Naked admiration

Nick Hornby’s latest novel explores the world of music fans in the Internet age.

Juliet, Naked
By Nick Hornby | Riverhead Books | 406 pages | $25.95
Reading Nick Hornby when he’s at his best – and that’s exactly where he is with his latest novel, Juliet, Naked – is like diving into cool water on a hot summer’s day. It feels so good to get into the world he’s created, and you don’t want to leave it.
Hornby is best known for several books that have been made into movies, among them High Fidelity and About a Boy. His facility with dialogue and his unusually likable characters make his books work well on screen. But that fact, along with his often repeated insistence in his articles and interviews that he doesn’t write “literary fiction,” may have caused some to underestimate him. It’s not easy to write novels that are this much fun, and it’s even harder to make it look so effortless.
Juliet, Naked is a complex portrait of three characters whose lives intertwine through a strange series of circumstances, but mostly it’s Annie’s story. She’s a familiar type, a quiet, self-effacing 39-year-old intellectual with little confidence or ambition, living in a downmarket seaside town in England, where she runs the local museum. For 15 years, she’s been with Duncan. He teaches at the local college, but his heart is really in his various enthusiasms, for books, movies and music, especially the music of a Bob Dylan-type named Tucker Crowe. Crowe made one critically acclaimed album, called
Maintaining a cultish fascination with him might have been a solitary hobby for Duncan, but with the advent of the Internet, he creates a Tucker Crowe Web site and is constantly in touch with other aficionados from around the globe. Duncan even takes Annie along with him on a pilgrimage to Crowe-related sites in the US, including the men’s room in Minneapolis that Crowe visited before he quit performing.
In the past, Annie was happy to humor Duncan in his Crowe-mania, but when they return from the trip, buried feelings of discontent begin to rise. She wants a child and knows Duncan will never entertain the idea. When a new version of the
Improbably, it also brings Annie into contact with the real-life Tucker Crowe, who is about to end another failing marriage. Mired in self-loathing and self-reproach, with ex-wives and other children he barely knows scattered about the world, Crowe clings to his connection with the one child he has raised himself. And he welcomes an Internet friendship with a woman who doesn’t share what he considers the clueless, worshipful attitude of the Crowe cultists.
This is the basis of the story, but a simple description doesn’t do it justice. It’s more insightful and much funnier than it sounds. While the plot may seem like an artificial attempt to stay current by putting the Internet front and center, it’s really quite natural: Most people do use the Internet as part of their daily routine, and for a handful, like Duncan, the Internet represents a much stronger connection to like-minded people and gives them a substitute family that never makes any demands. Duncan’s simple-minded worship of Crowe gives Hornby the opportunity to make some sly digs at the celebrity culture and the media.
It’s also an astute look at how Annie – a woman with a wry sense of humor who is much smarter than her psychologist and who spends most of her sessions insulting him (inadvertently as well as on purpose) – has managed to get stuck in a joyless relationship. She knows that she and Duncan are heading for a dead end, and when they hit it, it’s exhilarating to watch how she picks herself up. Hornby somehow makes Crowe into a far more sympathetic character on the page than such a person would likely be in real life. With Duncan, he returns to a theme that runs throughout his work: the man who chooses not to grow up for years, then finds out too late that the rest of the world has passed him by.
Juliet, Naked is a return to form for Hornby. His last novel, Slam(2007), aimed at adolescents, was overlong and didn’t quite hit thelight tone he seemed to be reaching for. His previous novel for adults,A Long Way Down (2005), abouta disparate group of people who meet when they are all about to jumpoff a building on New Year’s Eve, was, for the most part, notmemorable. Currently nominated for an Oscar for his adapted screenplayfor the film An Education, Hornby reclaims his place as one of the most thoughtful voices currently writing in English with this new novel.