It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Nick Hornby’s Women

By Ted McLoof 

It’s no surprise that Nick Hornby wrote FUNNY GIRL, a sharp, observant, and patient novel about a young comedienne coming of age once she leaves her small town. The novel finds its protagonist landing a BBC series without much complication (her audition scene has that cliché moment when the unknown actress tells the writers to their faces how bad the script is, and they cast her for being more “real” than the others they’ve seen). But as is usually the case with Hornby, predictability isn’t an issue; it doesn’t matter that we can see the end coming a mile away. He’s never been interested in the destination, just the journey. But FUNNY GIRL does something even more in line with Hornby’s career, something that makes much more sense when you look at what’s come before it.

Nick Hornby began his career with a massively successful sports memoir, FEVER PITCH (1992), and attained a reputation as a mouthpiece for a certain kind of modern man—‘90’s masculinity distilled into comedic prose. By the time of his debut novel, HIGH FIDELITY (1995), his work was getting attention from men’s magazines like Details (“keep this book away from your girlfriend—it contains too many of your secrets to let fall into the wrong hands,” they gloated), a target demo few contemporary novelists (care to) hit. Which was ironic, since the ‘90’s man Hornby so precisely captured was the emasculated, I-feel-your-pain kind who was in touch with his emotions to a fault (recall that Rob, of FIDELITY, breaks down crying while listening to “Baby, I Love Your Way”). So with ABOUT A BOY (1998), Hornby both critiqued and embraced this bro-y culture of fanboys by making his protagonist a cartoonish version of their ilk, an emotionally stunted serial bachelor who lived and died by how he scored on men’s magazine quizzes.

It seemed these characters had been pushed as far as they could go, so Hornby ventured out with some more obviously “grown up” themes: HOW TO BE GOOD (2001) and A LONG WAY DOWN (2005) dealt with existential crises in favor of arrested development. But GOOD turned a lot of critics and readers off with its uncharacteristically sour message (basically: if you help poor people, they’ll steal from you), and DOWN got heat for soft-pedaling the issue of suicide, seeing as how its opening set piece turns a leap off a building into a meet-cute. What Hornby needed was a middle-ground between large questions about Life and characters who pedantically obsessed about their record collections.

That’s where AN EDUCATION came in. Lynn Barber’s 2009 memoir, which Hornby adapted for the screen, detailed her coming of age from a sheltered sixteen-year-old to a mature young adult after entering the world. Hornby has often cited novelist Anne Tyler as an early inspiration for his work, but only since AN EDUCATION is that made truly clear. Hornby has, in his latter-day career, found a kindred spirit of sorts with young, middle-class women stepping for the first time into the open world. WILD, his follow-up adaptation, follows a similar spiritual awakening (if a rather different set of life circumstances) as in AN EDUCATION, and BROOKLYN, his follow up screenplay to WILD, again finds a young, small-town girl moving to the open world away from home as a means of self-discovery.

So, again, it’s not all that surprising that Hornby’s taken this big-screen theme he so obviously connects with to the page with FUNNY GIRL. And though repeating this formula four times might make it sound pat, it’s the author’s trademark heart and wit that keep it fresh again and again, especially since his number one emphasis has always been on character, and character studies by definition remain fresh when the characters themselves are new.

“Fresh,” in fact, is a word we hear quite often in FUNNY GIRL, which details the rise and fall of not so much a single protagonist as an entire TV series called Barbara (and Jim). It’s the ‘60’s, and the women of London are making it to TV mostly for their looks, but Sophie Straw (whose original name, coincidentally, is Barbara, until her agent suggests a change) is obsessed only with women like Lucille Ball. She wants to be funny; the fact that she looks like a pin-up model is incidental to her. “Are you telling me you actually want to act?” asks her agent incredulously, and the answer is yes, so badly that she’s the only actress who’s heard of the obscure comedians writing a pilot for a new BBC series she auditions for, which may be the reason she gets the job on the spot.

Once we hit this audition, the book really gets its legs, as it begins to detail the lives of not only Sophie, but fellow actor Clive, producer Dennis, and closeted writers Bill and Tom. FUNNY GIRL is certainly the spiritual sibling of Hornby’s big screen efforts, but it works best as its own separate thing, a backstage comedy of errors about a group of people trying to innovate (to remain “fresh”) at a time when FCC Chair Newton Minow was famously calling TV a “vast wasteland.” The struggles of the writers to get sex discussed on TV—not for shock or a cheap laugh, but because talking about sex is what adults do—as they fight the network heads is fun and meaty to watch, and allows the story to breathe on its own terms.

And Hornby’s use of yet another complicated young female character as a narrative muse is in no way incidental to that. Sophie carries the story as she carries Barbara (and Jim), acting somehow as both readable character study and audience surrogate to the entertainment world she inhabits. She is, after all, just a hometown girl at the beginning and the end, as wowed by all this sudden success as we are to watch it go down. Hornby, too, started small, and has made a deliberate effort to remain true to his humble roots, even throughout BAFTA, WGA, and Academy Award nominations (just look at his essays in The Believer for evidence of those efforts). He may have begun by writing memoirs, but these later works might be the most personal things he’s ever written.

Ted McLoof teaches English at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Minnesota Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Juked, Gertrude, DIAGRAM, Louisville Review, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He's a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee. He really likes Woody Allen films, and doesn't understand the Internet.

Funny Girl Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594205415
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - February 3rd, 2015

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