State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Are you watching State of the Union on the telly? (Sunday evenings on BBC2 at 10 – or the complete series on iPlayer). I pre-ordered the book, then the BBC made the series available on iPlayer before starting showing it on BBC2, so I started watching it and got 4 episodes in before the book arrived – at which point I broke off to read the book, and will now finish watching. Usually, I would always want to read the book before seeing the film or watching the programme – but having done both, I think the book was derived from the TV scripts, not the other way around. Frankly, the two are completely interchangeable – as the book is just the script with some he said and she saids added to the dialogue and slightly fleshed out stage directions. However, once you’ve seen the programmes, you can only think of the two actors as the two main characters in the book (whom I do mention down the page).
State of the Union is subtitled ‘A Marriage in Ten Parts.’ It’s the story of Tom and Louise. He is currently unemployed, a music journalist, she is a GP, and they have two children. Each of the ten chapters is the conversation they have in the pub opposite their marriage counsellor’s house. The reason they’re there is laid out in the first chapter, which occurs before their first session:
“If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here. A sad fact.”
“You wouldn’t take a tiny bit of responsibility?”
“No,” Tom says. “Why?”
“Because . . . Because it’s a long and complicated road that has led us here. Don’t you think?”
“Well. It depends which way you look at it. There’s the long and complicated, and then there’s . . . as the crow flies.”
“Talk me through the route your crow flies,” Louise says.
“You slept with someone else, and here we are.”
Louise takes another sip of her drink and then a deep breath. “But there’s a lot more to it than that, isn’t there?” she says.
“Which way do you go then?”
“Crow or no crow?”
“Well. You stopped sleeping with me, I started sleeping with someone else.”
Tom and Louise have weeks of marriage counselling ahead of them. It’s a neat concept – meeting in the pub – sitting at the same table for a pre-session drink for courage, seeing the couple before them exit the house in a different state each week. As a couple, apart from being white and middle-class, they’re chalk and cheese. Tom has a chip on his shoulder about Louise bringing the money home and you can imagine that would fester away at him. Making it Louise rather than Tom that has the affair, is the other way around to most dramas and Hornby actually lets him off rather lightly. This is classic Hornby, gently satirising white middle-class heterosexual folk; their hopes, their fears, their aspirations, their failures, through barbed conversations that mostly remain civil in that strained way.
However, on the page it is Hornby-lite – some of it is hilarious, some of it quite touching, but it is ultimately rather a trivial read. This is one case where the TV is better than the book.
The TV reviews of State of the Union have been mixed. Some comment about the apparent lack of chemistry between the two protagonists on the screen. I can see that, but for me, it’s more that Tom and Louise have lost the chemistry they had, rather than Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd not having any. There’s a strained wistfulness in the way they play it that makes the distance created by Louise’s brief affair seem quite authentic. O’Dowd adds his usual blokeyness, and Pike her usual breathy poshness – but I rather liked them both in it. Hornby’s script adds some of that infantilisation of conversation that creeps unbidden into adult chat when you’ve got young kids (hearing Pike say ‘poo’ is really funny), contrasting with occasional bad language stirred up with humour. It’s gentle, it’s quite funny – but it’s no Fleabag – that’s not Hornby’s style.
I enjoyed both in a laid-back way. Book (7/10) TV (8/10)
Source: Own copy. Nick Hornby, State of the Union (Penguin, 2019) paperback, 132 pages.