I’ve just walked in from stretching out on the lawn alongside my house, where I finished rapidly devouring of all 400 pages of Nick Hornby’s massively enjoyable new (forthcoming) book Juliet, Naked. My skin is warm from the beginnings of a sunburn, and my insides are glowing from the focused joy I understood in these pages.
One reason I quote Nick on this blog’s sidebar (and one reason I think he and I have something in common) is because I sense that he feels music the way that I do. This book is a pitch-perfect look at the lives of music obsessives (within the first thirty pages we have a British guy on the Berkeley-bound BART, scouting out the house of his favorite reclusive musician’s muse, “Juliet”) — and what that kind of fandom looks like as you get deep into the world of message boards, theories about the epic album versus the just-released demos that preceded them, and what we think that can tell us about the artist on the inside. It underscores emphatically how little we know about our musical idols, and how in dissecting them down to minute detail, on some level we’re truly just hashing out stuff about ourselves. Something in the unfinished narratives of our own lives finds solidification and beauty in the way our favorite musicians write about theirs.
The book follows the fictional story of Tucker Crowe, a lauded singer-songwriter from the Eighties (“Bruce plus Bob plus Leonard equals Tucker” was his press campaign line) who has vanished into deliberate obscurity after his masterpiece album Juliet (read an excerpt from the opening chapter). Duncan is a British man from the seaside town of Gooleness who is a self-proclaimed “Croweologist,” and has started a website to track every bit of news (or lack thereof) and host endless message board discussions about his music. Annie is Duncan’s museum-curator girlfriend who has been listening to Crowe’s music and following after Duncan for 15 years, and something in her is about to crack and shine through. It’s a beautiful thing.
I connected quite frankly with Annie, as she discovers she is capable of so much more than she ever thought through the music of Tucker Crowe — her own worthy opinions about the music so proprietarily beloved by Duncan but never her purview to discuss. It’s Annie who shines to hold this story together, grappling with a raw relationship deal and attempts at mathematical equations to calculate the true cost of fifteen years wasted in a soul-crushing relationship. As she strikes up an unlikely transatlantic email correspondence with Crowe, she gets closer to not holding her breath any more, but engaging life — and how music has changed both of them. She finds that she has more in common with Crowe than she would have thought when he first (shockingly) initiated contact with her.
I was touched by this insightful book, through the lenses of characters that I felt I understood. Hornby writes confidently, crisply, with a distinctly British humor — all traits I find irresistible in my American girl longwindedness. He doesn’t lapse into sappy meanderings to plunge the depths of what music can mean to us, and why relationships fail, and how we open our eyes and decide for something more; rather he slips them cleanly into the engaging narrative out of the blue, with a paragraph that swoops in to punch you in the gut.
Take this passage about Annie, which packs a lot into it: “She was trying to say something else; she was trying to say that the inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies. It wouldn’t have been much, and it wouldn’t have been useful, but it would have said something that reflected the gravity and sadness inside her. Instead, she had snapped at him for being a loser. It was as if she were trying to find a handhold on the boulder of her feelings, and had merely ended up with grit under her nails.”
Or this acute observation from when Crowe goes to see a local bar band: “The trouble with going to see bands is that there wasn’t much else to do but think, if you weren’t being swept away on a wave of visceral or intellectual excitement; and Tucker could tell that The Chris Jones Band would never be able to make people forget who they were and how they’d ended up that way, despite their sweaty endeavors. Mediocre loud music penned you in to yourself, made you pace up and down your own mind until you were pretty sure you could see how you might end up going out of it.”
While not as laden with direct pop culture references as some of his previous books like High Fidelity (although to my delight this one does mention Billy Collins, a poet I’ve just fallen in love with these last few months), this book still delves into music as culture, music as lifeblood, music as the glue and then the wedge in a relationship. It’s never dry, even as the characters face heady business — the glue of music that gets all over everything.
My Back Pages (Dylan cover) – Steve Earle
Juliet, Naked is in stores in September (so preorder or add it to your library hold list now!), and when Mr. Hornby comes through on his presumed book tour, I purport to buy that man a drink.