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ addressed; a forgiveness that, ideally, should overflow into horizontal, human relationships as well, bringing healing and life.
Throughout the book Kate insists that she is a good person given her profession as a General Practitioner. Yet, this insistence is constantly undermined by her own reflection that she has committed adultery, inwardly mocks her mentally unstable patients, often hates her husband, and sometimes her children. David and his guru, too, come to this dark self-knowledge. Despite their attempts to do good socially, they are inept at mending personal failures. Kate comforts the guru, GoodNews, after a dismally failed attempt at reconciling with his sister, which has ended with a series of four letter words:
Who are these people that they want to save the world and yet they are incapable of forming proper relationships with anybody: As GoodNews so eloquently puts it, it’s love this and love that, but of course it’s so easy to love someone you don’t know…Staying civil to someone with whom you’ve ever shared Christmas turkey—now there’s a miracle. (275)
It is forgiveness for this type of failure for which Kate goes to church, “For all the shitty things I do” (241). Yet, she finds the church wanting. There is no epiphany, no engagement with God; in part, it must be noted, because no such engagement is sought. Kate returns home to cobble together her familial and professional relationships as best she can, giving as much as she feels she can offer, seeking to find contentment in this. The last lines of the book drive home Kate’s spiritual state clearly, and, for me, very sadly. After a cathartic rain storm, which brings London to a stand still and serves as the breaking of the fever of the questions raised by the novel, Kate makes this observation about her decision to stay with her husband and work at their family life. Her husband is leaning out a window, struggling to unplug a stopped up drain which is leaking:
He’s wearing jeans, and Tom and I grab hold of one back pocket each in an attempt to anchor him, while Molly in turn hangs on to us, purposelessly but sweetly. My family, I think, just that. And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It’s a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there’s nothing out there at all. (305)
My personal reaction to this line is instructive. I read it again and again to be certain of what I think it articulates: unbelief. I then process strong feelings of disappointment, both because my worldview is not affirmed and because of sorrow at the sad conclusion that I feel Hornby has come to. Finally, I accept this as his view (a rather obvious conclusion for most, which I, being a recovering fundamentalist, often come to with difficulty), I appreciate all the fodder for thought the book does offer, and resolve to strengthen my commitment to enact and witness to my own belief in the true answer to the questions of “How to be Good.”
Dr. Clive Marsh, the Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in the UK, wrote to Hornby suggesting “that he is really on the hunt for a secular spirituality” (par. 15). Hornby wrote back saying the following, “Obviously I have touched directly and indirectly on the subject of spirituality in my books and though I think you might be stretching a point here and there it is something that interests me. The last sentence of How To Be Good is, I think, recognition of a need for something to replace Christianity” (Marsh par. 16). Marsh then asks:
What’s striking is that the sense of a loss of ‘out thereness’ has been around for a very long time. Why is it that we haven’t tackled it better as a Church, especially in our dealings with those beyond the Church?…Notions of ‘out thereness’ evolve as culture changes. The fact is that at the moment, the sense of loss, or the sense that other ways than religions are dealing with it a bit better, are very prominent. (par 20)
Sadly, I agree.
Finally, it may be that Nick Hornby has not have given the church and Christianity an entirely fair shake. That question I cannot answer. What I can do is pray that the Spirit of God may draw him to Himself and, for my own part, believ
e in the one who is “out there,” who is my Goodness and wellspring of any charity of my part.
- Hornby, Nick. How to be Good. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001
- Hornby, Nick. Interview. “Talk.” Nick Hornby. 2001. Penguin UK. 7 Apr. 2004.
- Marsh, Clive. Keynote Address. “Christianity in a Post-Atheist Age: Sex, Work, Shopping, Christian Doctrine, Entertainment, Art, Sport.” Methodist Conference 2003. North Wales Centre, Llandudno. 27 June, 2003. The Methodist Church. 7 Apr. 2004.