The Reading Room: Character-Driven Craft
By Miranda Marraccini '12, Staff Writer
Nick Hornby is for music fans what Woody Allen has been for neurotic New Yorkers: a stinging portraitist who celebrates even as he satirizes. Hornby’s books are tinted with affection; you get the idea that he likes his characters as much as he mocks them, that he might even be one of them. In many of his novels, including his best known works “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” Hornby explores either the world of obsessive music aficionados or the pain and humor of dysfunctional relationships. “Juliet, Naked” tackles both.

Its title refers not to any character but to an album. An album that, at first, appears fairly insignificant: a bunch of unedited demo tracks from a never-extremely-popular musician who has spent the last 20 years avoiding recording studios. But, as it turns out, the album is very important to a small group of feverish enthusiasts who have spent two decades pouring over every word the artist, Tucker Crowe, ever wrote, and a number of words he didn’t. The chief of the self-identified “Crowologists” is Duncan, whose enduring and intense admiration for Crowe has been slowly eroding his relationship with Annie, a bored museum employee in a dying English coastal town. Neither realizes how distant they have become until the release of the album precipitates a chain of events that alters their relationship irrevocably.

Hornby writes of Annie: “She’d been with Duncan for fifteen years, and Tucker Crowe had always been part of the package, like a disability.” It’s a dispiriting introduction, and when we first meet the real Tucker Crowe, 80 pages in, he turns out to be pretty dispiriting in person, too. It’s not that he’s untalented but rather a real character with all the real problems one would expect from an aging rock musician with a drug-addled past — too many ex-girlfriends and too many kids with abandonment issues, a dried-up money stream and a complete lack of professional inspiration. Like Annie and (to a lesser extent) Duncan, Crowe is a complicated character, uneven and irrational. It’s hard not to like him, yet he rarely does anything likable. That kind of character is difficult to pull off, but Hornby does it with typical aplomb, making us care for someone who seems to rebuff any effort at empathy.

Hornby is good at characters, but he excels at dialogue; some exchanges are so witty and ironic and unexpected that it’s easy to see why Hornby has met with success in his screenplays, as well as film adaptations of his novels. Of course, Hornby makes mistakes, which wouldn’t be so noticeable if he weren’t so pitch-perfect most of the time. His American characters slip up, saying “quite a lot,” “a bit,” and “hasn’t got” a few too many times to make convincing Pennsylvanians.

In fact, Juliet is an exceptionally English book, meaning that its English characters are constantly complaining about the Englishness of it all — the grim weather, the repression, the inability to act in any way that could not be called “sensible” — while romanticizing the unruly passions of profoundly flawed foreigners. Of course, Hornby knows this is a common motif, and he handles it with a heavy helping of ironic self-awareness. If you enjoy (as I do) that kind of winking trope, it’s not an obstacle. But it doesn’t add to the novel’s originality.

Hornby also falls into the literary mantrap of introducing a wise-beyond-his-years six-year-old, one of Crowe’s children, who understands adult emotion so well that he’s more of a stand-in for the author than a character. Although the child’s dialogue is plausible and well written, that doesn’t mean it’s not annoying.

Overall, however, the novel is smart and modern. It deftly skewers a subculture that takes itself maddeningly seriously, yet is populated mainly by aggressive nutcases. It seamlessly incorporates mocked-up Wikipedia articles, chat room transcripts and soul-baring e-mails, yet it still manages to retain its integrity as a novel. Hornby knows that it’s not enough to string together a few amusing anecdotes on the same theme; there’s a story here, one with an ending that’s just unsatisfying enough to satisfy.

I enjoyed reading “Juliet, Naked,” but I’m going to forget it quickly. That’s not a bad thing. Hornby’s novel is refreshingly unambitious. It doesn’t aspire to some great revelation about love or life or relationships. It doesn’t attempt to encapsulate a place or a generation or even a moment in time. It just talks, cleverly and with evident enjoyment, as a close friend would tell a story after a long absence.

Issue 05, Submitted 2010-10-08 07:37:58