A Long Way Down
By: Nick Hornby
I recall reading once that Margaret Atwood loved Mordecai Richler's new novel. She enjoyed it every time he published it. I have struggled to find the source of this quote (therefore the paraphrasing) and I'm not sure if she really said it, but even if I imagined it, it holds a good dollop of truth about Richler, and so many others.
While I love Mordecai Richler, I find myself agreeing with this (alleged) quote. It is a more concise way of verbalizing my theory on Diminishing Returns in Literature. I nicked the idea from the original Law of Diminishing Returns, the economic law that is, and I understand how the economic theory works, basically. My theory is only marginally akin to its economic brethren due to my complete lack of interest in economic theory, so please bear with me.
Essentially, my law of diminishing returns states that an artist (in whatever oeuvre) creates something that awes and inspires his or her audience. It could be their first piece or their fifty-first piece, it doesn't matter. if it is the audience's first exposure to said art, it typically impresses. The audience is then compelled to explore more of the artist's body of work and, while still impressed, each successive piece experienced by the audience impresses slightly less until such time that the audience comes to the realization that the artist will never again give the them the same feeling they got from the first piece they saw.
Another way of explaining it would be to compare it to heroin or cocaine (although having never tried either of these narcotics, I'm working from hearsay). Users frequently say that their very first hit of heroin or cocaine is better than any feeling they have ever experienced and that addiction stems from their eternal pursuit of that same "first time" feeling, which they never get again. While I'm not a junkie, I do understand this concept.
It happens in music (Radiohead), film (The Coen Brothers) and television (The Simpsons). A radiohead virgin listening to any Radiohead album (pick one, any one, really) will immediately love it to bits. They will then like each subsequent album they hear significantly less, not because they are worse, but because they are all essentially the same. My first exposure to Radiohead was The Bends and it has remained my favorite. But this blog is about books and the most obvious literary example I can think of for my diminishing returns theory is Tom Robbins.
The first Tom Robbins novel I ever read was Jitterbug Perfume and I can honestly say that it is one of a small number of books that changed my life. I can't say exactly how, but upon finishing that book I felt like I had come through something and was somehow different, more whole, more in touch. Perhaps imperceptibly, but changed nonetheless. I have two friends who say they had the same experience after finishing Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, respectively. It doesn't matter which Tom Robbins book you read, it just has to be the first one. That will forever be: The One. All others will fail to attain the same status.
I have read virtually everything Robbins has written and each subsequent novel has impressed me less and less. It's not that I read the best one first, it's that they are all essentially the same and, therefore, aren't equipped to hit me as hard as the first one ever did. They aren't bad, they're just not Jitterbug Perfume.
The same can be said of Richard Russo. I read Empire Falls first and each successive novel impressed me less because they were structurally the same. And as much as it pains me to say it, Margaret Atwood (if she did indeed say it) is right about Mordecai Richler. I read Barney's Version first and went backwards from there. Each novel seemed like a variation on Barney. I suspect those that read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Joshua Then and Now would say the same about Barney's Version. Other authors that fall into this category include Irving Welsh, Ben Elton, Leon Uris and Douglas Adams (sorry).
Well, add Nick Hornby to this list. I loved High Fidelity when I first read it about a decade ago. That book spoke to me, a certifiable music snob, like very few others could. Fever Pitch was pretty good too. Although I don't share Hornby's obsession with English football, I do understand obsession (mine is hockey). About a Boy was fine, How to Be Good was forgettable (in fact I picked up How to Be Good about a month ago and it took me 40 pages to realize I had already read it) and A Long Way Down was painful.
OK, it wasn't painful as such, but it was just sort of the same as all his others. I have nothing against Nick Hornby. He's literary elite, a rock star among writers with nothing to prove. He's found a formula that works for him and he has to tell his stories the best way he can and I respect him for that. Having never written a novel, who am I to say that he's fallen into a rut. It's just that I can't imagine picking up another Hornby book only to fall into another world filled with Hornby's hipper than hip characters.
One might argue that the literary law of diminishing returns is too critical. Perhaps we should just take solace in knowing what you will get from some authors. A literary comfort zone so to speak. But I know what I'm going to get from Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth but they never fail to amaze me, book after book after book...
Aw, hell. Perhaps I'm simply as jaded as a Nick Hornby character. I think its time to read some non-fiction. Wash the palette clean.