People want Nick Hornby to be a better author than he really is. As far as I’ve read/heard from fellow readers, he’s an unfailingly likable voice whose novels still tend turn out meh. Granted, these are other people’s opinions and not mine, a fact I’m slightly ashamed of since Hornby’s the kind of guy I should have already delved into ages ago. (In a way I have: in his regular column at The Believer, he was the nicest devil-may-care book critic I’ve ever read.)
Whether it’s his best known books adapted to film (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch) or his other screenplay work (An Education), Hornby’s exposure is more cinematic than literary. His primary gig is the Messy Romantic Dramedy, and if I may weigh in after reading Juliet, Naked, I’d say he’s damn good at it.
Annie is finally breaking up with Duncan, the obsessed webmaster of a site dedicated to 80’s folk rocker Tucker Crowe. Tucker Crowe produced a landmark breakup album in 1986 that is still dissected daily by a handful of music snobs, with Duncan being king snob. Annie commits the ultimate betrayal in their relationship by listening to a to-be released demo version of the album (“Juliet Naked”) before Duncan can, and she doubles her transgression by not finding it to be unparalleled genius. Duncan allows her to post her lukewarm review on his site, and soon she is emailed by someone claiming to be Tucker Crowe. The artist, himself, agrees with her that Juliet Naked is lousy (and it later it becomes apparent he only released it for what little money it would pull in.). “The idea,” writes Tucker, “that a person with ears could listen to those two sets of recordings and decide that the shitty, sketchy one is better than the one we sweated blood over is baffling to me.” Thus begins Annie’s correspondence (and schoolgirl crush) with the former cult icon who lives across the pond in America.
Industry Fun Fact: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and other literary novelists apparently colluded last year to write about Washed-Up Musicians as the theme of some sort of workshop contest I was unaware of.
The early stages of this book nagged me. Of course, Hornby must establish that Annie and Duncan are as dynamic as boiled liver, but that doesn’t make reading about them any less dull. The worst part is that their lives, or at least Duncan’s, revolve around a rock album that doesn’t exist, making them less relatable than garden gnomes. It’s difficult to immerse myself in a book that seems to center around a fictitious celebrity, and as in this novel’s case, one that’s supposed to occupy the same dimension as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen, and I was expecting that no amount of authenticating detail was going to make Tucker Crowe seem like a real person.
Until, of course, I met Tucker Crowe the person. Somehow that sold the illusion. Seeing the musician’s fall from grace and his campaign of redemption through his six-year-old son led me not only to accept that his legendary album “Juliet” was real, but I wanted it to be real.
Juliet, Naked is quite fine as a romantic novel, but it’s also pointed study of the relationship between artists and their work, as well as artists and their “experts.” The tendency of a fan to over-analyze of a piece of work (as Duncan realizes, “Maybe he’d spent too long translating something that had been in English all along”) and its artist to despise said work just rings true through these characters. The ironies are fun– especially watching Duncan react to his ex dating his musical idol– without one iota of meanness. Because Hornby’s a nice guy, you know.
In terms of plotting a relationship, Hornby will trade cleanliness for awkwardness at every turn. I dig this commitment to authenticity, that Annie and Tucker are tentative and wobbly with each other, but it makes the whole plot seem tentative and wobbly. A less “authentic” romance plot has more clear-cut direction– here they grow closer, grow apart, then closer again, etc.– that’s honestly more gripping fiction albeit a less accurate depiction of how relationships actually progress. That being said, Juliet, Naked’s ending, especially, could have benefitted from a little less ambiguity. To wrap things up more tidy-like, you know, with a nice snog.