Hornby, Nick. Juliet, Naked. Riverhead Books, 2009
I suppose it isn't rare for a music or tv/film artist to evoke a feeling of personal affinity in his audience, a feeling of this-guy's-just-like-me, given the essentially intrusive nature of their media. I know before I've watched a single trailer that a Cameron Crowe movie will make me laugh and tug at my heartstrings, feature at least two characters that remind me of me and a significant other, that I will be hooked on it's background score for the next several months. I know that if I could pick one musician to have a beer with, I'd pick Sid Vicious because that beer would spawn several other beers, piss off several hundred people and get us both arrested. Based on that logic -that people who create work that speaks to you directly are people you're likely to enjoy spending time with- Nick Hornby has for long been my writer-I'd-like-to-bond-with.
I doubt Messrs Crowe, Vicious or Hornby would be particularly flattered, but the point I'm trying to make is that achieving that particular type of adulation must be especially difficult for a writer. In music and film, it is not uncommon for artists to develop a signature emotion that runs through their entire body of work, making it easier for the audience to invest more personally in them. I know I'm in for two hours of homo-erotic gun toting and macho middle-aged men grappling with questions of faith and morality if I'm about to watch a Martin Scorsese movie. I can probably even predict what the music will sound like. This is no bad thing either; audiences love identifying with a brand just as much as artists aspire to creating/becoming one.
When it comes to writing however, the boundaries are a little less clearly defined. The line between possessing a distinctive writing style and being labelled a one trick pony is rather thin. Of course most writing falls into one generic category or the other, of course writers have themes and narrative structures they frequently re-visit but it's just not the same as putting out single after single composed entirely of three mangled chords and relentless, rhythm-less drumming. I suspect this preferential treatment is at least in part due to the perception that reading is somehow a more cerebral activity than watching a film or listening to a song and therefore calls for a more eclectic meal than the sum of last night's leftovers on a microwavable plate.
Which is not to say there aren't writers who have managed both. Hanif Kureishi and Milan Kundera immediately come to mind, but if I were given the freedom to pick one writer to spend the afternoon with, I'd pick Nick Hornby every time. This is not just because Hornby seems a less pretentious choice, but because I've always felt that certain personal affinity I mentioned above for the man. I've never set out to read one of his books by choice. I've never bought one, or even borrowed one from the library. Yet, Hornby's books have always popped unannounced into my life at the most opportune moments, like a good friend who can tell when you need a shoulder and disappear when you need the space. We -Nick Hornby's books and I -have a relationship that almost deserves a story of it's own, like Julie and Julia.
I first read Fever Pitch in the summer of 1996, the wound of India's humiliating exit from the Wills Cricket World Cup still searing, still raw, still gaping. The book was left behind by a friend of my Dad's who used to visit regularly till that summer, and I've never seen or heard from since. Over the course of the next four years, I must have read and re-read Fever Pitch a minimum of once every month. As any cricket follower of my age will tell you, the Indian team of the late 90's were a devastating bunch. Not on the cricket field mind you, but to the collective psychological health of their supporters. Brilliant one moment, reeling like drunks the next, supporting the Indian cricket team was a clinically acknowledged symptom of masochism. Fever Pitch described the adulation and disillusionment and the gamut of emotions in between of the sports fan like nothing I have read before or after. Unlike Hornby and his passion for Arsenal Football Club however, I temporarily retired my fascination with the Indian team when it came out of it's defeatist, enigmatic shell and revealed a new-age, chest-beating, gladiatorial avatar to the world, that would go on to attain Numero Uno ranking in Tests and the ICC World Cup.
And then along came puberty, and that talisman of all things that age -the heartbreak of unrequited love. Believe it or not, High Fidelity was a gift from the very object of my affections, something she picked up at the Delhi International airport bookstore for me to read on our long flight to Hawaii. We had only recently become friends at the time and I duly spent the next several hours smelling her hair and laughing too early at her jokes and generally falling deeply and suffocatingly in love. It was only when we got back from our idyllic holiday and the student camp we had gone there to attend, when we parted ways to return to our homes in either tip of the ridiculously enormous geographical entity that is India, that I realized just what I had gotten myself into, that I had signed myself up for a world of pain and misery and acne that would take much, much more than a few long distance calls every month to sooth. Because 1999 was still the age of innocence, because Google and everything digital had not yet made their unholy forays into our existence at the time, I had but two physical remnants of the time we spent together: an envelope of over-exposed, shaky, sun-kissed photographs of her that cost me an arm and a leg to print, and a little paperback called High Fidelity that was dog-eared from being squashed between my collection of Hawaiian souvenirs (shark teeth, sea shells, sand, assorted marine vegetation, a 'Hang Loose' coffee mug) and inscribed with the three most beautiful words known to man ("See you soon?!").
Many years later, I came across About A Boy. By this time I was no longer a swooning, love-struck teenager but an adult, or a boy who was forced to suddenly occupy an adult's world, in the form of abortive parenthood, a hollowing, harrowing experience that rendered me sleepless and morally repugnant to myself for months on end. It was a time of a little too much reality, of countless internal inquisitions about my capacity to care for another human being at the risk of jeopardizing my safety, my career, my future. Still later, I shook and shivered through Long Way Down as I struggled to make sense of the overdose-induced death of a friend of a friend (as friends tended to be at the time), and questioned my own ability to kick the habit without professional help.
So here we are then: Juliet, Naked. If it were a screenplay, I can just imagine Cameron Crowe in his basement office, working nights and ingesting copious amounts of coffee or whatever it is he does while drawing up a list of songs to include in the movie. Maybe a few years ago, Nancy Wilson would have sat next to him, beautiful hair in disarray, one ear perpetually tuned to the baby monitor, making suggestions and plucking languidly at her guitar. Unfortunately, Juliet, Naked is not a screenplay, and if it were, no amount of Croweian gloss would render it truly Hornby-esque. And by that I mean of course, the Hornby of old; creator of immature, clueless, masculine men and the essential -if peripheral- women they so confounded with their utter incomprehension of the female psyche. Men who could list obscure B-sides by bands nobody else has heard of in alphabetical and chronological order without batting an eyelid, but floundered like first-time-swimmers at sea when left on their own to order dinner for two. Men like me, men like men I know. Characters that made Hornby the endearing gender (male) commentator and spokesperson he became.
Juliet, Naked packs all the punches a good Hornby novel would - pop culture references, humour, astute social observations, even the obligatory long-suffering girlfriend. There are even nifty keeping-with-the-times narrative devices like Wikipedia articles and blogs, and an email-facilitated internet romance. But somehow, they just don't click. The bones of the story keep poking through the skin, making it impossible to fully immerse yourself in the book and just forget all worldly goings-on till you turn the last page. Which is what good Hornby books do.
The very failure to do so is ironically also what the novel is about. The story of a reclusive rockstar who nobody has seen or heard from since he stepped out of a small indie club in the 80's, the moderator (and scholar) of an internet forum dedicated to the purported whereabouts of the great man and debate and discussion of his music, and of course the girlfriend of the latter, an uncomplicated, nice enough woman who has indulged his obsessive fandom over the years without complaint and quite likes some of the music in question should in theory be a Hornby classic. Hornby has often been accused of spawning one-dimensional female characters, but here, just like in How To Be Good, he has managed to create a perfectly believable, likable female protagonist for the most part. Personally, I felt the fanboy's character could have been prodded a little harder, his psyche examined a little more closely for a clearer view of how the music obsessive's mind works. Perhaps Hornby felt this would be too easy, too familiar a territory. The reclusive rockstar is a part written for Jeff Bridges, if ever there was one. I had to consciously stop myself from visualizing Bridges's Blake persona as I was reading the novel.
The musician character is however the weakest link. He also appears to be Hornby's main interest in writing the novel. Despite all the relationship-issues and The Guardian style, ironic-hep faux-musings on fame, the central theme of the novel is parenthood. The mousey girlfriend wants a child, the ageing rockstar has a young son he clings on to in hopes of salvation from his drink-addled past and a host of other children sired with ghosts of girlfriends past, and the real reason for his sudden disappearance and withdrawal from music at the peak of his career is the discovery that a former lover is carrying his child. No matter how tech-savvy and contemporary he is, Hornby must be greatly disconnected with the Broken Britain of teenaged mothers and single parents I encountered in London and Glasgow to believe that imminent, unplanned parenthood would detract a rock musician who has just released a critically acclaimed album and is on top of his game from continuing to ply his trade. Or that it would be a believable premise for a novel released in 2009.
The novel also tackles parenthood as creation. Our musician hero's last and greatest album, Juliet, is considered "the greatest break-up album of all time". But the well of his creativity has dried up. He cannot understand either what the world hears in the insincere melancholy of Juliet. In short, not only does his creative block lead him to question his talent, but it also drives him to question the taste -and merits of the opinions- of his admirers. This is why he cannot feign interest in Juliet, Naked, an album put out recently by his recording company comprising of the original, accoustic demo versions of the songs on Juliet, to commemorate it's release all those years ago and presumably to milk a few nostalgia-dollars.
This is the part that stayed with me at the end. Because somehow, it all came back to Hornby. It's a little like finally getting a chance to speak with that girl you've been eyeing all week only to find out she really doesn't have anything that interesting to say. That squeaky-bum feeling when somebody finally lets you in, bares their heart to you, and you realize you really didn't need to know all that much about them. Because the musician character called to mind what I imagine Hornby himself must go through in one form or the other - that feeling that his best is behind him, that even an email correspondence from him will forever be judged and compared to what once was -his Juliet- that little gem of a book called High Fidelity, the success of which must surely now baffle him considering the abomination that was Slam, or the tepid -by his standards- response to A Long Way Down. Still, Juliet, Naked is no doubt his best work of fiction since About A Boy, even if Hornby pulling out all the stops -and maybe one too many- to make it happen is more than a little reminiscent of the studio executives in the novel deciding to release the demos for one last shake of the money tree. Whatever next - a Best-Of compilation?