Saturday, April 30, 2011

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

Juliet, Naked
by Nick Hornby

When reading Nick Hornby, I take on the role of an indulgent spouse. I have loved Nick Hornby so long and so hard, my opinion is irreparably colored by the moment in which I first read High Fidelity in 2000. I think I must have seen the movie first, as a lot of people did, but they are entirely different animals. While I have much appreciation for the Chicago-set film version, my heart will always be with the London-based heartsickness that comes when women and music intertwine.

We’ve spent a little over a decade together, Hornby books and me — almost as long as Duncan and Annie in Juliet, Naked. Having spent fifteen years in a relationship, they have never married and perhaps were never truly enamored with one another. Theirs is a steady, comfortable existence in the cheerless seaside town of Gooleness, England. Except now...

Sometimes Annie felt less like a girlfriend than a school chum who’d come to visit in the holidays and stayed for the next twenty years. [...] They started drinking together in the evenings and sleeping over at weekends, until eventually the sleepovers turned into something indistinguishable from cohabitation. And they had stayed like that forever, stuck in a perpetual postgraduate world where gigs and books and films mattered more to them than they did to other people of their age.

Duncan had put her to sleep, and in her sleep she’d been desexed.

Taking up far more of Duncan’s energy is the music of Tucker Crowe — a reclusive, Dylan-esque singer-songwriter who disappeared from the music business in the late 80s. The internet has prevented Crowe’s obscurity, and Duncan considers himself one of the ‘Crowologists’ who study and theorize over the man and his songs on an online message board. His most popular album, Juliet, remains a constant source of debate — his references, his musical influences, the woman behind the songs — no detail is too small.

And then one day a CD arrives in the post — a stripped down, acoustic version of that album titled Juliet, Naked. It is Annie that hears it first, and her critical review (and first post) on the message board brings two emails to her inbox:

It was very short. It said, simply, “Thank you for your kind and perceptive words. I really appreciated them. Best wishes, Tucker Crowe.” The title on the second was: “P.S.,” and the message said, “I don’t know if you hang out with anyone on that website, but they seem like pretty weird people, and I’d be really grateful if you didn’t pass on this address.”

Thus begins a friendly, semi-flirtatious correspondence between the two. Tucker is living in Pennsylvania after a string of wives and children, determined to be a good parent to his six year old son, Jackson. He is aware of his shortcomings, but that does not mean he is able to properly deal with them. He and Annie are lonely, and their respective relationships have met their end, and it is not an insignificant thrill to be able to connect with someone again.

Now, to anyone to whom this premise seems awfully convenient, let me remind you — The internet is magical and weird. There are people who I would consider friends, people who I have spoken to for nearly a decade, who I originally met on a music message board. (Though I must clarify – we were “General” section members. Yes, those “Music” section people were pretty weird, ha.)

In the realm of books, I stumbled across Pajiba after clicking on one of their ads on Go Fug Yourself back in both sites' early days, and here we are with the Cannonball Read. Because of Cannonball, I’ve had the opportunity to receive books I might not have otherwise noticed, as well as used my reviews as a springboard to other writerly things. However, perhaps my greatest “The Internet is Weird” story, I cannot talk about yet. It concerns books, it concerns music, and it concerns subject matter that would make the young, obsessive me flip the fuck out. Everything can be connected, and that is why I have no problems with this Juliet, Naked plot device.

More “serious” literary critics like to dismiss Hornby on the basis that he’s too “readable,” too “easy,” which is a rather — and if you’ll forgive my slipping into Britishisms — massive heap of bollocks, if one bothers to consider notions of “easy” for more than ten minutes. While I do enjoy a good chinstroke and mental stretch, just because something goes down smoothly does not make it any less valid. One devours Nick Hornby books. One reads them aloud to passersby, half-listening partners and friends. He takes our admittedly silly and at times superficial motives and gives them validity.

She stopped typing. If she’d been using pen and paper, she would have screwed the paper up in disgust, but there wasn’t a satisfying equivalent with e-mail, seeing as everything was designed to stop you making a mistake. She needed a fuck-it key, something that made a satisfying ka-boom noise when you thumped it. What was she doing? She’d just received communication from a recluse, a man who had been hiding from the world for twenty-odd years, and she was telling him about a shark’s eye in a jam jar.

Next time you are emailing someone you don’t actually know but who has gained a level of importance in your life in some way, I’d like you to take note of your thought process during the composition of said email.

However, yes, there are some conveniences within the plot along the way. Lest I be spoiler-y, I won’t say how, but the ending makes the book a little less than perfect. It feels not necessarily incomplete, but rushed. I’m all for sudden realizations, but maybe I’m not used to them being quite that brisk in good fiction.

Still, Nick Hornby is as smart and funny as ever, and I appreciate how he made Annie and Duncan somewhat immature despite their age. They have, after all, been together since their twenties, and it stands to reason that their stagnancy isn’t only confined to their relationship.

Apart from the commentary on love both fanatical and diminished, Juliet, Naked also talks about what it means to be a great artist and a not-so-great human being, and how one needs to learn to separate the two. Tucker Crowe and his fans have confused the two, and while his fans are forgiving and prone to legend-crafting, Crowe can only see the dishonesty in his work. He has lost sight of his skills’ value, and in the process, lost the ability to write songs.

This is also one of the first novels I’ve read where the author is not afraid of the internet. I’m guilty of technology fear, as are a lot of other (and certainly more notable) writers who can barely summon the will to involve a cell phone. Juliet, Naked not only involves email and message boards, but Wikipedia as well. Hornby has done an excellent job crafting the history of this fictional musician, right down to the fake song lyrics. One gets the sense that maybe — in some roundabout way — they’ve heard Tucker Crowe’s songs before.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Juliet, Naked as the introduction to Nick Hornby’s work, I still immensely enjoyed reading it. There is no shame in devouring a book, nor is there any in not struggling to read its prose. When a story works, and the characters make us feel, outside opinion should be inconsequential.


This was a library book. Support your local libraries!

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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