on 25 September 2009
I really like Nick Hornby. I think he's an astute commentator and critic, I think he has a great take on the modern condition, and for what it's worth I'm pretty sure he's one of the good guys too.
Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the decent fist he made of `High Fidelity' (not exactly a great novel, but a damned good read all the same) and most particularly 'About a Boy' (his best fiction to date, and, my guess is, the best he will ever write) he's actually not much of a novelist. Having ploughed my way through `How to be Good' (which worked well in parts and was at least philosophically intriguing), `A Long Way Down', which was just plain awful, and now this, I'm thinking that maybe it's time to give it up and stick to what he's good at - writing funny and perceptive stuff about music, the arts and modern life (which he does better than just about anyone I know). I mean, really - go read `A Long Way Down' and then read `31 Songs' or `The Complete Polysyllabic Spree' and tell me I'm not right.
So here's what I think about `Juliet, Naked `: it's not a bad book and if you picked it up before a flight (assuming the horrible chick-lit-style cover didn`t put you off) it would probably distract you adequately for a few hours. It`s not especially funny, or sad, or emotional, or exciting or really especially anything but it moves along at an adequate pace from page to page, eventually reaching a not especially satisfying conclusion. And, you know, it's only 245 pages, so it's not like a great investment is required from the reader.
It's about music, which Nick knows a lot about - specifically, about Tucker Crowe, former musician and newest addition to Hornby's lengthening gallery of feckless wasters - and the nature of art, creativity and fandom. It addresses unsatisfactory, dysfunctional modern family relationships too, about which perhaps he knows a bit. Quite a lot of it (though not nearly enough, in my opinion) concerns how the internet has changed the way we engage with the world. So far so promising - these are interesting themes - but as a novel it just don't work. The main stories - Tucker vegetating in the US, Annie and Duncan likewise in Gooleness - are kind of flat and dispiriting, the way they're entwined is unconvincing, the characters don't really get off the page more than once or twice, the dialogue is all a bit heightened and artificial, in the end, the multiple threads are tied up and dispatched with indecent haste... you know, in the end it's just not that good (a horrible thought crosses my mind at this point - Dickens is mentioned more than once or twice, for no apparent reason - is it all meant to be Dickensian in style? I really hope not).
It's more than this though. All through 'Juliet, Naked', I couldn't shake my sense of Nick Hornby making it all up. Only a few fleeting pages managed to suspend my disbelief and banish the picture in my mind of the author at his desk, chewing his pencil. I know how stupid that sounds - I know a novel is, by definition, invented - but a good novelist, and a good novel, will quickly let you forget that.
I tried to figure out why this was so, and I in the end I think it's to do with the voice which dominates this book as it does so many other Hornby novels. `Juliet, Naked' has a wide range of characters - too wide, maybe - and his dialogue isn`t so bad, but a great deal of the book is taken up with the internalized thoughts of the characters, and here's the thing - they all think in exactly the same way and in exactly the same voice, and I'm guessing that they all think exactly like Nick Hornby, in that elliptical, analytical, self-effacing and in the end more than mildly irritating way. So what I end up thinking is "you've clearly got interesting things to say in these areas, Nick - why do you feel you need to wrap them up in this stupid story?
Nick Hornby has legions of fans and I'll probably get flamed to death for this review, but to reiterate - I like the guy, his ideas and his writing - I just don't think the novel is the right vehicle for any of them. Maybe it's time to let the form go, and focus on crit.
on 5 September 2009
Juliet,Naked,the new book from Nick Hornby could be seen as a companion piece to High Fidelity.If you like that,I think you'll like this.
The title refers to a stripped down version of an album(much like the Beatles-Let It Be,Naked) called Juliet by the fictitious and reclusive Tucker Crow.The main characters Duncan and Annie have been in a relationship for more then fifteen years and although Annie is a fan of Tucker Crow's,Duncan is an obsessive.The book starts with the couple on a tour of famous sites the singer has played and visited over the years,including a public toilet where he allegedly decided to give it all up.When a stripped down version of Tucker's masterpiece Juliet arrives through the mail,Annie listens to it first,which enrages Duncan on his return home.I don't really want to give away any more than that in terms of story.
The plot deals mostly with how music fans and obsessives can read a bit too much into songs and lyrics,which in turn can have a negative effect on a relationship.It's funny and honest and although I could see some things coming,not all reveals were done in the way I thought they would be.
The characters were well written and on recently reading 31 Songs by Hornby,I can see a lot of references to some of his own musical heroes in here such as Bruce Springsteen and Dylan.With their own famous break-up albums Tunnel of Love and Blood on the tracks mentioned,it made me wonder if Nick Hornby has the music for Juliet in his head,quoting several of the songs lyrics throughout.This fictitious piece of work seems to be something you wonder if Hornby has fantasized about for many years being such a huge music fan as he is,and not being a songwriter as such,this is his means to get his own album out there.
The book deals mostly with family and responsibilities.For fans of High Fidelity there are plenty of similarities in terms of how music fans can go too far with how much a favourite album can mean,even to the detriment of a marriage or friendship.
I hope this helps anyone who's interested in reading this book.
on 30 July 2012
"...This, Rob thought, was unbearable. Did this question really still come up after all these years? Clearly it did and clearly it became harder to answer as you got older. In the time before Laura, it had been easy. He was young and he liked exactly the same music as the young woman asking the question, who was either on her way to University, or an undergraduate, or recently graduated. So Rob could say that he listened to the Smiths (sic) and Dylan and Joni Mitchell and the young woman would nod and add The Fall to his list. Telling a girl that you liked Joni Mitchell was really another way of saying. "If the worst comes to the worst and we get pregnant, it'll be okay..." HIGH FIDELITY
We'll get to this quote and the reason for it in a moment.
But sigh. Why do I even get my hopes up? What was I expecting?
Well it doesn't matter because what I got was another example of Nick Hornby's breathtaking inability to write a character that doesn't act, think and talk like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
I guess I didn't notice this gargantuan talent failing in his early days. Remember Fever Pitch? His first-person memoir? It was all "I felt this, I went here, I thought that, I watched Arsenal win the FA cup final." And us readers took this to our hearts. He had a nice, chummy, chatty, email tone of voice. He sounded much like what he was - a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
(I resisted reading FP for years, actually, as it was clearly a book about life as an Arsenal supporter. Many otherwise trustworthy blokes encouraged me to read it as they said it wasn't just about football, it was about male obsessions of all types. So I gave in and read it.
And it's 250 pages about football.
Frankly, my teen obsessions were Chuck Berry, Star Wars, Suzi Quattro and Action Force and it far too little about those).
Next up? Well, he got away with his one-voice trick again. High Fidelity. Cleverly it was a story written in the first person ("I felt this, I went here, I thought that, I watched The Clash play Brixton Academy") about, yes, a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan. So it sounded pretty realistic. As it would.
But the Hornster was clearly tiring of this. He wanted to try something else. Something more ambitious. (But not too ambitious, obviously. That would involve writing).
So he bashed out "About A Boy," a novel HALF about a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan, and half - genius! - about a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, teen something North London folk music and Countdown fan.
Nice work Nicky boy.
Since then? Oh Mr Train-Set, give it up already.
"How To Be Good" was written in the guise of a middle aged woman going through a marriage breakdown. A middle aged woman who, frankly, thought, spoke and acted like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
And "A Long Way Down," which had many voices - middle aged men, housewives, teenage girls, pensioners etc - all of whom tended to think, speak and act like, oooh, let's say thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fans.
I'm being mean, I know. I've met the chap and he's thoroughly charming. And in truth, I don't mind if he can only write in his own voice. If he can only write about what he thinks about his interests in his world. That's fine. It's not a bad thing. Blimey, journalists make a decent enough living doing exactly that.
It's just, know your limitations Nick, that's all. Stop attempting fiction. Or at least, don't attempt fiction unless of course it's about - oh I don't know, the thoughts and ideas of a . . . hmm...what shall we say? A thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
Which brings us to Juliet, Naked.
The main character - Juliet - lives with a fellow. Ordinary bloke. How would I describe him? A sort of thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan type, I suppose. She falls out with him over his thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop music fandom and starts a relationship with someone else. By way of a change, a thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop star. Oh yes.
I won't bore you with the story - which is the usual guff about growing and learning to be a better person and finding out what life is about (surprisingly, it turns out there's more to life than being a thoughtful, obsessive, tender pop-music fan. But not much more. Clearly none of the characters have bothered reading High Fidelity. Or been to see "About A Boy. Which is odd, as they're designed to appeal to thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London couples).
The problems, as always, are the attempts at characters outside Nick Hornby's immediate frame of reference. The voices. Or rather, the one voice that gets passed around. The reader spends the entire book scanning for the "she saids" or "he thoughts" or the "Duncan decideds" or the "Annie believeds" because, without them, one has no bloody clue whose turn it is to have a go on the page as every character, bar none, thinks, talks and acts like a thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan.
Remember the extract above? From High Fidelity?
Well it isn't. I was playing with you then. I swapped the names to make it more tricky to spot, but it's actually a quote from `Juliet Naked' and is meant to be a middle aged female museum worker talking to an aging Northern Soul fan.
Not that you'd know.
Scroll back up and read it again.
Enjoy it? No, of course you didn't. It's exactly the same idea he's been typing out for the last decade. In exactly the same obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fan voice.
I could go on. But I won't as I've just realised I'm getting all het up and crosspatch thinking about it.
So my final word in this, a bigoted self righteous hypocritical rant of a review: for non thoughtful, obsessive, tender, thirty something North London football and pop music fans, there's not much fun to be had here I'm afraid. In fact, there's not much to be had if you are one as you've heard it all before when you wrote it in your own damned diary when you were 15.
Nick Hornby. A fine journalist and chronicler of modern life. Not very good at much more. But hell, that's okay.
Nick Hornby's latest novel involves a subtle, bare plot, and employs his usual conversational writing style, which inevitably leads to him not being given the recognition he so deserves by the literary establishment. `Juliet Naked' is a cleverly observed study of fortysomething male obsession with music and fandom - which is fuelled by the power of the internet to link similarly obsessed people (mainly men) across the world, and to therefore sustain and fan the flames of their obsession long after they should have died out. It is also bitingly accurate about the inability of some of the male species to create and sustain meaningful relationships.
Duncan and Annie have one such unhealthy 15 year relationship. The boredom and inertia of their lives in the bleak east coast town of Gooleness positively seeps from the pages. Annie works in a local museum where the event of the decade was a shark washed up on a local beach that she is now curating an exhibition to commemorate. So people there clearly need to get out more. And Annie has had to share her man with another, the American singer songwriter turned reclusive wild man Tucker Crowe. We join the couple on holiday in America making an inevitable pilgrimage to the site of Tucker's mysterious disappearance from the music scene followed an alleged incident in a toilet. Duncan is obsessed with all things related to Tucker, and spends most of his time and energy discussing the minutiae of his life (or actually what his fans think his life is - as they don't actually know anything about him since he disappeared from view).
Duncan is busy being unfaithful to Annie with someone at his school, but Annie is taking infidelity to a whole new level when she opens a package addressed to Duncan, and plays the first new material released by Crowe in over 20 years before Duncan has a chance to hear it. Clearly an unforgivable offence. When Duncan does hear it, he quickly writes a rave review on the Tucker Crowe website that he runs, `Can Anybody Hear Me?' In a fit of pique Annie writes a much more objective review herself and posts it alongside Duncan's. After all, this material is just a solo acoustic version of a previous album, which is much inferior to the original in her eyes.
This is where the fun really starts, as the real Tucker Crowe actually responds to her email, and tends to agree with her assessment of the material. The developing relationship between Annie and Tucker is nicely observed, and written in true Hornby style. Duncan's reaction to it is amusing and inevitable. Hornby is at his best when writing about the mechanics of music and how people relate to it, as with his earlier classic `High Fidelity'. Whilst this novel does not quite hit the high spots of some of his early work for me, it is still an entertaining, amusing and honest account of relationships, and why we are sometimes so bad at them, for all sorts of reasons.
on 30 July 2016
‘Juliet, Naked’ is a return to Hornby’s roots and some of his favourite themes re-emerge here – music, obsession, male failings, the power of art, nostalgia and so on. Like many of Hornby’s earlier characters, the men are all either feckless, selfish, idiotic or all three; whereas the women are, for the most part, intelligent, world-weary and frustrated by the inept men in their lives. If this regular gender dynamic were reversed, Hornby would face constant accusations of sexism, but this is an aside.
‘Juliet…’ starts off well. I was fascinated and convinced by the exploration of keyboard warriors and forum obsessives. This is a modern phenomenon and Hornby really nails it. I also think he accurately pinpoints the nature of failing-but-comfortable relationships, with Duncan and Annie’s relationship coming across as convincing and sad. I generally love Hornby’s writing style – it is uncluttered and in some ways elegant, sharply observed and witty.
The less good:
Where it all starts to go downhill, in my opinion, is when Tucker stops being a mythical, faceless idol and emerges as a real (and again feckless) individual. From then on, ‘Juliet’ stops being convincing, and Annie’s feelings towards Tucker seem contrived and almost a bit pathetic. Duncan is reduced to a minor character and instead we focus on… what? Not a great deal seems to happen. Tucker has an array of unknown children but we’re never given any particular reason to care. He comes to stay with Annie for contrived reasons where they have a sort of love affair, but it seems that Hornby doesn’t really know what to do with them or their story. He has no idea how to end it, so he doesn’t, really. It just comes to a halt in an (in my opinion) entirely unsatisfying way.
There is a raft of clichéd characters introduced throughout – the witty, gay best friend, the hapless therapist, etc. – for no real purpose, it seems. The fact that Tucker is American also seems like a slightly cynical attempt to make the book more ‘filmy’.
I loved Nick Hornby’s earlier books – ‘High Fidelity’, ‘Fever Pitch’, ‘About a Boy’, ‘How to be Good’ and ‘Slam’ are all superb novels, in my opinion. It seems that ever since then he has been trying to capture this success with variable results. In my humble opinion, ‘Juliet, Naked’ falls short, and so does his most recent book ‘Funny Girl’. I hope his future novels see a return to form.