‘I have worked at Dusty’s since I was fifteen,’ says Kathy, the pally narrator of Katharine Pollock’s novel Her Fidelity. She’s 29 now, going nowhere slowly. Kathy’s workplace is a down-at-heel Brisbane record store and her workmates are dissatisfied, heavy-drinking men: frowning Jason, pretty Ian, pervy Warren, Silent Andy, and the store’s jaded owner and namesake, Dusty. Then there’s Mel, the other woman on staff, who commands the store’s office, sorting rosters and dispensing wisdom and snacks. Seventeen years older than Kathy, Mel is gay and unfazed by her male colleagues: the implication of her sexuality within the novel is that, among men, she has nothing to prove. Kathy, by contrast, is two parts exasperation to one part propitiation in the face of her male frenemies, as she calls them. Mel is cool. Kathy is uncool and she knows it.

Cool is the appearance of an absence of effort. Pop musicians are cool because they don’t appear to work, apart from in those cases where busting ass is part of their spectacle: think of James Brown or Bruce Springsteen sweating buckets for our love, or Beyoncé’s feature-length 2019 documentary, Homecoming, the subject of which is her own work ethic. These are brilliant performers, and performances, of work, but a pop star will not expose their workings, their day-to-day – the wake-up calls and hire cars and photo shoots and airports – any more than a great song will betray its origins in back-of-the-envelope scribble. Consequently, novels have a hard time accommodating them – the star musician, the popular song – for what is a novel but the evidence of its author’s labours?

Real-life popular musicians, in particular, fare badly in fiction, where charisma is dragged down to words and where the spell under which that charisma has held us is reduced to the solitary exchange between reader and page. ‘Morrissey came brandishing a licence,’ writes Andrew O’Hagan in his recent novel Mayflies, the first half of which culminates in the G-Mex Festival of 1986, co-headlined by The Smiths in their hometown of Manchester: ‘a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did.’ There’s nothing wrong with the sentence apart from the impression it leaves that the writer is indulging an old dream of bylining in the NME; moreover, it says nothing new about Morrissey. For a novelistic version of a real musician to be novel, enough time has to pass for that musician to re-enter the realm of what can be imagined but not substantiated: see Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which conjures a world of New Orleans jazz musicians at the patchily documented dawn of the popular era. (In Morrissey’s case, given his flatulent devolution, his novel self is decades away from eclipsing the creature he’s become.) On the other hand, fictional pop musicians tend to suffer by the fact that we can’t hear them.

This leaves the realms of fandom and the biz, and the place where the two meet behind the record store counter. The record store clerk, like the pop critic, was once a messenger: have you heard this? Have you heard this? You have to hear this. Both positions have suited the enthusiast whose ardour is partly compounded of pedantry, and both have suffered a decline in status since the internet made music distribution and consumption simultaneous, and instantaneous, without need for message-bearers. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, that long-lived intellectual property about record store clerks, was published in 1995, before Napster, MySpace, YouTube, Spotify, Bandcamp – decades before TikTok. Music retail was a world of paper catalogues and fandom a world of paper weeklies and magazines; the compact disc ruled supreme. 

Not that you get much of a sense of this from Hornby’s novel, where the record store is merely a backdrop to, and sometimes the reason for, a thirty-something man’s fear of commitment. High Fidelity’s narrator-protagonist Rob Fleming is a man-child, and a man-child in part because he runs a record store. In spite of his pop trappings Hornby is an old-fashioned moral novelist: maturity, for Rob and his friends, means learning to love women – vexing, dependable women! – better than records. It means letting go of pop’s mode of feeling, an intensity staged and restaged in each song, which allows us to defer the ordinariness of life past the next fade-out, and the next, and the next. Incidentally, this is another reason why pop music and the novel – or a certain mode of novel – don’t mix well: pop musicians don’t grow up, they just grow old (see the Rolling Stones).  

Like its precursor, Her Fidelity requires its protagonist to become more socially entangled, less self-involved. But whereas Rob commits himself to heterosexual monogamy and, by implication, to the reproduction of the nuclear family, Kathy commits – or recommits, after assorted setbacks and conflicts – to her women friends. (She eventually gains a boyfriend, but he remains a minor character.) Without giving the modest plot away, Kathy’s loyalties lie, by the end of the novel, with Mel: in a sense they always did. This makes Pollock’s book, while not explicitly queer, queer-adjacent at least in the way it shifts the couple form sideways to make space for extended kinship structures where women’s care for women matters first. Revolution girl style now! and all that, even if there’s still a cash register. 

When Her Fidelity opens Kathy is living with her parents, like so many of her generation, which might also be my generation, depending on which demographer you ask. Is one a ‘millennial’ who can remember Gorbachev? Speaking of which – Dad is a socialist of the old flavour, though we never learn when, or how, he formed his politics. He’s fond of Cold War phraseology like ‘Yankee bastards’ and his favourite album is Soviet Red Chorus & Army Band. Mum is less distinctively sketched, though a key late scene offers Kathy an insight into her unassuming feminism.

There’s no real tension between Kathy and her parents, nor does there have to be, but its absence is noteworthy in so far as intergenerational conflict was once a cliché of the rock ’n’ roll narrative. (Turn that racket down!) Popular music used to offer a deferral – in some cases, a permanent one – from the post-WW2 settlement: the steady job, the house and kids that were expected milestones of adulthood in the world’s rich nations. ‘The rebel is always running away from home,’ observed Joy Press and Simon Reynolds in The Sex Revolts, their influential study of gender in popular music, published in 1995, the same year as High Fidelity.  

But what happens when you can’t run away anymore, because (with apologies to Martha and the Vandellas) there’s nowhere to run? Cheap rent is a tale from a bygone era, let alone the squats from which the punk scene bloomed like mould. When leaving home is no longer feasible, the expression of autonomous desires – a speciality of popular music – dissipates. Nick Hornby could wring a (mildly) comic novel out of his lead character’s fear of turning into his Middle England parents: a bourgeois fate worse than death, or so it seemed, forestalled by making one’s record collection the first object of devotion. Almost thirty years on and the laugh track has changed. The closest Kathy gets to family strife is a scene during which her parents catch her masturbating – to Dawson’s Creek fanfic, natch: even the porn is jejune. 

Accordingly, the voice that Pollock has struck for her narrator feels younger than 29, though as I write this I am conscious of an irony. Kathy’s authority is doubted by the men around her, both in her work and her personal life; she suffers sexual harassment and worse, and the everyday sexism of the record store is also the sexism of the world at large, where women’s expertise is undermined. Her ‘recurring nightmare’, she only partially jokes, is ‘a faceless man, saying over and over again, You wouldn’t have heard of it.’

You know, I used to think it was a blessing that the internet had made it possible for me and other women to buy records without this low-level bullshit, freeing us from the constant need to claim and hold a space in the bricks-and-mortar record store. That is, until I discovered that a record store of which I was a frequent online customer assumed I was a man.

Notwithstanding the real-world vinyl revival, the fictional Dusty’s is an anachronism, leftover from the days when record stores, in the absence of the internet’s smorgasbord, functioned as a subcultural proving ground: part catwalk, part information exchange, part social centre. But for who? ‘In my first month of quasi-employment,’ recalls Kathy:

I served Australian rock royalty with thrilling regularity. Members of the Go-Betweens, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Screaming Tribesmen and the Saints all frequented Dusty’s for their vinyl fixes. I was starstruck, but I stopped asking for autographs when Dusty accused me of being a groupie in front of a former member of the Wiggles. Despite feeling decidedly rankled, I laughed meekly, clinging to the thrill of associating with actual musicians.

There’s weakness in the rhythm of that last sentence: ‘decidedly’ dilutes a good verb. But the hedging is indicative of a character who is still learning to stand her ground – or who, more accurately, has had her confidence shaken. 

Their workplace solidarity and shared indie milieu mitigates the age gap between Kathy and Mel. The group is completed by Alex, Kathy’s childhood best friend. Alex should be the odd one out in this line-up: she’s married, a parent, and employed in a well-paying job. But the three women are bonded in spite of their differences. ‘For years, I would see Alex for brunch and Mel for lunch,’ Kathy tells us:

At a certain point I realised that despite our myriad differences, my conversations with each of them were surprisingly similar… Mostly we discussed what we each shared in common: namely, me. And I so eventually decided that seeing them separately was proving to be too big a strain on both my bank balance and waistline, and I forced the three of us to become a cohesive unit. 

Though their social life looks like a long girls’ night in – wine, popcorn, trashy movies and complaining about men – it becomes clear as the novel goes along that only Kathy takes this merriment at face value. In a less insistent frequency range, Mel and Alex have looked out for each other, and for Kathy, in ways the latter struggles to regard. ‘It’s not easy for me!’ Alex protests, when Kathy ventures that Alex’s salary and husband afford her the security to care for her friends. ‘I work from seven a.m. to seven p.m. and that’s just at the office.’ If Kathy, Mel and Alex were a band, then Mel would be the mettlesome lead singer and Kathy the erratic but amusing guitarist; Alex would be the bass player. No one cares about the work that bass players do. (Unlike those egotists at front of stage, a rhythm section rarely gets to indulge in a show of carelessness.) 

The reciprocal movement of the novel is for Kathy to learn to listen to her friends – about a subject other than herself – at the same time as she comes to be heard, and valued, by her co-workers. This social hearing, as we might call it, is connected to the musical kind: Kathy must broaden her tastes as she strengthens her community. But on this point the novel feels most forced, on the one hand because Pollock involves a couple of minor characters, young women of colour, in scenes where their purpose is to give Kathy lessons – one lesson overt, and one implicit – about popular music and race, and on the other because I don’t find it credible that a contemporary music fan, no matter how strong her enthusiasm for the Ramones, would be oblivious to the existence of Solange, as Kathy is before she’s schooled by a helpful and enthusiastic teenage customer named Michelle Song. The stratification between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’, ‘black’ and ‘white’ music that produces Kathy’s kind of ignorance is a thing the internet has helped to destroy, and thank god for that. Most record stores today would stock both Rocket to Russia and When I Get Home, and who can say which is cooler?