Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Nick Hornby: Juliet, Naked

A review

If you're a Nick Hornby fan, you'll probably agree that one of his best qualities is the way his conversational style can connect with readers.

The way we speak, the way we (fail to) interact, the pettiest details and our most deeply ingrained twitches: Hornby seems to have a unique knack for using all of the above to depict the most charmingly ordinary vignettes.

The second most captivating factor is Hornby's love for flawed or messed up characters. However, they're never messed up in a bohemian/OTT/rock'n'roll kind of way. Hornby's anti-heroes are quite nerdy, vulnerable, moderately lonely and a couple of steps away from emotional implosion.

Centred around the themes of obsession and loneliness, Juliet, Naked keeps in line with Hornby's tradition. Set in the fictional ailing north-east town of Gooleness, the book seems to focus initially on someone reminiscent of Dick from High Fidelity, in this case a forty-something music maniac called Duncan.

The problem with Duncan is that he is literally obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a US musician who disappeared from the public radar in 1986 after a brief spell of fame. Duncan is a "Crowologist", that is one of the most obsessive Tucker Crowe fans worldwide. He actively contributes to a Crowe fansite which is teeming with conspiracy theories and conjectures about the musician's long absence from the "scene".

It soon becomes apparent, however, that the real protagonist is his frustrated partner Annie, a much more interesting and humane character.

Something is bugging Annie, but she can't quite grasp what in particular. Her life in desolate Gooleness, where she works as a museum curator is nothing to write home about. She doesn't seem to have built much of a social life since moving there and her relationship with Duncan is virtually sex-free. Time is ticking and Annie would love to start a family of her own.

To do so with Duncan, however, would be out of question. It soons dawns on Annie that she's been going out with him for so long purely out of a combination of habit and low-self esteem. During one of his conversations with Annie he refers to Tucker Crowe as their virtual child: the emotionally-challenged chap is literally incapable of managing two sentences without dropping a reference to his favourite singer.

It's against this background that the book unravels. Though not an awful lot happens, the story plot is fairly engaging - especially when it zooms in on Tucker Crowe's current predicament. And, in typical Hornby-style, whenever a dead end is approaching, there comes a twist or quirk that will keep the energy up.

The weakest point is that, with the partial exception of Annie, the characters don't seem to carry much depth - unlike his every other book from Fever Pitch to A Long Way Down.

Hornby's portrayal of desolation, however, remains unique, along with his intriguing mock-versions of Wikipedia entries about Tucker Crowe and snapshots of fans' online message boards.

It still amazes me how Nick Hornby is billed as a 'comic writer'. Witty for sure, humorous at times, but to categorise Hornby's work as 'comedy' is to lazily shun the emotional depth of his books- how he probes human nature, pokes our emotions and inquires into notions such as loneliness, happiness, intimacy and life.

Which is, ultimately, what makes Juliet, Naked worth a read or even two.

Also on the same subject: A Long Way Down; Slam

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