In which I CANNOT let it be (naked)
Last week I read Juliet, Naked, a novel by the illustrious Nick Hornby. It’s the third novel of his I’ve read (if you don’t count State of the Union as a novel), the first two being High Fidelity and About a Boy. Given that Hornby has made a literary career out of being a Nerd For Music That Is Widely Considered Good, you would think that I would have devoured, and thoroughly relished, everything he’s committed to paper.
So the first thing I have to say is AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGHH.
Let me make abundantly clear that I respect Hornby as a writer. I always have. His narrative voice is wonderfully funny. His sense of pacing, a difficult thing to master, appears effortless. And at the same time, I am not sure how much more I can take of his characters. Specifically, his men. Specifically, his men-children.
Also, I am in fact aware of the SUPREME irony of going on the internet to complain about a book in which people go on the internet to argue about music. Story of my life. I get it.
I’m not saying all characters need to be ‘likable’ to be worthwhile. I would just like one to be. The men, as Hornby men, are stuck in an adolescent limbo characterized by this type of pop-culture obsession. The women…are slightly better? Put another way: Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov is a double axe murderer, and I’d still keep him around. Every adult in this book I felt like throttling at some point.
For me, Hornby is so quintessentially ‘90s that I instinctively place all his novels there, even this one which is set in 2008 and whose technologies did not exist in the ‘90s. And things have changed at the very least as much between 2008 and now as they did between the ‘90s and then. Particularly the ways people interact with, and commodify, music. (Insert jab at content creators.) I suppose it’s for this reason that so much of it rings outdated; there are rom-coms these days concertedly counteracting the tropes of the Love, Actually days. The female (and I guess main) protagonist, Annie, has a gay best friend and all. Well, ‘best friend’ is a stretch, because nobody in this story has real friends, because they’re all too busy being miserably single or single-feeling to intentionally temper their loneliness with friendship.
(I’m also of the opinion that Hornby should just drop the b from his name, as only a major catastrophe could stop his characters thinking about sex all. the. time. Do you remember how many different things you thought about as a kid? And now, in adulthood, most of the content targeted at us—TV, books, jokes—revolves around sex. Like we’re supposed to relinquish all our other interests. I hate it here.)
Moving on. The people I felt comfortable liking: Jackson, Tucker’s six-year-old son, who doesn’t always talk like a six-year-old but writing kids can be hard, and who, in my headcanon, grows up to be Jackson Maine in A Star is Born; Lizzie, Tucker’s twenty-year-old daughter, whose storyline is platformed nicely until it takes a backseat to the trainwreck that is Tucker’s relationship to the rest of his far-flung family; Farmer John, the only one remotely ready to speak the truth about anything; and Gav and Barnesy, the “northern soul” dancing duo who absolutely deserve their own spinoff.
The people I hated: Duncan. I didn’t find anyone else as intolerable as I found him. Mostly because he is so intolerant. His superiority complex and arrogant gatekeeping attitude antagonized me from the start, as I believe it was meant to. I couldn’t see why Annie has stayed with him for fifteen years: he doesn’t appear to have a single redeeming quality that would justify her reluctance to try going it alone. Going it alone, however daunting, would beat sticking with this self-important turnip.
And it is at this juncture in the analysis where my feelings toward the book and the characters start to blur into my feelings toward myself. You see, I was recommended this novel—and its film, which I do want to see because it has actors I like and I wonder if they would make me feel more sympathetically toward the characters. Credible sources suggested that I would find meaning in this work. And I did…just perhaps not a meaning that pleased me.
It made me doubt myself. It made me suspect that I come off as judgmental and crazed as Duncan does despite my efforts to be welcoming of all opinions. I was more judgmental in my teen years, let’s say, than I am now, but that was proportional to how little I liked myself and how much I felt I had to prove. And, keeping it real here, I started this blog because (and this really is the best way I can think to put it) I had a head full of ideas that were driving me insane, and I felt the people in my life were getting tired of hearing me try to express them. Plus I wanted to find a certain level of community online, which I have. Plus I just wanted to create a channel for myself, an outlet. Which I have. I’d wanted that for several years by the time I launched it, and this is the shape it took.
Basically, the thought that a passion for art could be so ugly troubled me. I hoped I had nothing in common with that. Art is about whatever you think it’s about, and one take is (generally) as valid as the next. I learned to relate to people comfortably and confidently by wielding my opinions about art. I like what I like, and you like what you like, and if we like the same things maybe we’ll be closer. Either way I’m not going to make you listen to twelve takes of this B-side if you don’t want to. And I like to hear about things other people care about: I like to see their eyes light up, the way they shift, as if physically shifting gears to get into their specialized subject. I hope no one ever feels ashamed of that. I’ve battled, and continue to battle, plenty of that shame.
Anyway. Kind of a frustrating read. Nick, I gotta stick by you, even if I don’t always like you, in the way I gotta stick by myself even when I don’t like me. To my credit, I learned enough to wait several days and mull over the presentation of my thoughts; certain characters rush their reviews, to disastrous results. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go jump on the album Lorde just dropped.
Image: first edition, Viking, September 2009