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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Let it be: Nick Hornby's 'Juliet, Naked'

I really like Nick Hornby. I think he's an astute commentator and critic, I think he has a great take on the modern condition, and for what it's worth I'm pretty sure he's one of the good guys too. We're more or less exactly the same age, we appear to have exactly the same stuff on our iPods (give or take 5% or so either way) we have a similarly enlightened view on the beautiful game... if it wasn't for the fact that he's so far ahead of me on the male pattern baldness scale, I'd wonder if he and I weren't actually separated at birth.

Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the decent fist he made of `High Fidelity' (not exactly a great novel, but a damned good read all the same) and most particularly 'About a Boy' (his best fiction to date, and, my guess is, the best he will ever write) he's actually not much of a novelist. Having ploughed my way through `How to be Good' (which worked well in parts and was at least philosophically intriguing), `A Long Way Down', which was just plain awful, and now this, I'm thinking that maybe it's time to give it up and stick to what he's good at - writing funny and perceptive stuff about music, the arts and modern life (which he does better than just about anyone I know). I mean, really - go read `A Long Way Down' and then read `31 Songs' or `The Complete Polysyllabic Spree' and tell me I'm not right.

So here's what I think about `Juliet, Naked `: it's not a bad book and if you picked it up before a flight (assuming the horrible chick-lit-style cover didn`t put you off) it would probably distract you adequately for a few hours. It`s not especially funny, or sad, or emotional, or exciting or really especially anything but it moves along at an adequate pace from page to page, eventually reaching a not especially satisfying conclusion. And, you know, it's only 245 pages, so it's not like a great investment is required from the reader.

It's about music, which Nick knows a lot about - specifically, about Tucker Crowe, former musician and newest addition to Hornby's lengthening gallery of feckless wasters, and the nature of art, creativity and fandom. It addresses unsatisfactory, dysfunctional modern family relationships too, about which perhaps he knows a bit. Quite a lot of it (though not nearly enough, in my opinion) concerns how the internet has changed the way we engage with the world. So far so promising - these are interesting themes - but as a novel it just don't work. The main stories - Tucker vegetating in the US, Annie and Duncan likewise in Gooleness - are kind of flat and dispiriting, the way they're entwined is unconvincing, the characters don't really get off the page more than once or twice, the dialogue is all a bit heightened and artificial, in the end, the multiple threads are tied up and dispatched with indecent haste... you know, in the end it's just not that good (a horrible thought crosses my mind at this point - Dickens is mentioned more than once or twice, for no apparent reason - is it all meant to be Dickensian in style? I really hope not).

It's more than this though. All through 'Juliet, Naked', I couldn't shake my sense of Nick Hornby making it all up. Only a few fleeting pages managed to suspend my disbelief and banish the picture in my mind of the author at his desk, chewing his pencil. I know how stupid that sounds - I know a novel is, by definition, invented - but a good novelist, and a good novel, will quickly let you forget that.

I tried to figure out why this was so, and I in the end I think it's to do with the voice which dominates this book as it does so many other Hornby novels. `Juliet, Naked' has a wide range of characters - too wide, maybe - and his dialogue isn`t so bad, but a great deal of the book is taken up with the internalized thoughts of the characters, and here's the thing - they all think in exactly the same way and in exactly the same voice, and I'm guessing that they all think exactly like Nick Hornby, in that elliptical, analytical, self-effacing and in the end more than mildly irritating way. So what I end up thinking is "you've clearly got interesting things to say in these areas, Nick - why do you feel you need to wrap them up in this stupid story?

Nick Hornby has legions of fans and I'll probably get flamed to death for this review when it appears on Amazon, but to reiterate - I like the guy, his ideas and his writing - I just don't think the novel is the right vehicle for any of them. Maybe it's time to let the form go, and focus on crit.


  1. More power to you Bob for actually reading it; I guess, perhaps harshly, that he has a living to make, or at least some fees to pay...

  2. Well, I think you're probably right and that thought occurred to me more than once too. The cultural commentary, music and lit criticism and so forth is where I sense his heart is but it probably doesn't sell as well as a novel, nor stand as much chance of being optioned for a movie...