Like a lot of readers, my impression of Nick Hornby is most influenced by High Fidelity, which is still widely considered his best novel. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that the book’s popularity has not a little to do with its treatment of minutiae: the plot itself is somewhat tepid romantic comedy fare, but the tangents about pop records are delivered with such a characteristic force that one can’t help but pay attention.
Juliet, Naked attempts to recapture some of that juju. It’s the story of Tucker Crowe, a somewhat obscure indie musician from the 70s and 80s who very suddenly left the music scene (and any sort of public persona) after a mysterious incident in the bathroom of a Minnesota nightclub. For the next twenty years, a gaggle of his most devoted fans have speculated about his life, the cause of his exit, the merits of his music, and theories about his current whereabouts. To readers somewhat familiar with the indie rock scene, that kind of underground obsession is a familiar phenomenon—the tendency of the fanatical is to impose genius upon the mysterious. Hornby’s status as a cognoscente of the pop music scene gives the story a certain sense of slick verisimilitude that works well.
I said that Juliet, Naked is the story of Tucker Crowe, but it’s as much the story of Annie and Duncan, two middle-aged Brits in a loveless relationship in a small seaside town outside of London filled mostly with geriatrics. Duncan is one of those obsessive fans that I alluded to earlier; his 20-year obsession with Crowe, both pre- and especially post-disappearance is a source of eye-rolling dismissal from Annie, who is mostly with Duncan out of sheer laziness or inertia. She wants a child; Duncan doesn’t, and at 45, Annie is feeling her latitude slipping away.
Things begin to fall apart (or come together….. [said with a rising inflection]) when Duncan receives in the mail a new album called Juliet, Naked, a collection of rough acoustic demos of the songs from Crowe’s final album, Juliet. While Annie is underwhelmed by the new album (she is, while not a Tucker Crowe enthusiast, could be considered a Tucker Crowe fan), Duncan finds it brilliant, and their differing opinions (not to mention Duncan’s subtely dismissive rejection of hers) shine a light on the hairline cracks in their relationship. When Annie—heretofore largely unengaged in writing—writes a review and posts it to the Tucker Crowe website which Duncan frequents, it elicits a clandestine email from none other than Tucker Crowe himself.
I have to admit that I find the character drama of Juliet, Naked a little less engaging than that of High Fidelity, but that’s perhaps because I have more in common with a relatively young music store owner than I do with a 45-year-old doofus from Britain1 But while the two books are compared, and quite rightly, their narrative characters are actually substantially different: they are both, at heart, about a couple or couples struggling to find themselves, but while his earlier novel’s characters were indefatigably hip despite themselves2, the characters of Juliet, Naked are all irreparably broken, sagging creatures, fighting against the physical and psychological ravages of age and their own, considerably less hip, dysfunction.
Like most romances of this sort, the relationships which eventually form or disband are predictable, though this has never stopped such stories from being popular or interesting. The meaning and impact tends to filter through preconceptions of the readers; as High Fidelity was to vinyl lovers and post-collegiate sad sacks in the throes of existential crises, so Juliet, Naked is to depressive middle-agers and pathetic indie scene kids and obstinate men clinging to their youthful obsessions. You could call the ending “happy” if you don’t mind vilifying (perhaps unnecessarily) a number of its characters, and you don’t mind seeing it coming from quarter of the way into the book. Hornby’s writing so heavily telegraphs itself that it obviates the actual reading of the book; the narrative progression is a function of nothing more than time–it seems as though it will labor to its conclusion regardless of our emotional investment or the growth of its characters or events of any particular interest. I begin to wonder if the book requires no more to read than it apparently took Hornby to write it. I see what he was trying to do, but I can’t escape the suspicious that he phoned this one in.