Will meets Marcus.
Marcus meets Will.
And an unforgettable and unconventional friendship is formed.
This is basically the tale the esteemed British writer Nick Hornby is unspooling in the novel About A Boy. But Marcus and Will is about more then that, as the much deserved critical and commercial success, leading to a movie and television show, will attest to. And now onto my slightly SPOILERISH look at About A Boy.
It is early 1990’s London and Marcus is an eleven year old only child living with his rather flighty hippie mother as his father is away with a new woman. Residing nearby is Will, a self centered womanizing thirty something with lives a commitment free existence while collecting the royalties from his late fathers novelty Christmas single. Marcus’s mom Fiona raises him in her own offbeat way, which makes the boy an oddball often picked on at school. Always looking to score and thinking single moms are the next great unconquered frontier, Will decides to dedicate considerable brain power to conning his way into a parents group.
And as luck would have it, at one of the gatherings, Marcus and Will are awkwardly stuck together.
What begins will both thinking little of the other, it transforms after a short series of events into almost a friendship, and after a bigger series of events into a definite friendship. Even if they do not fully realize it at first.
And the elephant in the room, the question of whether Will and Fiona will get together? Yeah, that ain’t happening. The two can’t stand each other. They are cordial because of Marcus.
About A Boy comes across as a semi autobiographical, and after wikipediaing Nick Hornby, I think Will is maybe his idealized version of what his father should have been, even after his parents divorce. Multiple thinkpieces have probably been written just on this aspect alone of the concept.
Hornby crafts a tale here filled with dark humour and mature themes, with a hefty side slice of depression infiltrating so much of the DNA. He brings an extra dimension as well to Marcus and Will by letting them tell their stories through alternating chapters.
The age difference in this friendship is an issue addressed early and often in About A Boy. But as quickly shown, age is a physical distinction for these two.
Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead.
Walk beside me… just be my friend.
– Albert Camus –
Marcus might be very odd and picked upon and clueless on virtually everything cultural, but he tends to really understand people. He figures out Will right away, and knows this slacker adult can help him fit in better at school and life.
Will might have no cares in the world except for his immediate gratification. Planning and plotting, done haphazardly at times. Mostly to get women, or some other temporary whatever goal that even slightly interests him, is how he whiles away his lazy days.
But Marcus wants to accomplish so much, namely the saving of his own existence. Will can help make Marcus “Normal” because Will understands and can deconstruct “Normal.” Even if Will deplores “Normal.” And it is me putting “Normal” in quotes, since that theme here feels somewhat surreal as the characters think about it.
But “Normal” is exactly what Will needs, and he knows this, even if he is loathe to admit it. This awakenings for life outside of his shell is what caring for Marcus does for him, and helping the youngster achieves this terrible “Normal” also drags Will kicking and screaming into a real life.
We ache for Marcus because as a young boy he deserves happiness, and is denied so much of that due to negligent parenting. He wants to really really badly to fit in, just as so many adolescents, and so many non-adolescents, yearn to. And he knows that even through he loves his mom very very much, her and her ways are holding him back.
We ache not so much for Will, since he has been an adult, and a not very responsible one at that, for a very long time, but acts like a complete jackass most of the time. His screwed up childhood has been long over with, but Will still uses it as an excuse even if he does not admit that directly, as to why he is what he is. But a good therapist over a decade ago would have helped him, an option not readily available to Marcus.
My sympathies lay with Marcus mostly because he is hurting. And I bet the majority of readers go this way as well. It is probably designed this way on purpose by Hornby, hence the title being About A Boy, and maybe even some meta commentary on the authors own childhood.
My sympathies do not lay with Will all because he has the full ability to help himself but does not. We have all met a Will or two or three in our lives, and just tolerate them because we have to. Hornby has experienced some Will’s in his life, that is a safe bet, and you can sense the disdain for this attitude of not trying.
I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
– Douglas Adams –
Now before you all think I hate Will, and by extension all the Will’s in the Real World, I do not. Okay, I do mostly hate Will’s in the Real World, but not Will in the book. Despite his lazy selfish attitude, I do slightly cheer Will on as he slowly grows a human soul. And maybe because this is fiction, you pull for Will and know change is coming, and in the Real World Will’s tend to stay Will’s. He does not grow as much as Marcus does, but we still can see some evolution. By the finale, Will feels more like a bystander to the events in many ways, but this is a situation that if it happened early on in the story, he would feel differently. In fact, something worse does happen earlier, and Will treats it like something cute.
So calling About A Boy, well, About A Boy, feels very obvious. The equalness of this friendship is not fully equal, as this is really tips more to Marcus and how in so many ways by the finale, he deals with things himself. This is not to say Will is not essential to this tale, because he is an important catalyst, but Marcus’s journey is happening now and will continue on with or without the former manchild Will. But I am happy Marcus still includes Will.
Like any great piece of character enriched literature, so many thoughts and feelings keep bouncing around the noggin for awhile afterwards. What happens to all a year down the road? Or five years? Marcus likes the dynamic he has created, and knows it will change as times goes by. As well it should.
When About A Boy becomes About A Man, Hornby will have another fascinating read.
…is currently reading Star Trek Spock’s World by Diane Duane. My second Star Trek book in almost twenty years!!
P.S. I had the wonderful time consuming About A Boy in a Readalong with @Rebeccah95, who knew nothing about this choice of mine! This was the first Nick Hornby for both of us, and it got on my radar because of the late lamented television series, which was produced by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood vet Jason Katims. And I still have yet to see the show, or the movie!