To those who wave, and to those who do not.
1 April 2001
I'm sure that what you are about to read is far from what you are expecting.
I hope that most of what I have written speaks for itself. However, there is one particular curiosity that I anticipate in the reader - the question of what exactly it is that is wrong with me and how this has affected my life. Of course, the most natural instinct in the world would be for me to write about my condition and experiences, and indeed that is something that I hope to do, but not until I am better. The reasons for this are straightforward. Firstly, my limitations are such that I do not believe it would be sensible to use so much of my limited capabilities to write about those limited capabilities - it might very soon become a book about writing a book, and my need is to try to escape my condition rather than immerse myself further within its reality. Secondly, it doesn't have an ending yet.
Throughout the course of my illness I have written bits and pieces - letters, diary entries, short essays - with my book in mind, but for the most part I have resisted the temptation to include them here. I felt that if I began to include those things I might very well end up writing the book that I have decided not to write at this time.
"Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?"
Henry the Fourth - Part Two 2 iv
It all started with a review that I posted at Amazon.co.uk, soon after my release from hospital. In fact, thatís not true. It all started a long time before I posted my review, but this chapter, this small but significant part of my story started there and then, wherever it is that a virtual shop exists. It was a very difficult time for me, and this most unlikely encounter served as a welcome distraction from my difficulties.
My capabilities at this time were extremely limited. I did not have a stairlift and was consequently confined to the upstairs of my house. I was determined to try to do whatever I could at a time when, in addition to my physical health, my mental health was of considerable concern to both myself and also, I assume, those around me.
Having only recently regained sufficient concentration to enable me to read books again, I decided that it would be constructive to try to read as much as I could and to endeavour to review every book that I completed. This served the dual purpose of being both enjoyable and also giving me something constructive to show for what few capabilities I had.
Nick Hornbyís High Fidelity and Fever Pitch had been sitting on my shelf for some time. I had been given them for Christmas some time previously and had been frustrated that my concentration had not been sufficient to enable me to read them.
Whilst I could not recommend my experience to anyone, there have nevertheless been some small consolations, as I believe there are with any bad experience. I like to believe that no matter how insufferable things may be there are always some consolations on which, if one is to survive, one should endeavour to dwell as much as oneís blinkered optimism can possibly stand. The only consolation I could find in not having sufficient concentration to read was that I hoped I would appreciate it that little bit more when eventually I could. There were certainly times when I would look up at my bookshelf in frustration and wonder whether I might not have been better off had I stemmed my optimism and requested something other than books for Christmas (not that more useful alternatives readily sprang to mind). Having lain in bed for so long, wishing that I could at least survive the time by escaping into someone elseís world, I like to think that when finally I was able to work my way through first one book and then another I was able to appreciate it that little bit more than would otherwise have been possible. And even if that is not true, it does me no harm to believe that it is.
High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
Not bad for a Gooner.
In High Fidelity Nick Hornby offers the reader an access all areas pass to the workings of Rob Flemingís mind. And being as we are, we head straight for the VIP lounge, where the topics of conversation are invariably relationships and Top Five, best or worst, ďwhateversĒ of all time.
Rob works in his own second hand record shop with a couple of social misfits who are united by their obsessive interest in non-classical music Ė that, and the fact that they are all (self-consciously) male, living in the 1990s, single (initially) and seemingly going nowhere with their lives.
Rob, who narrates this novel in the first person, has just been dumped in favour of his former upstairs neighbour. This ignites within him a neurotic sense of sexual failure, and sends him back to delve into the archives of his adolescent, sexual awakenings.
Hornby's characters are both believable and complementary, whilst his uncomplicated style makes for effortless reading. Right from the start I cared about the characters and how this chapter in their lives would finally unfold.
It is said that the way to paint a great watercolour is to make it look as though one has just thrown the paint down casually and let it flow around the paper, untempered. In actual fact, the artist has probably spent a good deal of time, making sketches, deciding upon the composition, calculating the perspective, agonising over the colour balance and, finally, gently caressing the paint around the paper to achieve the desired effect. In "High Fidelity" Nick Hornby writes, as I would like to paint in watercolour.
The real test, though, is whether ďHigh FidelityĒ would feature in my Top Ten best novels of all time? It probably wouldnít, but it might feature in my Top Five humorous, contemporary novels of all time.
Finally, I must add that, given the authorís footballing affiliations, I complement this novel grudgingly Ė but then, as Rob himself concludes, ďitís not what you like but what youíre like thatís importantĒ.
Rob McMullen, 1999
"How many times have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The sign of Four (1890)
The emails that you are about to read were all actually sent and received. Tempting though it may have been to revise some of the content, in order to save embarrassment or to paint myself in a better light, I have decided to remain faithful to the words (and some typos) that were written at the time. Although, in the absence of any other sources, I suppose you will just have to take my word for this.
Some names and references have been changed purely to protect the innocent.
From: rose seventeen
To: Robert McMullen
Date: 02 August 1999 13:57
Subject: Your Review - High Fidelity
Just a short thank you note from a total stranger for the brilliant review you wrote of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.
After reading your review I felt compelled to read it and I must agree with your recommendation 100%. Reading High Fidelity also made me desperate for more of the same so I rushed out to buy About a Boy which was also an excellent read. Now I'm not sure if I feel newly enlightened or just more confused about men! Another review also states that women should read Nick Hornby's books so that they no longer hate men but pity them. This also applies - sorry.
If you haven't read About a Boy - please do so immediately. You may read my review soon.
[I never read Rose's review. To the best of my knowledge she's never written one.]
--- Rob McMullen wrote:
Thanks - you made my day.
I don't get to read much, because I'm chronically unwell and my illness effects my ability to concentrate. For a long time I couldn't read at all, so I really appreciate being able to do what I can.
My plan is that once I'm better, I'm going to write about my experience of being unwell; I'll let you know when the book's out.
If you're looking for something else funny to read, I'd recommend "Are you experienced?" by William Sutcliffe. It's the funniest book I've ever read - the sort of book that you read in one go. You can read my review at Amazon.
I've not read "About a boy", but did catch a tiny bit of it when it was on "The Late Book" on Radio 4. I was a bit concerned that it might be a bit depressing from what I heard, so haven't bothered. Was I wrong?
Could I be so bold as to ask how old you are and what you do? - And no, in case you're wondering, I'm not some desperate sad case who befriends whomever he can because he's got no mates and spends all his time on-line. [Not strictly true - certainly not the bit about being sad and desperate.] It's just that I was flattered by your compliment of my review.
Can you recommend any other books to me?
My favourite book of all time is "Illusions" by Richard Bach. I've not reviewed it yet but I will in due course. It was a few years ago that I read it, so it may be a test of memory.
PS I was hoping that someone influential might read my reviews and offer me pots of cash to write for them!
From: rose seventeen
To: Robert McMullen
Date: 03 August 1999 13:42
Subject: a common interest!
Thank you so much for replying to my e-mail - I also was delighted to receive an e-mail and no, I'm not a desperate sad case either! The main reason I'm delighted to receive e-mails is that I'm only just becoming Internet-literate, having been a net virgin up until quite recently.
Yes, you may be so bold as to ask personal questions - my name is not really Rose - but I still feel very wary of this medium so for now Rose will do. I'm not 17 either and until you asked it didn't occur to me that the misunderstanding was there for the taking. [It seems there was a double misunderstanding, because I hadn't even considered that she might be seventeen when I asked the question. I was just interested to know.] 17 September is my birthday and that's the only connection. In fact, I wouldn't be 17 again if they (whoever they may be) paid me to be. I am 33 and love it.
[I don't believe her. That's the sort of thing you only say if you don't mean it.]
It's a very good age to be: still young enough to do everything I want, old enough to be discreet when discretion is called for, experienced in life enough to know when that is.
I work in an office - boring but pays the bills and I get to use the facilities (I am now), go home early when I want and come in late on a Monday morning.
I live in Scotland in a beautiful little village, but come originally from the darkest industrial valleys of South Wales.
What about you? And what chronic illness? I'd love to carry on corresponding if it might cheer you up on a dark day. I'm quite nice, actually!
PLEASE read About a Boy. It's not at all depressing. If anything I enjoyed it more that High Fidelity and have bought it for several friends over the last few months (she said, in an attempt to prove that I also have 'real' friends off-line). It's fundamentally about a man in his 30s (Will - a little similar to Rob in HF) who invents a 2-year old son in order to make himself appear more interesting to single mothers because he once had really good sex with a single mother. It's hilarious but don't read it on a train in case you get yourself sectioned under the Mental Health Act (unless you already are, of course!) for uncontrollable hilarity in public.
[My review of "are you experienced" obviously made an impression.]
I have also read 'Illusions' maybe more recently - just about 2 ago. A very clever book and an interesting concept which deserves consideration. I insisted my deeply repressed catholic friend read it and even he enjoyed it (or maybe just said he did). Richard Back [Bach] had a very good point I think - would you want the job? He also wrote a hippy classic called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Another cleverly written book - everyone I know who has read it has enjoyed it on a completely individual level with no 2 people getting the same message from it.
[She sounds old, and she must be coming on to me. Only someone older than me would try to enchant me by pretending that they used to be a hippy. I wonder whether she might wish she were 33.]
And thank you for the further recommendation of the William Sutcliffe - it will be my next book I promise.
When I can decide what to recommend in return you will hear from me again (if that's OK with you now you know more about me).
Keep reviewing - I'm just about to go in to read your review of Are You Experienced. [I could have sworn that she'd already read it.] One day ... you never know who reads these things!
[I couldnít help but notice the number of exclamation marks in Roseís email. Ever since I read an article in a magazine about writing articles for magazines, Iíve found that exclamation marks seem to jump out at me. The author of this learned article warned that this form of punctuation should only ever be used with extreme caution, as there is something both slightly uncool (my phrase, not his) and diminishing about their excessive use. Up until that time, Iím not sure Iíd ever given them much thought. If Iíd felt like exclaiming, Iíd just exclaimed; if I hadnít, I hadnít. But ever since I read that article Iíve noticed that Iíve started to analyse every exclamation mark I see, and my own exclamation mark usage has plummeted to practically nothing. (OK, so I used one earlier, but you donít know how tempted I was to compromise my integrity and edit it out.) Iíve even come up with a theory. Itís just a hunch really, and it may take some proving, but my guess is that there might just be a positive correlation between EMU (Exclamation Mark Usage) and sexual performance. In other words, people who use a lot of them are good in bed. I just counted five in Roseís email, so the portends are good. On the other hand, Iím not sure what that says about me. Maybe itís an inverse relationship for men, or maybe my reading that article has artificially affected, and thus invalidated, my EMU. Or maybe Iím just... No. Surely not?]
[So I'm thinking about sex already. Weren't you?]
© 2005 Robert McMullen. All rights reserved.
If you have enjoyed reading this extract from "stranger and stranger" and would like to order a copy of the book, please follow one of the links below. The new afterword in which Robert writes about his diagnosis for the first time is currently only available in the new ebook edition. At least 30% of the purchase price of ebooks boughts from Amazon stores will be donated to charities funding biomedical ME research, including ME Research UK. ME is also known as ME/CFS and CFIDS.