Like much of Nick Hornby’s work, Juliet, Naked is not a book about love in the traditional sense. It’s a book for those of us who are obsessively in love with music, so much in love that it defines us when so little else does. We identify with someone’s art, and them as well, without any defining, creative acts of our own. Our identification with them tells us who we are. Part of the reason we love some music so much is that it talks about love. There’s no real love in Hornby’s characters, just attachments of convenience, stops against loneliness, occasionally sexual attraction. Okay, hardly any sexual attraction. Sad, really.
Sad like a lot of Juliet, Naked. Hornby revisits familiar territory here-who can forget High Fidelity?–and again music stands in for the emotions that seemingly can’t be generated any other way. The people here aren’t falling in love, even with music, as much as they are falling out of love. Maybe there’s no such thing as love after all. Even for music.
The book falls into three sections, roughly divided as its three main characters rotate their third-person narration duties. On its first page, Duncan from the washed-up-town of Goolness, England is in a Minneapolis bar taking a picture of a urinal with help from his live-in of 15 years, Annie. They have come to America on a pilgrimage, as obsessed fans will, to view the landmarks in the career of mostly-forgotten rocker Tucker Crowe. The urinal, as legend has it, is the place where Crowe in 1986 decided to chuck his career. Duncan later sneaks into the Berkley home of one of Crowe’s many women, the one who inspired Crowe’s “sixth and… last studio album” (according to a fictional Wikipedia entry) Juliet. Singer-songwriter-Crowe has been (mostly) invisible since that year but it doesn’t stop his consumed-with-him fans from speculating on the meaning of Tucker’s music and that important epiphany, if there was an epiphany, at a Minneapolis urinal.
This first part of the book, focused on Duncan’s captivation and how it defines his life, is the most interesting. Then, Duncan receives an advanced copy of Juliet, Naked, Crowe’s masterpiece “unadorned,” before it was mastered, shorn of strings and percussion. Annie, who is at home to receive the package, listens before Duncan has the chance, and Duncan’s reaction to that not-so-innocent act opens flood-gates in their relationship.
When it’s Annie’s turn to take center stage, we learn of her disappointment, or more specifically, puzzlement at not having children during her long relationship with Duncan, years that span Tucker’s public absence. Then, after Tucker sends Annie an e-mail about her blog-post reaction to Juliet, Naked (she doesn’t like it, further alienating Duncan), the two strike up an unlikely relationship. Crowe, it turns out, is incapable of love as well, though he’s gone through numerous relationships and fathered a few children. Suddenly, the story loses momentum. Better, as novelist Julie Meyerson’s review in The Guardian suggests, that Tucker remain an unseen presence.
But he does turn up, crowding Duncan and Annie aside. Though his presence isn’t required to do it, he provides contrast to Duncan. Here is someone who has actually accomplished something before disappearing, who psychologically abused several women not just one. It’s as if we know much of what will happen in this middle section–short of a heart attack–before it does.
The end of the book turns back to Annie, the only character we have real sympathy for. In tying up the plot, Hornby goes for the maudlin: “The two biggest parts of a man’s life were his family and his work…” Do we need to be told at end that it’s too late for Tucker or Duncan to do anything about them?
Still, there’s joy and insight to be had in the getting there. There are nuggets like this: “Loving art…involved a lot more ill will than one might have suspected.” As he does with that phony Wikipedia entry and the Annie-Tucker e-mail exchange, Hornby is a master of making meaning out of the contemporary, of relating technology, old school or new, to human experience:
“The first time Duncan had watched his computer fill in the track names of the CD he’d put into it, he simply didn’t believe it. It was as if he were watching a magician who actually possessed magic powers…Shortly after that, people from the message board started sending him songs attached to e-mails, and that was every bit as mysterious, because it meant that recorded music wasn’t, as he’d previously always understood, a thing at all–a CD, a piece of plastic, a spool of tape. You could reduce it to its essence, and its essence was literally intangible. This made music better, more beautiful, more mysterious, as far as he was concerned. People who knew of his relationship with Tucker expected him to be a vinyl nostalgic, but the new technology had made his passions more romantic, not less.”
It’s for passages like this that we read Hornby, even when his storytelling isn’t at best. Juliet, Naked has too much dressing. Still, it’s worth a listen.–Cabbage Rabbit