27 February, 2010

'Juliet, Naked' - Nick Hornby

There's no doubting Nick Hornby's success as a writer: novels, films - both from his books and written by him - syndication, collected columns, musings (such as 31 Songs). Hornby practically created the genre of witty, observational man-lit; certainly he retains ownership of it.

For all that, I didn't come to Juliet, Naked with huge expectations. Not everything he has written has been brilliant. How to be Good was an unsuccessful experiment with a female protagonist; A Long Way Down was an ambitious execution, comprising mainly of dialogue between four massively disparate characters, brought together by a coincidental attempt at suicide.

Hornby's consistency lies in his insistence on tackling issues at odds with his subject matter. You could dismiss him as light hearted - there's no denying the man is funny - but in writing about the every day, about bumbling blokes and canny kids, he gets to the heart of issues that confront us everyday, but don't get a lot of write up.

Despite its awkward title, Juliet, Naked is a poignant, funny, insightful account of the reality of relationships of convenience. It delves into non-romance, with a fair bit of pop culture thrown in - let's face it, it wouldn't be Hornby wihtout it.

The title refers to an album, released by the reclusive Tucker Crowe. The fictional Crowe was a singer of reknown 20 years ago, his masterpiece being the aching album Juliet. While touring, he had an epiphany in a toilet and has never been seen in public nor heard of again. (I never managed to quite equate him with an existing singer; in the book he's described as a mix of Springsteen, Cohen and Dylan.)

Duncan, a middling Englishman, is a leading 'Crowologist', who receives a demo version of the seminal album. The stripped-back collection earns it the name Juliet, Naked. Duncan's partner, Annie, writes an honest but unappreciative review of the album - one that doubles as an appraisal of her relationship with Duncan: that it is but a veneer without substance. Tucker responds and the pieces of his life are slowly revealed.

Duncan and Annie's relationship is desultory and doomed, but it is the crux of the novel. Hornby's delicacy is at its best as he asks awkward questions of their decisions. They were friends in a dire seaside town who decided to shack up rather than grow old alone. Annie questions, given the outcome 15 years later, whether solitary living could really have been any worse. Theirs is the kind of relationship other writers would use as the basis of an alternative modern piece, a deviation from straightforward marriage or a de facto coupling. But Hornby tells us that even someone who has harboured low expectations from life can still realise that we all deserve something more and find the courage to seek it out.

09 February, 2010

'The Easter Parade' - Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road was Yates' first novel, and the one to reignite his career (albeit posthumously), thanks to Sam Mendes' film. The jacket of this re-issue of The Easter Parade is crammed with praise for Yates' work. Given the nature of marketing, however, most of it refers to Revolutionary Road, a disservice to this later novel, which demonstrates similar restraint and unflinching observation of lives that play out less than perfectly.

I've done a little bit of reading on Yates, but I'm unsure why it took the film of Revolutionary Road to bring him to the attention of the twenty-first century, or why he hadn't maintained the reputation of Fitzgerald or Carver. Yates' first novel was published in 1961, was well received and nominated for awards. The Easter Parade came out in 1976. Gatsby therefore precedes him by almost half a century; Carver was a contemporary and certainly took influence from Yates' style of realism.

Looking at the endorsements on this edition, it sounds like many respected, current writers knew about the Yates phenomenon all along. That assertion is diluted somewhat by the quote from Nick Hornby, that Revolutionary Road is 'Easily the best novel I've read this year'. I agree with him, but I doubt he's talking about 1961 - apparently even those in the know came to Yates late.

The Easter Parade is a sparse narrative, recounting the lives of two sisters whose parents divorced when the girls were very young. The elder sister, Sarah, follows the expected path of early marriage, settling down to children and never working. The younger Emily flits through jobs and men, always a long way from contentment but assured that the traditional model was not for her.

Although the novel deals with many relationships, it features very little love. Yates was nothing if not a realist, and he is willing to present us with partnerships of expediency rather than romance.

Perhaps one reason Yates was both overlooked for so long and is now so embraced is his subject matter. The reader must remember that The Easter Parade was written over 30 year ago, by a man, and focuses on two women, one of whom has sequential affairs, without ever marrying. The male characters play supporting roles only. Yates' achievement in delivering such a raw yet engaged narrative of two women is a credit. It may have lost him audiences 30 years ago; now, thanks to paths authors such as Yates forged, it's hard to remember how significant it must have been.

07 February, 2010

The Arrogant Protagonist - Conceit or Correct?

One of my pet hates in literature is the arrogant narrator protagonist, often the product of an author who uses their book as a vehicle to reveal their extensive knowledge of some area - the more erudite the better.

I didn't enjoy Alan Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty for that reason - his digressions on the merits of Richard Strauss reeked of oneupmanship, and his protagonist seemed to have inherited his knowledge of antique furniture for one of two reasons: so he had something to talk about with his lorded companions; or so Hollinghurst could tell us how much he knew.

I struggled too with Turner's Paintbox, by Paul Morgan, as I've already recorded in my review. Morgan's special topic was the British painter J. M. W. Turner. Another Australian author, who I refuse to name on this blog - let's just say that his novels alone make up a double figure percentage of annual Australian book sales - has made his career by crafting an ill-gotten, formulaic stories around copious research (not all of which he did), in which he doesn't spare any detail of what his research team uncovered.

Ian McEwan introduces two such 'arrogant protagonists' in his earlier novels Amsterdam and Enduring Love. In the former, his composer protagonist agonises over arpeggios and scores; in the latter, Joe Rose is a scientist happy to critique his partner's doctoral theories on Keats, but who elaborates 'for her benefit' over finer details of the history of discovering DNA.

My problem with these asides (I commented on a similar one in Turner's Paintbox) is that they are extraneous to the plot. The fact that the author includes them means they either want to show their protagonist as a git - not a theory normally borne out by the rest of the book - or they're transferring their patronising tone to the reader.

A common weave runs through these characters I've felt so disassociated from. They're all men, as are the authors. Not that I think this is necessarily a problem exclusive to men; I think I felt similar things about Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, though it's been some years since I read it. The characters are also all indisputably of a particular class - upper middle. Their pretensions normally focus on the arts, or in the case of Joe Rose, another area of academia.

When I came across Joe Rose, however, I began to think differently about this character type. Rather than a conceit of the author, perhaps it is simply an authentic representation of that demographic of upper-class, educated British (or Anglophilic) male. Their lives, though not without sadness, have been wrought amongst what most would classify as privilege. Their country has inculcated them with the hereditary of colonialism, and it's that sense of entitlement that underpins their depiction.

I think that theory could be borne out through a comparison with the protagonists of an American author such as Philip Roth - his are also educated men, though perhaps not always born into such a high class. In Roth's case the defining, inescapable character point is their Jewishness. While this produces a different set of character traits, it's as inseperable to their actions and prejudices as McEwan's colonialism.

McEwan of course has just released Solar, a novel 'about climate change', in that the key character is a scientist with an idea for an alternative power source. It's not a fictional version of The Weathermakers, rather a story wherein that current social preoccupation plays a siginificant role in the plot, as in 9/11 in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I await it with interest.