Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2009

While reading a Nick Hornby novel, one will never be moved to ask, "But is it ART?" I mean that as high praise, and I think Hornby himself might take it that way. If you have to ask if something's art or not, that means that it's either boring, pretentious, or ugly -- and it also means it's certainly not art.

Whatever other qualities Juliet, Naked may possess, artistic or otherwise, there is one thing that it is: a good novel. Whether or not that makes it art, I will leave to other people* to decide, but it certainly makes the book a standout in a dreary wasteland of witty, wise, warm, wonderful explorations of what it means to gently and lovingly probe the depths of humanity's journey towards something philosophically trite. Did I say that out loud? I meant, of course, that being a good novel makes Juliet, Naked stand out amidst other contemporary literature.

A brief digression, gentle readers. It has recently come to my attention that the subtitle "A Novel," originally appended to book titles in order to tip off potential buyers that the book might actually be fun to read**, now means "This Book Is Not a Novel, and in Fact You Will Deeply Regret Buying It; You Really Ought to Get the One with the Shirtless Man on the Cover If You Want to Enjoy Yourself." None of Hornby's novels have "A Novel" on the cover, because he's a rational man with a well-earned confidence in his own abilities and the mental faculties of his readers. He trusts us to figure out on our own that his novels are novels. The increasingly hysterical protests of his less-talented colleagues, as they beg us to pretend they even know what a novel is, fall a little flat in the face of Hornby's ability to, you know, actually write one. "A Novel," in short, functions a bit like the "Don't Panic" on the front of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You might not have had any doubts before, but now . . . either the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is coming your way, or you're holding something written by Jonathan Safran Foer. Either way, your day just went to crap.

I won't pretend that the content of Juliet, Naked is particularly groundbreaking, or that the plot is unpredictably original. The book opens with Annie and Duncan, fortyish Brit academics who've been together for an uneventful fifteen years, touring the United States by following in the footsteps of Tucker Crowe, a reclusive ex-rock star with whom Duncan is unhealthily obsessed. Because running the Tucker Crowe fan site and listening to all of his music over and over again constitutes the majority of Duncan's life, Annie has taken an interest over the years, even going with him on his bizarre fan-boy vacation.

When they get home, a new release of acoustic demo tracks recorded as a prelude to Crowe's most famous album is in the mailbox, and Annie and Duncan's different reactions to the new CD kick the story into motion. They both post reviews on Duncan's website; Annie hates the tracks, and Duncan loves them. Guess who gets an email from Tucker Crowe praising their review?

The story follows along fairly predictably from there. Or at least, the bare bones of the plot are what you might expect them to be. But Hornby's characters fill up the spaces in between, and his sense of humor and affection for the people he's invented make this novel more than the sum of its parts.

Juliet, Naked isn't Hornby's funniest book (that's High Fidelity, hands down), but it's still often hilarious, because Hornby can't help but see the humor in the way people can't stop messing up their own lives. It's not his best book, either. But it does display something that's increasingly rare in books these days, whether or not they're "A Novel": a sense that the author genuinely likes other people, foibles and all. He doesn't try to elevate his characters to the point that Mother Teresa begins to look like a puppy-kicking bitch in comparison, and he doesn't patronize them for having normal lives, and he doesn't condemn them for perfectly normal flaws. He just presents us with recognizable friends and neighbors, albeit friends and neighbors with pithier-than-usual mental monologues.

Nick Hornby's previous works have set a high bar, and Juliet, Naked doesn't quite measure up to some of them. Nevertheless, it gets three and three quarters stars. It may or may not be ART, but it won't make you wish you'd gone with The Highlander's Blushing Virginal Kidnap Victim instead.

* And by other people, I mean wankers.

** Before the first English novels were published, all books in this language were either the Bible, precepts for a virtuous life written by fat Shropshire vicars with bad teeth, or Latin verbs. There were no exceptions. It took some time to convince the public at large to give reading a try once novels were invented, and clear labeling helped the publishing industry get over the hump.

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