A Long Way Down: What’s Holding You Back?

Image: Suicide by Scandinavian artist Joakim Back.
Caveat: Some possible book ‘spoilers’ here. But not really, unless you’re already part way through the book.

Nick Hornby’s newest book A Long Way Down is, on the surface, about suicide. Its four protagonists, who take turns throughout the book speaking in the first person, telling their personal and collective story sequentially (not redundantly) meet atop a tower famous for suicides, each with the intention of jumping off, and become a sort of goofy self-help group. Here, as a teaser (and testament to Hornby’s extraordinary writing) is a glimpse of each of the characters in their ‘own’ words:

Martin (middle-aged, has-been, self-destructive morning talk-show host): I’d spent the previous couple of months looking up suicide inquests on the Internet, just out of curiosity. And nearly every single time, th coroner says the same thing: “He took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed”. And then you read the story about the poor bastard. His wife was sleeping with his best friend, he’d lost his job, his daughter had been killed in a road accident some months before…Hello, Mr. Coroner? Anyone at home? I’m sorry, but there’s no disturbed mental balance here, my friend. I’d say he got it just right. Bad thing upon bad thing upon bad thing until you can’t take any more, and then off to the nearest multistory car park in the family hatchback with a length of rubber tubing. Surely that’s fair enough? Surely the coroner’s report should read: “He took his own life after sober and careful contemplation of the fucking shambles it had become.”

JJ (young, failed rock-star): The trouble with my generation is that we all think we’re fucking geniuses. Making something isn’t good enough for us, and neither is selling something, or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to be something. It’s our inalienable right, as citizens of the 21st century. If Christina Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can’t I? Where’s mine, huh? OK, so my band, we put on the best live shows you could ever see in a bar, and we made two albums, which a lot of critics and not enough real people liked. But having talent is never enough to make us happy, is it? I mean, it should be, because a talent is a gift, and you should thank God for it, but I didn’t. It just pissed me off because I wasn’t being paid for it, and it didn’t get me on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Jess (young, impetuous, troubled daughter of a wealthy, dysfunctional family): I’d be lost if JJ and people like that got their way, and there was nothing unpersonal in the world. I like to know that there are big places without windows where no one gives a shit. You need confidence to go into small places with regular customers — small bookshops and small music shops and small restaurants and cafes. I’m happiest in the Virgin Megastore and Borders and Starbucks and Pizza Express, where no one gives a shit, and no one knows who you are. My mum and dad are always going on about how soulless those places are, and I’m like, Der. That’s the point.

Maureen (middle-aged, single mother trapped with a severely handicapped teenaged son: I wanted to tell Jess that I hadn’t even seen an English beach since Matty [her son] left school; they used to take them to Brighton every year, and I went with them once or twice. I didn’t say anything, though. I may not know the weight of many things, but I could feel the weight of that one, so I kept it all to myself. You know that things aren’t going well for you when you can’t even tell people the simplest fact about your life, just because they’ll presume you’re asking them to feel sorry for you. I suppose it’s why you feel so far away from everyone, in the end; anything you can think of to tell them just ends up making them feel terrible.

The novel has the typical Hornby sense of impending doom running throughout it, and the typical Hornby lame ending (it’s as if the author doesn’t want the novel to end, so it doesn’t, really), but it is still wonderful, utterly engaging, and thought-provoking. Perhaps this is why the movies made from his books don’t quite work — there just isn’t enough time in a two hour film for all the action plus all the reflection that the ideas in his novels warrant. Because of Hornby’s cleverness and his wry, delightful sense of humour, his novels cry out for cinematic treatment (since most movies today are so utterly lacking in both). Jess’ critique of Virginia Woolf is the most hilarious piece of writing I’ve read in a decade, and is alone worth the price of the book, but I suspect in the movie it will be just too much too fast to work — the audience will be laughing so hard they’ll drown out half the funny bits.

But it is the ideas in the book that had me shivering as I read, putting the book down and wandering around and thinking. I suspect his novels are Hornby’s cathartic way of getting these profound and troubling ideas out of his head where they can be examined more objectively (Hornby has an autistic child). There are three in particular that resonated with me, and they are all somewhat related, and a book about suicide is the perfect vehicle to illustrate them.

The first idea is that in life, as Jess puts it, we have no choice. We are who we are and we will do what we will do. This is the concept of ‘free will’, but reduced to immediate, personal terms. Despite all the New Years’ resolutions (A Long Way Down begins on New Years’ Eve), despite all the plans and self-help books and Getting Things Done tools we employ, we will ultimately do what were going to do anyway, and, more importantly, not do what we were not going to do anyway. Those who go up the tower with the intention of killing themselves consist of those who will go through with the plan, no matter what happens, sooner or later, and those who will not, no matter what happens. Hornby is saying that suicide prevention hotlines will only prevent those who would be prevented somehow or other anyway. The city of Toronto has spent a small fortune building walls and fences around its ‘popular’ suicide sites (mostly buildings and bridges) and is considering similar infrastructure in subway stations. They understate the creativity of those who will do what they will do. And those who lack imagination or knowledge or opportunity will find other, metaphorical ways to kill themselves: alcohol or other drugs, or just shutting down, disengaging. We are surrounded by the living dead, but not of the type you see in the movies.

The second idea, and the one that I think his title most refers to, is what is holding you back? Not just from committing suicide, but from doing other things you think you should be doing or wish you were doing. Here’s how Jess puts it:

Most people have a rope that ties them to someone, and that rope can be short or it can be long. You don’t know how long, though. It’s not your choice. Maureen’s rope ties her to Matty and is about six inches long and it’s killing her. Martin’s rope ties him to his daughters and, like a stupid dog, he thinks it isn’t there. He goes running off somewhere…and then suddenly it brings him up short and chokes him and he acts surprised, and then he does the same thing again the next day. I think JJ is tied to this bloke Eddie he keeps talking about, the one he used to be in the band with. And I’m learning that I’m tied to [Jess’ older, accomplished, inexplicably missing sister] Jen, and not to my mum and dad — not to home, which is where the rope should be.

The distance from the top of the tower to the bottom, from intent to realization, seems short, but is, in fact, a long way. While we are who we are and will do what we will do, it is not quite that simple. We are social creatures, and as we go through life we find ourselves limited by people, and held back, not so much by who they are as by what they stand for, the role we, or they, or fate, has chosen for us. Are these ropes, these people and things and circumstances that hold us back, imposed on us, or are they our own self-imposed lifelines? If we have no choice, is that to some extent because of the restrictions we have somehow chosen to impose on ourselves?

When I met my wife, I was pretty messed up, and she has kept me on a pretty short lead ever since. I owe her everything for that, I think. In recent years, though, now that our* amazing children no longer need our support, she has loosened the lead somewhat. Or maybe I tugged the lead out of her hand. Or perhaps it wasn’t ever there at all, just a figment of my imagination, self-imposed. (It’s a good thing she doesn’t read my blog; I wonder if that is deliberate, too?)

You can perhaps guess at the third idea in this book, since it follows somewhat from the other two: What happens when we suddenly lose our lifeline? Martin says:

A long time ago, I worked with an alcoholic. And he told me that the first time he failed on an attempt to quit the booze was the most terrifying day of his life. He always thought he could stop drinking if he ever got round to it, so he had a choice stashed away in a sock drawer somewhere at the back of his head. But when he found out that he had to drink, that the choice had never really been there, Well, he wanted to do away with himself, if I may temporarily confuse our issues. I didn’t properly understand what he meant until I saw that guy jump off the roof. Up until then, jumping had always been an option, a way out, money in the bank for a rainy day. And then suddenly the money was gone — or rather, it had never been there in the first place. It belonged to the guy who jumped, and people like him, because dangling your feet over the precipice is nothing unless you’re prepared to go that extra two inches.

We cling to our presumed choices, our dreams, our distant plans and hopes, as if they were lifelines keeping us from careening off into space, and perhaps they are. I imagine myself an activist, a much-published and influential author, a founder of intentional communities, an incubator of natural enterprises, a change agent revolutionizing the way we teach, the way we treat animals, the way we produce energy, the way our economic and political systems work, the way we think about the world. All of these valiant roles I picture myself filling, yet I inch towards them so slowly that progress can barely be measured. Are these my lifelines, my tower ledge, and do I know in my heart that none of these heady roles is my destiny? Is that why I grabbed onto the non-philosophy of John Gray, giving me permission to fail at all of these because, as he says, it is not in human nature that any of these changes can occur on any meaningful scale? Is his infuriating belief that the best we can do, all we can do, is to be a good model for those in our immediate communities and to be open to and aware of and fully participating in life’s astonishing joys — is this my new lifeline, thin and frayed and shabby as it may be in comparison with the awesome, grandiose ones I clinged to before?

And what would become of me if I were to lose this lifeline too?

The questions in the two paragraphs above are rhetorical, but these three are not — the great take-away from Hornby’s book is how we, each for ourselves, decide to answer these questions when we close the book’s cover:

  • If we have no choice, how can we best stop fighting the inevitable, stop wasting time trying to be what are not and cannot be (and trying to make others what they are not), get real about our hopes and dreams, and accept and understand the way things are and why, and make the best of who we are and what we are inevitably going to do and be anyway?
  • What is holding us back? What is keeping us from being what we are going to be and doing what we are going to do? Why is it holding us back? Unless it is self-delusion (the dangers of idealism again) that is holding us back, there may be no changing these restrictions, no loosening of the ropes, but at least we should be able to recognize them and understand their purpose. In Jess’ ‘stupid dog’ analogy, we can accomplish a lot within the constraints of the leash without unnecessarily and foolishly choking ourselves all the time.
  • What happens when we suddenly lose our lifeline? There is a terrible story in today’s Toronto Star about a water-loving dog who slipped his leash, ran off, and ended up drowning in a municipal reservoir whose sides were too steep to climb. Some lifelines are useful, even essential to our health and sanity. Others merely hold us back, delay us from being who we really are and doing what we are meant to do, waste our lives away in illusionary imprisonment. What is frightening is that we don’t know which is which, and we don’t know what we will do, and feel, if we suddenly lose our lifelines. But perhaps by imagining what would happen if we did lose them, we might free ourselves from the ones that are merely unhealthy, merely holding us back from being something more than who we are. 

Nothing simple here. Beneath the brilliant raucous humour of Hornby’s writing lie some very dark issues, matters of life and death, like a black hole twinned with a star going nova.

(*hers biologically, though I am honoured and humbled that they call me their father,considering the deliberately small role I played in their upbringing)

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10 Responses to A Long Way Down: What’s Holding You Back?

  1. Brian says:

    Something that always seems to bother me about your blog is you seem to have this belief that humans can’t change… or that we are who we are and will do what we will do, and there’s no changing that. Maybe I just come from a different background, but I believe people have the ability to change the way they are and become something more at any point… maybe this is just leftover Christian belief, but I don’t think anything is set in stone, and we have the constant ability to change and make the best decisions at all times. This is something you seem to reject…Also, your wife doesn’t read your blog? I don’t know much about her… but I assumed she would be somewhat similar to you. Does she at least share the ideas you have? If I wrote as much as you, I don’t think I’d be able to handle it if my wife didn’t read it.

  2. Daniel says:

    I enjoyed this post very much, Freudian to some point (the sense of tragedy, repetition, compulsion).Change exists but it is difficult when the issues are profound.

  3. zach says:

    What happens when we suddenly lose our lifeline? I don’t know but, personally, I believe you don’t have to prove anything to anybody for your life to be of value, it just is. And to hell with anyone who says otherwise!

  4. The part you wrote on sucide, I agree with the coroner; the person is basically disturbed. If my daughter had died I would be disturbed too, depressed and thinking in irrational ways. What is sadder than the fact that he took his life is that there was no community of people that he could turn to for support in his time of grief.

  5. Martin-Eric says:

    Change can take place, but the amount of energy required to get past the inertia is enormous, whether the main obstacle is to muster the nerves to do what you must or whether it is lifelines that are simultaneously preventing us from getting hurt and from from becoming all we can be.Dave asks what happens when we loose all lifelines. I can answer that one: we go down a long and painfull downward spiral, where all safety nets disappear one by one and when we one day realize that we’re completely and utterly on our own, defenseless and with nowhere to escape.Think of a wild boar missing each and every chance to escape a hunting party, only to further and further approach the trap that is awaiting him and reach a point where it can choose to jump into the hole with pointy spikes at the bottom or to just stand still and let the hunters wound him to an even more painfull death.Think of the World we live in and of all the turning points where mass inertia prevented society from doing what’s right to rid itself of harmfull behaviors, sealing its doom one bad deed at a time.Loosing lifelines is the slow process of making irreversible choices and of seeing possibilities we hoped were open to us close themselves down one by one, until we truly have nothing left to loose. It can be a path to suicide, or it can be the blessing of getting that second chance to start all over. Sometimes, it can be both.

  6. theresa says:

    I agree 100% with everything you’ve written here, it is something I’ve been trying to explain to others and to myself for quite some time. I have never considered it from the dark suicide point of view though. It is very hard to explain to people how choice/options/liberty is not the same as free will. Whenever you find yourself called apon to exercise your will that is when you do what you must. The problem in trying to explain this is that most people aren’t confronted with these situations during times of peace in developed countries. For a simple example that many might be able to relate to consider a person terrified of public speaking, yet something so terrible happens – a child is murdered perhaps – that there is simply no longer an option to nurse that fear, you realize you are called and you do what you must. I imagine it would feel like the hand of destiny not some choice to be moral and political and spread the word of a better world. I never considered this exercise of will or calling to be the same force that is at work when someone takes their own life, although I did understand that there were no choices left I never maide the connection to destiny and will before. I’ll have to put that book on the top of my list. Thanks for the enlightenment, as ever.

  7. theresa says:

    Martin-Eric’s comment is also interesting. The only thing I would add to his description of the “slow process of irreversible choices” is to include all the irreversible choices made (or not made)by the society as a whole and which inevitably end up impacting on the lives of individuals. Environmental destruction is the obvious example but there are many others. “No man is an island”

  8. On the subject of suicide and having no choices in life: I do think we have some choice in how we live, but I’m often turned off by the idea that positive thinking and the right choices are everything, the idea that exercising choice is the answer to happiness. It isn’t. Happiness is about accepting what we can’t change, giving up a little control. Accepting our genetics, our bad luck, the fact that not everyone will like us or agree with us. I think more damage is sometimes done by insistence on being happy and “up” all the time than is done by pessimism.

  9. Dave, I love your blog.But I can’t except your pessimism. Sometimes your standing out there in right field, completely useless, and a baseball accidentally falls into your glove anyway.

  10. Earl says:

    After reading this blog, a sense of sadness came over me. Yes, sadness at the thought that others would view life as meaningless and hopeless enough to commit suicide. As a Christian, I believe we were all put on this earth by our Creator for a purpose. It’s an act of arrogance and insolence to Him to take one’s own life. Hopefully, some of us will find that purpose before we depart from this realm. If not, just being hopeful that life is worth living and that we anticipate something better in the next life should be our motivation to keep us going.

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