Today, the shelf monkey goes a wee bit British, and partakes of music, obsession, love, and sea-side townships.
by Nick Hornby
If Nick Hornby can be said to have a thematic thread that weaves through all his novels, that thread would have to be ‘perpetual adolescence.’
Best exemplified in his breakout novel High Fidelity, the British writer excels at crafting characters (mainly men) who steadfastly refuse to put away childish things. Hornby’s obsessives take pride in their noncompliance with the march of time, seeing nobility in pursuit of the arcane and (to their minds) unfairly ignored.
The Internet has only served to heighten such fanboy fervour, a fact Hornby is well aware of. The Internet is a place where the dusty and forgotten are kept alive, and Juliet, Naked, Hornby’s latest, deftly explores how such access keeps certain nostalgias alive well past their ‘best before’ date.
Hornby settles his story in Gooleness,an English township “that held on grimly to what was left of the good times it used to have...Gooleness was the wind and the sea and the old, the smell of fried food that somehow clung on even when nobody seemed to be frying anything, the ice-cream kiosks that seemed to be boarded up even when there were people around.”
Duncan is Hornby’s fanatic, a man in his late thirties still in thrall to the music of Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylan-esque singer. Anne had lived with Duncan for fifteen years, but now, on the eve of a release of demo tracks from Crowe’s classic album Juliet, it occurs to her that Duncan’s enthusiasm might not be enough to satisfy her cravings for an actual life.
Finally, there’s Tucker Crowe, now in his fifties, living with a young son and father to at least four other children around the world. Crowe has spent most of his life avoiding the spotlight, but when he contacts Anne because of her less-than-flattering online review of his album, all three begin to take true stock of their positions in the world.
At first, Juliet, Naked appears to be a welcome expansion of Hornby’s favourite motif. His characters, always his strongest point, are fully engaging, and it is invigorating to witness Hornby depart his comfort zone and fully embrace a female character’s perspective.
While women often are viewed as being the mature influence over Hornby’s reckless aging youths, Anne is as endearingly screwed-up as the males, if more aware of this fact. Anne is tired of reliving the past, hoping that “there had to be a present tense, somewhere,” and her tentative yearnings for a way into the now and away from the then give Hornby’s tale its true narrative drive. As well, Tucker's emergence as an actual character, and not simply an object of adoration, pushes the novel in new directions for Hornby, and lends hope that novel might become the British equivalent of Whale Music, Paul Quarrington's wonderful Canadian novel about a Brian Wilson-like recluse.
Yet the novel feels inconsequential, too lightweight to rank with Hornby’s best. The overwhelming niceness of it all significantly dilutes the novel’s very real core of emotional pain and confusion. The ultimate resolution feels like an afterthought, petering out before the last sentence is reached.
Juliet, Naked confirms that Hornby’s flair for rich personalities and warped-yet-identifiable humour is still at its peak. What has altered, perhaps inevitably through age, is the knife-sharp edge he brought to his best works. It has moments that ranks with his finest, but the overall piece is simply too slight.
VERDICT: MONKEY LIKES, BUT CAN`T HELP BUT FEEL A TRIFLE DISAPPOINTED BY
*Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 4, 2009.