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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pocket Review: Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

In Juliet, Naked Nick Hornby (About A Boy, High Fidelity) does what he does best: he writes about lonely people who obsess about music to assuage their loneliness. Only this time one of the lonely people is actually a musician instead of just a music nerd. Juliet tells the story of a couple of long-time lovers, Duncan and Annie, living in a decaying seaside town in the North of England, who share a singular obsession with a vanished singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe. Crowe's final album, Juliet, is considered one of the lost greats of his generation, and his sudden abandonment of his career has made the album all the more mysterious.

Hornby sets all this up in a few early scenes, the lovers' obsession (Duncan's more so than Annie's), the lovers' lack of obsession for one another, etc., and so when Duncan cheats on Annie in a fit of irresponsibility, the reader is left with a book that seems to have jumped the tracks before it ever even got started. Duncan is an unlikeable cad and Annie makes it clear from the opening pages of the break-up that she won't be having him back, but then Annie receives an unlikely email from someone claiming to be Tucker Crowe, a response to a negative review she'd posted on-line of a re-released, acoustic (naked), version of Juliet. It is a testament to Hornby's abilities as a storyteller that this unlikely meet cute doesn't come off as ridiculous, because in less capable hands this story would have ended up back on the bookshelf in about twenty pages.

After the break-up Duncan spins to the peripheral of the story, leaving Annie and Tucker to occupy the novel's center, but it is Tucker who proves to be the most interesting. Hornby knows this and metes out the truth about Tucker's past in very small, measured doses that make the final epiphany all the more cathartic. By the end the reader has seen Tucker from just about every possible angle: from the view of the rabid fans who stalk his ex-girlfriends for clues, from Annie's neediness and early-middle-aged loneliness, from Tucker's own guilt-ridden and ultimately unrealistic take. It's a curious thing, the demons that haunt us, and Juliet, Naked proves to be about just that, the ghosts that seem to cast such long shadows over a man's life.

And that's what makes this such an excellent book, that it takes its time letting you see all the ways in which Tucker is right to feel the way he does about his career, only to reveal, in the end, that the ghost Tucker's spent 20 years obsessing over is really a coat rack with some clever lighting. But isn't that sort of the way it is with everyone?*

*I must admit that Tucker resonated with me in a very personal way because, though he was a successful musician with an album that fans obsessed over and I am decidedly not, his view of his own musician-hood seemed literally to be taken from my own thoughts**. I'm often asked how my music is going, or if I ever play out, and my standard response is that I don't play music anymore. Almost every time the questioner follows up with, "Why not!? You were so good" or "Wow. I can't believe it. If I had your talent I'd play everyday" or some similar comment that is both insulting and flattering at the same time. I usually just look at the ground and shuffle my feet to make clear I don't want to talk about it, but the questioner always seems to want some sort of explanation for my sudden and, I guess, heretical abandonment of my "God-given gift". The truth is, I can't really explain why I don't play anymore. Lack of time is certainly a factor. Bitterness at the amount of time and effort I put into it and the total lack of repayment for that time and effort, is another one. Maybe writing stories has sort of stolen my creativity from my music?

But I think the more mysterious answer is that I don't really know why I don't play anymore. The thing is I didn't choose to be a musician, or write songs like I did. Music chose me. I picked up the guitar and that was it, I was hooked, I was an addict and for over ten years I chased after something ephemeral and indistinct, just out of reach. I channeled something more powerful than myself and I wrote and wrote and wrote, and then suddenly whatever it was was gone. The truth is I never liked playing my guitar, I liked writing songs, and without songs to write I didn't want to play guitar. I guess the answer is that God-given gifts can also be taken away, and who am I to complain, really. It wasn't mine to begin with. Maybe I should just be happy with the ten years I got, and the fact I was able to record so much of it down.

There's a point in Juliet, Naked when Tucker realizes that being a songwriter forces you to view life as an outsider and distill what you see into easily understood nuggets of conventional wisdom, and that, while that's great and all for writing songs, it makes actually living life a miserable mess. Life is to be lived, in the present, and standing around watching your own as if you were an outsider is to actually avoid living the very life you're observing. I can dig that. Maybe systematically posting every song I've ever recorded is a way of making sense of the years I spent believing something that wasn't true, something about my essential self. That way, when all the songs are out there, I can accept that, though I'm never getting those years back, they were still worth something, 40+ recordings worth. I dunno, maybe that's something. Better than just memories, I guess. You can't sell memories on iTunes.

**Oh yeah, and we also have the same last name. Duh.