Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Back in the mid-1990s I was a big fan of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a novel about a young man's devotion to music. My girlfriend questioned my enthusiasm for this book, which she considered "middlebrow" at best, and our disagreement over the quality of the writing resulted in a drawn-out argument.
"Listen to us," I finally said, "this is my proof."
"This fight sounds exactly like a scene from his book."
This observation did not end our argument well, or even end it at all. I stood by the sentiment, insisting that Hornby wrote spot-on dialogue and got into the head of music aficionados and other obsessives as well as any writer working at that time.
I read each of Hornby's books after High Fidelity, and eventually began to wonder if perhaps my ex-girlfriend was right -- maybe I did overrate this guy. With the exception of About a Boy, much of his fiction after High Fidelity seemed uneven, not particularly well-crafted, and not even very rock 'n' roll.
Juliet, Naked, however, is a pop pleasure like High Fidelity.
The title comes from the fictional album of the same name released by Tucker Crowe, an American singer and songwriter best known for "Juliet," a masterpiece concept album about a break-up. "Juliet, Naked" is the acoustic version, released a couple of decades after Crowe retreated into retirement and reclusion.
Thanks to the Internet, Tucker developed an obsessive fan base -- "Croweologists" -- between the two albums. One of his devotees is Duncan, a geeky British professor with "specialist knowledge of 1970s American independent cinema and the novels of Nathanael West." His girlfriend, Annie, who works for a museum, is bored with their relationship. So is Duncan, but she is more acutely aware of the ennui. Hornby's story kicks into gear when Annie posts a blog entry about "Juliet, Naked," and Tucker responds.
Flirtatious e-mails lead, naturally, to a flesh-and-blood rendezvous. Tucker is one of Hornby's most intriguing characters, and he gives Hornby the opportunity to riff knowingly on fame, ambition, love among damaged adults, and the relationship between art and the artist.
Tucker has ex-wives, ex-lovers and five children he knows of, but currently resides with one son, apparently attempting to atone for his prior years of poor parenting.
"You couldn't love people you didn't know unless you were Christ," Tucker thinks to himself, acknowledging that he didn't really know his wives or his other offspring.
"Bad people can make great art," Annie notes.
Though this sentiment is true, it proves to be beside the point. Crowe is not a bad person, but rather another Hornby hero with serious flaws and compelling charm.
For me the most entertaining and insightful portions of the book are not so much the love story between Tucker and Annie but the history of Tucker's stunted musical career and the tangled connections between Tucker, his work and his fans.
As Duncan explains to Tucker at the denouement of the thin plot, "I don't pretend to understand what those songs meant to you, but it's the forms of expression you chose, the allusions, the musical references. That's what makes it art ... I don't think people with talent necessarily value it, because it all comes easy to them ... but I value what you did on that album more highly than, I think, anything else I've ever heard. So thank you."
If High Fidelity was "Meet the Beatles," fresh and catchy, then Juliet, Naked is "Abbey Road," less fresh, more complex, but still rock 'n' roll to the ears of music fans.
Books mentioned in this post