Friday, August 05, 2011

Bad Books on the Beach: No. 2 – ‘Juliet, Naked’ by Nick Hornby

Naked, and empty too
I’ve always liked Nick Hornby as a bloke ever since reading an interview where he said that after he became famous he started getting calls from other famous people inviting him round to dinner just because he was now famous. His response to this was pretty much, What the fuck? I don’t even know you. Though presumably he wanted to avoid going to dinner parties too, which is understandable. Anyway, ‘Fever Pitch’ is obviously a classic (even though I have a major quibble with it, but that’s another blog entry altogether), and ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘How To Be Good’ were both solid novels. ‘About A Boy’ was ridiculous, and ‘A Long Way Down’ (about four suicidal characters meeting at the top of a very tall building) I quickly renamed in my head as ‘Jump, You Whiny Fuckers, Jump!’ The problem with these books is the same one that runs through ‘Juliet, Naked’ like a sopping, sand-soaked paperback after you accidentally dropped it in the surf. It’s the characters, stupid.

In ‘About A Boy’ we were asked to believe that lead character Will, living off the royalties from a song his old man composed, has spent his entire adult life doing absolutely nothing. This is not just existentially improbable, but also makes Will a dull fucker, at best. But Hornby excels at portraying such sullen, repressed individuals – reserved, emotionally inert, and obsessed with some sub-culturally related, non-mainstream object of desire (or in Will’s case, finding a woman desperate enough to have him). In ‘Juliet, Naked’ we have Duncan spending his three-week holiday in the US following the trail of reclusive singer Tucker Crowe, who inexplicably stopped recording in 1986. His girlfriend Annie tags along, even though she has misgivings about her boyfriend’s hobby. Oh, and they’ve been together for 15 years, she knows that he has no sense of humour, and she’s never actually been in love with him. If that’s really plausible, then that makes her even more feckless than dorky Duncan. Why are we interested in these people again?

When they get back home to Gooleness, a grim Yorkshire seaside resort where they’ve also been bored for the past 15 years, Duncan gets a ‘new’ CD in the mail from Tucker’s
label, the album of the book’s title, which are previously unreleased acoustic versions of his last and classic album ‘Juliet’, inspired by his longing for a super-model he fell in love with for about three days. Dunc is so excited that he immediately posts a rave review on the Tucker Crowe fan site that he runs. Annie is less enthused, and posts a rival review, her first contribution to the site. This elicits an e-mail from Crowe himself, thanking her for her honesty. Unbeknown to Duncan, they strike up a correspondence. Duncan, meanwhile, pissed off at how good Annie’s review was, goes out and shags a colleague, tells Annie, she throws him out, and he shacks up with the new lass, all within a weekend. Fast plot!

And so to Tucker, idealised by his fan base, but in real life another aimless wreck. Like Will in ‘About A Boy’, Tucker’s been doing very little for the past 20 years, except siring four children he’s not interested in, except his latest kid, a six-year-old boy, who like all six-year-old boys in fiction says incredibly pertinent things for a six-year-old boy. Despite drifting around with nowt to do, Tucker’s managed to overcome alcoholism (tough given that sitting around with nowt to do tends to lead you in the other direction), but that seems to be the limits of his achievements, besides living off a succession of hazily sketched women who are at least bright enough to ditch him. And how does Annie get internet-involved with this sad sack? Turns out that, for no reason we’re given, he’s a Charles Dickens fanatic, and Annie is impressed by this because she’s an English literature graduate. And because Tucker sends her a picture of himself and his son that she likes, and she puts it up on her fridge and looks at it a lot.

One thing leads to another, Tucker comes to London to see one of his lost daughters and has a heart attack, then it turns out all his kids hate him (wonder why?) and he can’t stand them either, and so he runs out of hospital and he and the boy head to Gooleness, then he and Annie have sex despite the heart attack. Unmovingly, he and the kid return to the US (and, we are left presuming, Annie too, unperturbed that he has spawned four kids he’s never bothered to get to know, despite having had nothing to do for two decades), and he starts recording schmaltzy country music that disgusts his fan base, but has found peace and happiness.

Amid this skinny story are a number of screaming plot flaws. In San Francisco in Chapter One, Duncan goes to the house of the fabled Juliet, finds a fellow fan outside, and because he badly needs to pee he lets himself be persuaded to use the spare key, which the other fan somehow knows about, to enter the house and use the loo, as Juliet and her husband are apparently out of town. The other super-fan then shows Duncan the dining room where there’s a massive portrait of Juliet painted by… Tucker Crowe. (That obviously doesn’t bother Juliet’s husband, despite the fact Juliet left him not once, but twice, to hook up with Tucker, before coming back to him. Meaning we have another, albeit unseen, utterly spineless male character to add to the repertoire). The other fan tells Duncan you need to see the picture in full daylight to appreciate it, so he pulls back the curtain “and almost immediately they found themselves staring at a gardener mowing the lawn”. And so they run.

So there was someone mowing the lawn right outside the window, but they didn’t hear it? A silent lawn mower? Quadruple-glazed windows to keep out the Californian chill? In America, they don’t use the hand-held lawn mowers we had in England in the 1950s. Also, in US suburbia, gardeners are not old men from down the road who walk around to their jobs with a wheelbarrow. They are teams of workers with a massive truck and several mowers. That truck would have been parked right at the front of Juliet’s house. Duncan and the fan might just have seen it. This all happens by page 16, ramming home to the reader who paid eight quid the negligible level of effort that’s been put into this novel.

Next up: Tucker, we repeatedly hear, is broke. The release of ‘Juliet, Naked’ brought him a small royalty cheque he immediately passed on to his soon-to-be ex-wife (a split he’s typically unfazed by, even though she’s the mother of the boy he’s finally making an effort to be a decent father to). Yet ‘Juliet’ is regularly cited in lists of all-time classic LPs. So neither Tucker nor anyone with his record company has seen those Legacy Editions and Anniversary Editions of classic albums, re-packaged and expanded and sold in fancy boxes with a massive price tag? Instead of moaning about having no cash, he doesn’t think about picking up the guitar and touring those songs, like every other creaking old star eking out an income? It’s not like he’s busy with anything else, except re-reading ‘Great Expectations’. Ah, but he gave up music, you say. And why? Because, apparently, he was freaked out about the idea of becoming a father for the first time. Is he still too traumatized by this flimsy premise 20 years later to play again? Well, given how useless Hornby wants you to think all men are, probably yes.

And this is why I end up getting pissed off at books like this and the way males are portrayed. I feel a bit like feminists must have felt in the 70s at housewives depicted as willing, submissive planks. Where are all these depressive, one-dimensional sad sacks whose lives revolve around one football team or one singer, who spend their days too unmotivated to move from the sofa? (Yes, they’re on the sofa – very funny.) A handful exist, no doubt, and I hope they’re getting the correct therapy, but you’d think from Hornby’s world that there are great armies of completely fucking useless men sitting paralytic scratching their balls and feeling sorry for themselves, emotionally disconnected drabs who slope around second hand record shops and pubs in their fading t-shirts of inadequacy. “Profoundly affecting, wise, human, witty,” claims The Independent, but this book is none of those things. The wit of ‘High Fidelity’ that might have redeemed this vacuous bollocks is nowhere in evidence. To use contemporary literary critical terms, I did not LOL, not once.   

There’s a musical parallel here that Hornby readers would maybe appreciate. Often a new band brings out an album that blows you away, because it represents a completely different kind of style or sound, and they spawn a clutch of market-driven imitators. Their follow-up albums are good, but the freshness has gone, and there’s no sign of a new direction. You keep buying the albums, hoping to re-create that first spark. But the albums disappoint more and more, though you still listen out of a sense of loyalty, even duty. Finally, you reach the point where you give up. The songs all sound the same, just shadow versions of early creations. No one’s trying any more. No one cares any more. It’s time to release the Legacy Edition of ‘Fever Pitch’.


No Good Boyo said...

Good to hear a writer analyse another, especially on plot idiocies. I know enough women who've stuck with dull men for no good reason to dismiss the portrait of Annie as you recount it, but you're bang on about the lazy device of the hapless man - it's now become a cliche that has no place other than the BBC Comedy & Drama Dept. I enjoyed Fever Pitch and Hi Fidelity too, found About a Boy cloying and haven't bothered with any of his others. Sounds like I won't be bothering, either.

I'm reading Alone in Berlin (Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein) by Fallada and Keith Richards's autobiography at the mo. Both are excellent.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

I read the Fallada book last year - astonishing book considering that he's reported to have completed it in 24 days. But it's real genius is in replicating the crushing claustrophobia of living under an insane, all-pervasive regime of terror, from first page to last. One of the great German novels of the 20th century.

Tony Curran said...

Excellent piece, Ian.

Your final paragraph - with very appropriate music analogy - sums up Hornby's writing career nicely. Curiously the same paragraph, and the idea of peaking with your first album then going downhill, brought to mind Ben Folds with whom Horby collaborated on an excrutiatingly dull album a few months ago.

nathan3e said...

Well done Ian. I spent a goodly portion of this book thinking, wait, but, what? I stopped reading and finished it with an audiobook version from the library on my commute. Somehow I still felt cheated.