Saturday, 15 May 2010

Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)

--The blurb--
"In a dreary seaside town in England, Annie loves Duncan - or thinks she does, because she always has. Duncan loves Annie, but then, all of a sudden, he doesn't anymore. So Annie stops loving Duncan, and starts getting her own life. She sparks an e-mail correspondence with Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylanesque singer- songwriter who stopped making music twenty-two years ago, and who is also Duncan's greatest obsession. A surprising connection is forged between two lonely people who are looking for more out of what they've got. Tucker's been languishing (and he's unnervingly aware of it), living in rural Pennsylvania with what he sees as his one hope for redemption amid a life of emotional, familial, and artistic ruin - his young son, Jackson. But then there's also the material he's about to release to the world, an acoustic, stripped-down version of his greatest album, Juliet, titled Juliet, Naked. And he's just been summoned across the Atlantic with Jackson to face his multitude of ex-wives and children (both just discovered and formerly neglected), in the same country where his intriguing new Internet friend resides. What happens when a washed-up musician looks for another chance? And miles away, a restless, childless woman looks for a change?"

--The review--
Nick Hornby's work can always be relied upon to be enjoyable, but as I have pointed out in previous reviews of his novels, he keeps readers on their toes by dicing between different situations and characters to ensure that he does not end up having his writings typecast. In short, his readers are warned to expect the unexpected.

This is certainly the case with his newest effort, entitled Juliet, Naked; we couldn't be any further away from Slam's central character, pro skater Tony Hawk, or from the top of the tower block that provides the focal scenery for A Long Way Down. The novel has a quiet air to it, and yet underneath, big things are happening - monumental shifts that change the course of the characters' lives forever, and perhaps serve as a warning to readers with its slightly moralistic (but not overt or irritating) message that we must be careful not to end up in a rut of life, not to just stay where we are because it is easier to do so. Hornby reminds us in Juliet, Naked, though perhaps less painfully than in aspects of his non-fictional 31 Songs that we only get one life.

Hornby's readers are also kept alert by the title of this latest work: the Juliet of the title is most notable by her absence, rather than by her presence (we never actually meet her), and the nakedness to which the author refers is not to do with traditional nudity at all (although this is not to say that the novel has no sexual content). It refers more to what any artist has to deal with - the fact that in creating something (a song, a painting, or - why not? - a novel) one exposes oneself rawly to the criticisms of others and also to one's own weaknesses.

In keeping with this, the novel is minimally populated, perhaps so that the characters that are there can be examined in more intensity and detail, and the characters themselves are realistically drawn, with their strengths and weaknesses being brought into full focus. Annie and Duncan's demise is perhaps inevitable, but while this is predictable, the rest of the novel is not, and it is this charting of romantic history and the combination of mundanity with Hornby's trademark tale of the unexpected that keeps us reading. The novel does get much better, though, once Hornby stops name-dropping products every five seconds: we do not gain anytthing from knowing that a character is listening to an iPod or drinking Diet Coke, and it is preferable to any reader, surely, to focus on a plot's twists and turns and on the accomplishment of a piece of writing, rather than to feel that we are all just part of a big product placement exercise.

The novel's opening is arresting and the unusual situation of it is appealing to readers. The context that Hornby provides also clears the way for valuable social commentary both on the role of the internet and on the underground music community without being overly positive or negative in either direction. While, as previously mentioned, there may well be a faintly underlying moral, Hornby's role is not didactic, but gives a greater impression of being an equal participant in the action.

The endings met by all of the characters are appropriate and are in line with their imperfect natures. Like so much of life, the story is also left somewhat unfinished; and yet, also somewhat like life, we are left satisfied with the outcome.

Other works by Nick Hornby
Fever Pitch (1992)
High Fidelity (1995)
About A Boy (1998)
How To Be Good (2001)
31 Songs (2003)
The Polysyllabic Spree (2004)
A Long Way Down (2005)
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006)
Slam (2007)
Shakespeare Wrote For Money (2008)

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