I had never read anything by Nick Hornby before this week. Is that strange? I knew who he was, of course, and could even list the books he had written (About a Boy, High Fidelity) but I missed the Nick Hornby fandom train, a train I know must exist because he is one of few writers who has his name attached to movie projects (eg. Wild, for which he did the screenplay adaptation) in order to make them look more attractive. Nevertheless, charmed by the two Fever PItch* movies, I made a point of ordering Funny Girl when I saw Hornby was releasing a new book this year.
Funny Girl is about Barbara, a beautiful girl from Blackpool, in the north of England, who dreams of becoming a famous comedienne like Lucille Ball. She goes to London where she is almost immediately cast in a series about a Blackpool girl named Barbara who is married to a fancy London bloke. The show, cleverly titled Barbara (and Jim)** is produced by a fancy London bloke. Barbara becomes famous, all of her dreams come true, etc. etc. The point of view shifts between Barbara’s, Dennis’s (the fancy London producer), and Tony and Bill. Tony and Bill are the show’s writers who we learn at the start of the book are both gay at a time when being so is illegal in England.
If this book has a heart it’s these too, particularly Tony. As the years pass by we watch Tony and Bill weigh responsibility against desire, we watch unjust laws get overturned and through their eyes we watch a country become more progressive. Tony marries a woman, eventually manages to consumate the marriage and has a child. Bill, the more open about his lifestyle of the two, writes a novel about the travails of a young homosexual man in the ’60s in London and this is the book I would have liked to have read. Had Hornby applied his humour and talent for sketching human interaction more fully to his two gay characters we would have had a special book on our hands and with Hornby’s name on it, it would have been read far outside the LGBT community.
If there’s a secondary theme to Funny Girl, it’s the conversation about comedy as a form of art deserving of as much respect as more literary or highbrow forms. Early in the novel Barbara (and Jim)‘s producer Dennis must do battle with a pubic intellectual on a BBC program, and defend his show’s right to BBC funding. During the debate, Dennis defends the work of making ordinary people laugh, and states that the problem with intellectuals is they just don’t like people to enjoy themselves very much.
Dennis’s speech is meant to be about Barbara (and Jim) but it seems as if Hornby is defending his own work, and clueing us in on his own artistic struggle. As the television program grows in popularity the writer Bill becomes more discontented. He wants to write something meaningful and begins to work on his novel. He’s embarrassed that all they are doing in Barbara (and Jim) is writing predictable jokes about an ordinary English couple. As I sit here writing this, I’m giving you all the reasons why I wouldn’t ordinarily have read this book, a comedy about the predictable problems of ordinary English people. But, after a couple of months of reading mostly literary fiction – light on plot but heavy on depth – I’d be lying if I didn’t say I flew through this book. So maybe there is something to be said for a book that in its ordinariness made me laugh and thoroughly enjoy myself.
*The first Fever Pitch is exceptional because it features a very young, very floppy haired Colin Firth and the second Fever PItch is exceptional because the year they filmed it on location at Fenway was the year the Sox won their first World Series title in 86 years. The screenwriters were re-writing the movie as the season went along to capture the magic of the legendary 2004 comeback campaign by the Boston Team. So Nick Hornby is magical, is what I’m saying because he brought the world Colin Firth and relieved the Sox of an 86 year slump.
** You all think you’re so clever with your punctuated titles, don’t you? Remember when the band fun. was a thing? Every time I saw their name in print my heart broke a little for the poor writer would would have had to deal with his/her word processor autocorrecting the word after the band’s name to a capital letter after every instance. And god forbid you wanted to start a sentence with the band’s name and attempted to keep it in the lower case. Imagine the linguistic gymnastics that went down in the music review community as they attempted to only use the band name fun. at the end of a sentence. Only to find, of course, that they had to use TWO periods. Annoying. Granted, punctuation in the title serves a vital plot function in Barbara (and Jim), so I’ll forgive it, just this once.