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Juliet, Naked

June 7, 2011

Before a car trip, I often go to the library and see what they have on audiobook, so this spring I checked out a couple of Nick Hornby novels. We didn’t end up listening to them together, so I started listening to one of them on my own, driving around town, and I got so interested I had to go find a copy of Juliet, Naked.

The first intimation that listening to this book would not be enough, that I was going to want to revisit certain passages, was when one of the characters, Annie, said that what made her want a child was the feeling that “the amount of time they had for themselves was beginning to feel sort of. . . decadent.” This is very close to how Ron and I felt about it, when we had the discussion about whether we wanted children or not, eleven years into our marriage.

I didn’t identify with any of the characters in this novel, however, except for moments like that. There were other great moments that we can probably all identify with, like when Annie’s writing an email and “if she’d been using pen and paper, she would have screwed the paper up in disgust, but there wasn’t a satisfying equivalent with e-mail, seeing as everything was designed to stop you making a mistake. She needed a fuck-it key, something that made a satisfying ka-boom noise when you thumped it.”

This is a novel about moments, though, so loving the moments can add up to loving the novel. The main characters are Annie and Duncan, who live in a British seaside town, and Tucker, a washed-up 80’s rocker who lives with his six-year-old son in the middle of some American farmland. Annie and Tucker meet on the internet because of something she writes about his album Juliet, Naked compared to the original album  Juliet, and then they meet in real life. The title is nicely metaphorical, as the myths surrounding the album are stripped away, one by one, until the readers can judge for themselves how worthy of love Juliet might have been, and what that means about the maker of the album named after her.

Twenty years after Juliet, his last album, Tucker thinks he still doesn’t have a path for his life:
“It wasn’t as if he was a happy slacker, either. He’d never been able to shrug away the loss of his talent, for want of a better word to describe whatever the hell it was he once had. Sure, he’d got used to the idea that there wouldn’t be a new album, or even a new song, anytime soon, but he’d never learned to look on his inability to write as anything other than a temporary state, which meant that he was permanently unsettled, as if he were in an airport lounge waiting for a plane. In the old days, when he flew a lot, he’d never been able to get absorbed in a book until the plane had taken off, so he’d spent the pre-boarding time flicking through magazines and browsing in gift shops, and that’s what the last couple of decades had felt like: one long flick through a magazine. If he’d known how long he was going to spend in the airport lounge of his own life, he’d have made different travel arrangements, but instead he’d sat there, sighing and fidgeting and, more often than was ever really acceptable, snapping at his traveling companions.”

The main fun of the novel is seeing how wrong Duncan and his fellow Tucker devotees have been on small points related to his life and his music, although it’s not much of a mean pleasure because of the way it’s presented. For instance, Duncan is presented with an alternative interpretation of one of Tucker’s songs by his new girlfriend after he leaves Annie, and she is guileless in asking whether the character in a song entitled “Princess Impossible” might be called that “because she’s out of reach? Not because she’s an impossible person?” And then she follows it up by citing more lines that support her interpretation: “’Your Royal Highness, way up there, and me on the floor below.’ Isn’t it that he thinks he’s out of her league?”

It’s also supremely satisfying to hear Annie bridge the gap between Duncan’s over-analysis and slavish devotion and Tucker’s own conviction that his old music is “inauthentic….a fake bunch of crap.” The events of the novel all come to a head during this conversation between Annie and Tucker:
“You know that bad people can make great art, don’t you?” said Annie.
“Yes, of course. Some of the people whose art I admire the most are assholes.”
“Dickens wasn’t nice to his wife.”
Dickens didn’t write a memoir called I’m Nice to My Wife.”
You didn’t make an album called Julie Beatty Is a Deep and Interesting Human Being and I Didn’t Impregnate Anyone Else While I Was With Her. It doesn’t matter how it came about. You think it was all accidental. But like it or not, believe it or not, the music that Julie inspired was wonderful.”
He threw up his hands in mock despair and laughed.
“What?” said Annie.
“I can’t believe I told you all those things, and we’ve ended up talking about how great I am.”
“But we’re not. You’ve confused the two things again. You’re not great. You’re a, a shallow, feckless, self-indulgent. . . wanker.”
“Well, you were, anyway. We’re talking about how great your album is.”
He smiled.
“Okay. Compliment accepted, if not believed. And abuse accepted, too. I can honestly say that nobody has ever called me a wanker before. I quite enjoyed it.”
“You can only honestly say that you’ve never heard anybody call you a wanker before. I’ll bet it’s happened. Don’t you ever read the Internet? Actually, I know you do. That’s how we met.”

The ending of the novel, in which Annie makes a declaration about what love is with Tucker (immediately followed by the six-year-old son announcing that he’s vomited in his bed) and Tucker realizes he’s been thinking like a songwriter in all the years since he stopped writing songs, are the last wonderful moments.

I think Juliet, Naked is a great novel for a summer’s day; reading it can make you more aware of each of your moments as they’re still going by.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2011 11:35 am

    This sounds good. I loved his early books but then stopped reading him. This sounds like it might be a good one again —

    • June 8, 2011 10:21 pm

      I haven’t read the early books, so I can’t tell you!

  2. freshhell permalink
    June 7, 2011 12:58 pm

    I can’t decide if I like his books or not.

  3. June 7, 2011 5:30 pm

    I listened to this on audio and liked it an awful lot. I think you’re right that it’s the moments that make it work. And those great conversations about art and the meaning of art. Good stuff!

    • June 8, 2011 10:24 pm

      The audiobook is very good; the one I listened to was read by Jennifer Wiltsie, Ben Miles, and Bill Irwin.

  4. June 8, 2011 12:49 pm

    I really enjoyed this one, far more than I expected. I listened to it on audio and it was my first Hornby. I still find myself periodically thinking about it.

    • June 8, 2011 10:25 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly why I needed a copy. When I think about a book while not reading it, I know I’m going to want to revisit those passages.

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