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.

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