Ah…finally something fun, if not exactly “light.” I have always heard about the works of Nick Hornby. “Nick Hornby. Nick Hornby!” everybody said. I’d never gotten around to reading his work, but on my shelf “About a Boy” did linger. Can’t recall if I’ve seen the movie, but the book was a welcomed experience while also reading some deeper non-fiction.
Obvious by the title, the story is about a boy named Marcus. He lives with his mom in London where his mom (Fiona) is deeply depressed and never keeps boyfriends for long. These two loners have been through divorce and it seems Marcus, a middle schooler, is a bit more adaptable than his mother. The tone of the writing is light and funny. Reading from Marcus’s point of view is a delight. I found myself smiling as I read.
Then we meet the other loner in the story, an adult male named Will Freeman. While Will’s friends are beginning to marry and have kids, Will becomes increasingly aware that he doesn’t understand this motive to pair off and settle down. When friends ask him to be a godfather he turns them down. He doesn’t even want to parent by association. We find that Will has never had to work because he lives off the royalties of a Christmas tune written by his father; a song he can’t stand. He has all the free time in the world and cannot understand how people live and work at the same time. “In fact, he had reached a stage where he wondered how his friends could juggle life and a job. Life took up so much time, so how could one work and, say, take a bath on the same day? He suspected that one or two people he knew were making some pretty unsavory short cuts” (81).
Cross-generational friendships are examined here. Many find the growing relationship between Marcus and Will to be strange and possibly unsavory. It begs the question: why can’t people of any age cultivate friendships with other people of any age? Through getting to know the intricacies of each other’s lives, Will comes to recognize that he and Marcus have similar family issues.
Marcus is not fitting in well at his new school. Even his teacher joins in with the other kids when they make fun of him. Although everyone is required to go, he feels that school is just not “him.” Just as Marcus does not fit in at school, Will increasingly does not fit in with his age group who is moving into the world of family and permanent homes. He dates a woman with a child and finds a clever way of remaining on the periphery of grown-up-dom without actually buying a ticket. We are starting to see a theme emerge about groups: are you in or are you out? Do you want to be in? Do you want out? Are you on the edges or are you asked to leave? Marcus is asked to leave his little rag-tag group of outsiders at school because Marcus brings bullies into their sphere; they can’t risk being noticed. When Marcus reflects upon his role in the group he realizes “That’s what had happened with Nicky and Mark: he had made them visible, he had turned them into targets, and if he was any kind of a friend at all he’d take himself well away from them. It’s just that he had nowhere else to go” (34).
This also draws us into the realization that all of our characters are essentially not only alone, but lonely. Just like the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Will joins a group with which he has no affiliation: a single parent’s support group. He’s there to meet women of course, but now he must fabricate half a family so he too can present as a single parent. This shows us the lengths we will go to in order to associate, to assimilate, to connect…even when we are not telling the truth.
There is another thread that weaves throughout the novel involving depression and mental illness. One reader of the novel remembers the story as being sad because someone dies. This is not the case, but it does show us that depression and a suicide attempt impressed that reader to a point where he incorrectly recreated part of the plot. Marcus’s mother becomes so depressed that she is unable to care for her son. Both mother and son are taken by surprise at this development; no one (in real life) ever pictures it getting that bad until it happens. This novel is built within the real world and the plot and emotions are relatable and messy…funny too, sometimes all at once, just like life. For anyone who has experienced depression, there is an apt description within Fiona’s suicide note on page 72 when she writes: “A big part of me knows that I’m doing a wrong, stupid, selfish, unkind thing. Most of me, in fact. The trouble is that it’s not the part that controls me anymore. That’s what’s so horrible about the sort of illness I’ve had for the last few months–it just doesn’t listen to anything or anybody else. It just wants to do its own thing. I hope you never get to find out what that’s like.” There are lots of fun ‘90’s references and Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain, is peppered throughout. When Marcus and his cool friend Ellie learn about Cobain’s suicide attempt, Marcus shares his story about his mother, bonding him closer to Ellie in their mutual confusion and helplessness.
Both Marcus and Will get their own chapters in which to build their characters. I appreciate this pacing because it allows the reader to get to know the players and invest in them before they begin to interact. Getting to know Will is just as much fun as getting to know Marcus. “Will had been trying not to think about Christmas, but as it got nearer he was beginning to go off the idea of watching a few hundred videos and smoking a few thousand joints. It didn’t seem very festive, somehow, and even though festivities invariably entailed The Song somewhere along the line, he didn’t want to ignore them completely. It struck him that how you spent Christmas was a message to the world about where you were in life, some indication of how deep a hole you had managed to burrow for yourself, and therefore spending three days bombed out of your head on your own said things about you that you might not want saying” (174). Much later in the novel, we see Marcus analyzing a conversation, and his way of thinking draws us closer to this character. “Even though what they were talking about was miserable, Marcus was enjoying the conversation. It seemed big, as though you could walk round it and see different things, and that never happened when you talked to kids normally. ‘Did you see Top of the Pops last night?’ There wasn’t much to think about in that, was there? You said yes or no and it was over. He could see now why his mum chose friends, instead of just putting up with anyone she happened to bump into, or sticking with people who supported the same football team, or wore the same clothes, which was pretty much what happened at school; his mum must have conversations like this with Suzie, conversations that moved, conversations where each thing the other person said seemed to lead you on somewhere” (203). Allowing us inside each character’s mind independently sets up a friendship between the reader and both of the male lead roles.
Marcus and Will do not meet until chapter eight when they both attend a single parent’s meeting. It is NOT love at first sight. Will gets drawn into Fiona, Marcus and Fiona’s loyal friend Suzie’s world by way of a single parent’s picnic. Because Will is interested in Suzie, he is with her when Fiona is found after a suicide attempt. Now Will sees that Marcus does not have a true support system, although he definitely feels it is not his responsibility to provide one. Fiona is taken to the hospital and survives. Marcus stays with Suzie.
Another observance of Hornby’s deft hand with pacing is that he doesn’t have his characters change and evolve too quickly. Sometimes lessons have to be presented, ignored, presented, rejected, presented, observed, before the final lesson being learned. For example, near page 200 Will is still making the mistake of not being truthful with possible love interests. In chapter 24 he meets a new woman named Rachel at a New Year’s Eve party. They agree to meet for a date and Will allows her to assume that Marcus is his son. When is Will going to own who he is and be proud of how he runs his life? Even Marcus is drawn into this ruse and “plays” Will’s son when they go to Rachel’s house to hang out. It doesn’t turn out well as Rachel’s son appears to be a spawn of the devil. It is not until chapter 30 that Will examines life, friendship and depression more deeply. He and Rachel take the next step in their relationship which also involves caring more deeply: she wants to help Fiona with her depression.
We begin to see how families shift form and change over time. (Intertwined here is the idea that there not only is no ideal path…there is no path!) Sometimes your family is who steps forward; who volunteers at the time. Some people stay, some go; some are related, some are volunteers. Suzie is a volunteer mother although Will is not a volunteer father. He’s only willing to be a father to an imaginary son. Speaking of the created family Will muses, “So, there it was then: an enormous, happy, extended family. True, this happy family included an invisible two-year-old, a barmy twelve-year-old and his suicidal mother; but sod’s law dictated that this was just the sort of family you were bound to end up with when you didn’t like families in the first place” (83). Will extends a bit of pity and plans a day with Fiona and Marcus while Marcus begins to picture Will and his mother becoming closer. Marcus tries his hand at match making by prodding the nonexistent conversation between the adults who eventually loosen up, if just a little.
Related to families and created groups, we have to struggle with how much we want to care. Caring and loving involve commitment and effort, compromise and aggravation. The ability to NOT care can be a technique of survival as we see here with Will: “When he got home he put a Pet Shop Boys CD on, and watched Prisoner: Cell Block H with the sound down. He wanted to hear people who didn’t mean it, and he wanted to watch people he could laugh at. He got drunk, too; he filled a glass with ice and poured himself scotch after scotch. And as the drink began to take hold, he realized that people who meant it were much more likely to kill themselves than people who didn’t: he couldn’t recall having even the faintest urge to take his own life, and he found it hard to imagine that he ever would. When it came down to it, he just wasn’t that engaged. You had to be engaged to be a vegetarian; you had to be engaged to sing “Both Sides Now” with your eyes closed; when it came down to it, you had to be engaged to be a mother. He wasn’t much bothered either way about anything, and that, he knew, would guarantee him a long and depression-free life. He’d made a big mistake thinking that good works were a way forward for him. They weren’t. They drove you mad. Fiona did good works and they had driven her mad: she was vulnerable, messed-up, inadequate. Will had a system going here that was going to whizz him effortlessly to the grave. He didn’t want to fuck it up now” (102). This disengagement prompts Will to decide that Marcus and Fiona are not his cup of tea, but Marcus does not make this an easy break-up. He learns that Will has been lying about having a son. In a later discussion with Fiona, Will struggles to keep his standing in the circle of non-caring. “She was wrong, he was almost positive. You could shut life out. If you didn’t open the door to it, how was it going to get in” (149)? Hornby here seems to be saying that sometimes you do not have to open the door…the world (of emotions) will seep through the window. We see this idea come closer to fruition by page 234 when Will begins to fall in love with a woman named Rachel. This is complicated by the fact that she is discovering Will has been lying about Marcus being his son.
One way in which the plot progresses is that the wall of not caring must slowly and inevitably begin to transform. Marcus doesn’t know how to process his mother’s suicide attempt, so (wanted or not) Marcus arrives at Will’s doorstep every afternoon after school. Will keeps up his decision not to care. “Will could see how sad this was, but he could also see that it wasn’t his problem. No problem was his problem. Very few people were in a position to say they had no problems, but then, that wasn’t his problem either” (119). A crack is forming in Will’s defenses through the persistence of Marcus. Will, who is very cool and fashionable, feels that one reason Marcus is picked on so relentlessly at school is due to his nerdy non-fashion sense. He takes Marcus shopping and buys him cool tennis shoes (which are promptly stolen the next day at school). It is when Marcus reports the stolen shoes to the principal that he hears the same old story that all adults have given him all his life: fit in, change, engage, accept, blah, blah, blah. Fed up with adults who cannot understand a middle schooler’s angst, Marcus walks out of school. Through further conversation Will makes an important connection: Marcus has never really had a chance to be a kid. With his father having moved on to build another family, problems at school and at home, Marcus has been inundated with serious troubles. It hits Will that Marcus has been forced into a serious world. Wouldn’t it be helpful if Marcus could just be a kid? Who knows how to act like a kid? Will.
Will’s defenses are further eroded by being witness to a family Christmas party at which Marcus’s dad, Clive, is in attendance. As an excellent example of how deep the observational narrative can dig, let us examine what Will sees and feels: “Clive’s presents for Marcus were in themselves uncontroversial, computer games and sweatshirts and a baseball cap and the Mr. Blobby record and so on, but what made them seem pointed was their contrast with the joyless little pile that Fiona had given Marcus earlier in the day: a sweater that wouldn’t do him any favors at school (it was baggy and hairy and arty), a couple of books and some piano music–a gentle and very dull maternal reminder, it transpired, that Marcus had given up on his lessons some time ago. Marcus showed him this miserable haul with a pride and enthusiasm that almost broke Will’s heart…’And a really nice sweater, and these books look really interesting, and this music because one day when I…when I get a bit more time I’m going to really give it a go…’ Will had never properly given Marcus credit for being a good kid–up until now he’d only noticed his eccentric, troublesome side, probably because there hadn’t been much else to notice. But he was good, Will could see that now. Not good as in obedient and uncomplaining; it was more of a mindset kind of good, where you looked at something like a pile of crap presents and recognized that they were given with love and chosen with care, and that was enough. It wasn’t even that he was choosing to see the glass as half-full, either–Marcus’s glass was full to overflowing, and he would have been amazed and mystified if anyone had attempted to tell him there were kids who would have hurled the hairy sweater and the sheet music back in the parental face and demanded a Nintendo.
“Will knew he would never be good in that way. He would never look at a hairy sweater and work out why it was precisely right for him, and why he should wear it at all hours of the day and night. He would look at it and conclude that the person who bought it for him was a pillock. He did that all the time: he’d look at some twenty-five-year-old guy on roller skates, sashaying his way down Upper Street with his wraparound shades on, and he’d think one of three things: 1) What a prat; or 2) Who the fuck do you think you are?; or 3) How old are you? Fourteen?
“Everyone in England was like that, he reckoned. Nobody looked at a roller-skating bloke with wraparound shades on and thought, Hey, he looks cool, or, Wow, that looks like a fun way of getting some exercise. They just thought: wanker. But Marcus wouldn’t. Marcus would either fail to notice the guy at all, or he would stand there with his mouth open, lost in admiration and wonder. This wasn’t simply a function of being a child, because, as Marcus knew to his cost, all his classmates belonged to the what-a-prat school of thought; it was simply a function of being Marcus, son of Fiona. In twenty years’ time he’d be singing with his eyes closed and swallowing bottles of pills, probably, but at least he was gracious about his Christmas presents. It wasn’t much of a compensation for the long years ahead” (181-2). The deeper recognition of who Marcus is as a person fuels Will’s feelings for someone other than himself. Isn’t the writing beautiful?
By listening and getting outside of his own head, Will slowly begins to actually relate to other people, and to women outside the realm of sexual relations. Toward the end of the novel “he learnt a lot of things about Fiona. He learnt that she hadn’t really wanted to be a mother, and that sometimes she hated Marcus with a passion that worried her; he learnt that she worried about her inability to hold down a relationship (Will restrained a desire to leap in at this point and tell her that an inability to hold down a relationship was indicative of an undervalued kind of moral courage, that only cool people screwed up)…” (270). It is during this conversation that Will learns that one characteristic of friendship is not being required to solve problems, but just to listen. Being able to listen when someone needs to talk is one of those emotion things…we view Will evolving.
To be a part of Marcus’s inner world, traveling through the narrative in his mind, is a delight. Even though the topics may appear heavy, the writing is performed with such a deft hand that the reader is often having fun in the midst of real-life issues. We find that in many ways, this twelve-year-old is so much wiser than the the adults who surround him. We see him growing and struggling to become more autonomous. He begins to notice how much control his mother exerts over his life; how many choices are not left up to him. Marcus has to tell his mother that he wants more freedom to make his own decisions. One of the choices Marcus wants to make is to bring Will further into his life because he needs a father figure. We also see Marcus trying to navigate new friendships when he catches the eye of one of the “cool” trouble-makers at school. As It girl Ellie lies her way out of trouble again at school “Ellie caught his eye and smiled, and for a moment he really felt as if the three of them were a trio. Or maybe a triangle, with Ellie at the top and he and Zoe at the bottom” (170). Even though the girls choose Marcus, and these connections are questionable, they help make Marcus feel cool…a feeling he rarely gets to experience. Over the course of the novel these friendships deepen. Ellie and Marcus attend an adult party together and later they begin to hang out more. Zoe is the one on the outside of this relationship; she’s always tagging along on the fringes. These girls are helping Marcus’s image around school. Another way Marcus slowly takes control of his own choices is when his dad suffers an accident. When Clive breaks a bone he requests Marcus come visit. Marcus takes offense that his father only wants him there when his son can be of service. Unbeknownst to all the adults, Marcus invites Ellie along for the long train ride to dad’s in order to give him the old what for.
All the characters grapple with the truth and the boundaries of safety regarding with whom to share what. As we travel with the characters toward truth we root for them to gain comfort within themselves. We root for them to reach out to others. We root for them to stand tall in their truth and allow that to be enough.