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Juliet, Naked Paperback – September 7, 2010
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Nick Hornby returns to his roots-music and messy relationships-in this funny and touching new novel which thoughtfully and sympathetically looks at how lives can be wasted but how they are never beyond redemption. Annie lives in a dull town on England's bleak east coast and is in a relationship with Duncan which mirrors the place; Tucker was once a brilliant songwriter and performer, who's gone into seclusion in rural America-or at least that's what his fans think. Duncan is obsessed with Tucker's work, to the point of derangement, and when Annie dares to go public on her dislike of his latest album, there are quite unexpected, life-changing consequences for all three.
Nick Hornby uses this intriguing canvas to explore why it is we so often let the early promise of relationships, ambition and indeed life evaporate. And he comes to some surprisingly optimistic conclusions about the struggle to live up to one's promise.
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There, have I said it enough?
This isn't a spoiler review. If you want a plot synopis, by all means, move on.
The story opens in a dreary British seaside town, in the current day. Our main characters are a late thirty-something couple. He's a college professor and aficionado of a reclusive ex-eighties musician who reminds one of, well, Jandek, before Jandek actually started doing concerts. She is a museum curator, who is longing for a better life, and a child, somewhere a lot less boring.
The book is full of lines like, "Where in the North of England could one find an unattached arts graduate? We went to North Bumblebee; supposedly there had been one there four or five years ago." Much of this is howlingly, bitterly funny.
If I tell you what happens, it will ruin the plot, so I'll tell you what it's not: this isn't a continuation of, "High Fidelity"; it's not a story about stoically finding happiness in what you have; it's slightly anti-British--America looks like the place to be; its main thesis seems to be that leaving adolescence, and more importantly, having children, is the secret to long-term happiness.
This is a lot about looking back, and ending what doesn't work. For many Gen-X'ers in their late thirties, this may hit a little too close too home.
So, if you were rooting for the commitment-phobic, rock musician obsessed guy in this story, um, well, not the book for you. If however, you are hopeful, family friendly (gack, did I just say that?), rooting for the woman looking for the baby, and possibly the aging very ex-rock star, then this is just grand.
P.S. Some of the jokes may rely on familiarity with Northern England stereotypes. (If you've seen, "Hot Fuzz", and "Kids in the Hall", you should be fine.)
Hornby has become the modern day Chaucer of sorts: a chronicler who follows around emotionally caveman-like males in the world and then relates them for the reader. He simply creates the characters and chronicles the damage that their existence causes. This journey is usually achieved with darkly sarcastic humor, extraordinary wit and a faint sense of dark optimism that incremental positive changes may surface from these stunted beings.
This is not to say that Hornby's characters are stunted Neanderthals dragging their knuckles on the ground and grunting monosyllabically. They are the kind of men you would find at your local coffee shops or independent record stores. They are men of intelligence, worldliness and curiosity. Their downfall is an inability to sustain emotional attachments to human beings that match pace with their single minded intellectual obsessions stemming from their youthful pursuits and fascinations. They are emotionally stagnant, and in some cases, backsliding towards boyhood. They have been doing so since they peaked around the age of twenty. These men leave the emotional carnage all around them, both slight and sizeable. This is the sad fact for those who either choose or are obligated by the forces of life to embrace them. This has Hornby's primary recurring theme in his works over the last twenty years.
One such character is Tucker Crowe. Crowe was a musical auteur in a Dylanesque like vein in the early nineteen eighties. However, his inability to deal with his love life, booze, and the pressures of producing art that measure up to his lofty expectations leads him to walk off stage in middle of a show in Minnesota, never return to the public eye again. Crowe fiercely guards his chosen obscurity as he disappears into a life of booze and women who nurture his childlike needs. Like some sort of musical Salinger only with much less talent and impact, he has turned his life into figurative medieval castle where he does everything to shut out the world of fame. Whether it is his children or their mothers he manages to alienate them with his ever present emotional distance.
The second character that the novel revolves around is Duncan, a socially and emotionally inept lecturer at a small English college. Duncan's sole obsession is his perceived brilliance of all things connected to Crowe fleeting career. This obsession becomes his life's solitary fixation and emotional outlet. Duncan is the pied piper of a website that chronicles every Crowe real or imagined sighting, unearthed bootleg recording etc. Duncan is the perfect parody by Hornby of the levels of obsessive fandom that can be pursued today through the internet.
What ensues is the litany of emotional damage these two central characters inflict upon those who come into contact with. Whether it is the various children and damaged women that Crowe has left around the United States and England from his performing days or his booze fuelled journey into obscurity afterwards, it is undeniable that Crowe has caused a tremendous amount of human wreckage along the way. In Duncan's case it's a fifteenth year of emotionally vacant relationship he has engaged in with a woman named Annie that is where he has done damage. This relationship coincides, as a distant 2nd in a two horse race, with Duncan's quest for all things concerning Crowe with his cadre of internet groupies around the world. In Annie he has a smart, loving partner who transforms into an unwitting enabler over time. Not because she is fool, however. She just comes to believe that this is best way to try to reach the parts of Duncan that hide behind his Crowe obsession.
As in most of Hornby's novels, the women in the stories come off being much more developed and emotionally engaged than the principal male characters. Not that they are all faultless matrons; if they were how could have they gotten themselves involved, and stayed with, such emotionally regressed men in the first place?
The theme of women as being more emotionally mature and responsible beings, is no different in `Juliet Naked' than in Hornby's other novels. The fact is that his female characters are always a bit more to the point and emotionally honest. Hornby seems to see the world in this light and as with his other novels. Hornby's stories never wrap themselves up in neat bows where all faults are exorcised and everyone is redeemed. The true pleasure of this novel and all his novels in general, is to be taken from the humor and wit that passes for ordinary banter and the odd moments of special brilliance that pass among common people that get lost in the larger narrative of life. In this novel Hornby uses a broader canvas than he has attempted before and therefore is missing some of the tightness and focus of "About a Boy" or High Fidelity", two previous works I believe to be superior to this one. Hornby's new work could benefit from some of that focus. At times, it seems he was writing without a plot in mind, which isn't necessarily, a bad thing. However, when it becomes obvious that you are using grammar, pointless small talk, and the ensuing syntax debates that emanate between characters while attempting to discern what your next plot turn will be, it tends to become a distraction for the reader. Especially for those who are not initiated and avowed fans of Hornby's work.
There are no epiphanies in this novel or any Hornby novels for that matter. What we have to settle for is small gestures marking progress towards emotional growth. Whether it is Crowe's attempt to reconnect with all those woman and children he has left or Duncan's small overtures to Annie to say sorry for 15 years of neglect, this is all you are going to get. They want to make amends for what they have done but they may lack the emotional tools to do so. With Hornby's novels you have to settle for minute, incremental gestures of good faith. If you are a fan of all-encompassing character transformations you are advised to seek other authors.
Where Hornby succeeds on equal or greater footing with his other works in `Juliet Naked' is in demonstrating no matter how lightly (or not) we tread we leave our footprints where we go. This is even true in cases like Duncan's, where the character does not go very far at all. It is the accumulation of these footprints that eventually lead to a confluence of circumstances. We cannot avoid these because they are the concrete evidence of our existence. So, tread as carefully as you please, the novel warns us, but those footprints are amassing. At some point we will have to deal with them. Like most things avoided the damage done is far more extensive when dealt with later then sooner.
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