Suicide is a funny thing. At least, it is in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Unlike his earlier pop-culture riffs, High Fidelity and About A Boy, Hornby’s glance into the lives of four suicidal characters takes a broader look at life, transcending issues such as relationships and maturity in an attempt to portray a multidimensional struggle that revolves around life and death.
The novel has a fluid narrative, thanks to short passages told from the points of view of the main characters – Martin, Jess, JJ and Maureen – in rotating fashion. The style not only moves the story along in a quick pace, it also keeps one interested in the characters by providing bits of information about why each one ended up on top of Toppers’ House on New Year’s Eve. That is, why they picked the most stereotypical night and the most popular building to jump off of in London to end their lives.
The gang, which forms rather organically with a little push from Jess, is a most unlikely one. Martin is a washed-up TV presenter, estranged from his wife and daughters after sleeping with a 15-year-old and landing in jail; Maureen is a middle-aged woman with a disabled – “vegetable” – son, Matty. She has withdrawn from life to take care of Matty and talks only to God; Jess is an 18-year-old with a propensity for getting smashed on drugs and booze, an inclination to abuse her parents and a loathing of long words and complicated sentences – as well as literature; and, JJ is an American rock-star-wanna-be whose failed band and relationship left him reminiscing about the not-so-good, good old days and delivering pizzas.
It’s hard to see why any of the characters, minus Martin, would want to hurl themselves off a building. A Long Way Down is funny like that, it gets one contemplating what circumstances could/should/would justify or call for a seemingly quick and easy end to life. It’s also funny because Hornby masterfully groups together four potentially stereotypical and boring, yet in their own right odd and interesting, characters. With their self- and outward-loathing stance on life, they are incompatible from the first moment.
Yet they get along. And they need each other like a comatose patient needs life support. Hidden in their interactions and sarcastic humor are hints of despair – of the same vein that any ordinary person might go through at one point or another in life. And though Martin, Jess, Maureen and JJ may be not be alike at all, one is apt to identify with parts of each character. Be it total financial, social and emotional ruin as with Martin, a completely unselfish life lived with remorse as with Maureen, teenage angst borne from a troubled family as with Jess, or plain, downright self-pity and denial as with JJ, one has been there.
Hornby gives his audience a chance to reflect on moments of doubt and despair through his characters. And, not to worry, just because the subject is rather grave does not mean you are spared Hornby’s brilliant modern-culture observations or his penchant for showing off his knowledge of rock music and contemporary literature. Reading A Long Way Down will make you laugh, and, who knows, maybe you’ll be laughing at yourself.