No one understands the hold music has on us quite like author Nick Hornby. Being an audiophile himself Hornby appreciates how, at least for some, the records we buy and the bands we love can take on a greater significance beyond their immediate aural pleasures. Hornby knows how music can come to dominate our lives, and how we can come to define ourselves by the music we hold dear.
Hornby’s most famous protagonist, Rob Fleming from High Fidelity, goes so far to say that you can’t be a serious person if you have less than 500 records. But High Fidelity isn’t just about music. It’s also about love, death and the perils of relationships. And so is Hornby’s latest, a self-described quasi-sequel to High Fidelity, Juliet, Naked.
At first blush, Juliet, Naked seems to be exclusively about music, too. The novel begins in hilarious fashion, as our British protagonists, longtime couple Duncan and Annie, make their way across the US on a musical pilgrimage. The impetus for this magical mystery tour is Tucker Crowe, fictional musician and notorious recluse, who hasn’t been heard from since 1986, when his famous break-up album, Juliet, was released.
Seeing as Duncan is an expert in all things Tucker Crowe, or a Crowologist as they’re called, and seeing as Duncan has written extensively about the musician on a website he created, the trip was only a matter of time. Trekking across America, Duncan and Annie visit most of the important locations associated with Crowe, including a rock club in Minneapolis where, after emerging from the men’s room, Crowe mysteriously decided to retire from public life.
Because of its mythic status among Crowologists, Duncan and Annie find themselves in that same bathroom, taking pictures of urinals and some very blocked-up toilets. Needless to say, Annie is not as thrilled about this leg of the trip as Duncan is.
“Do you think it’s possible to teach a whole course on the toilet?’” Duncan, an academic, asks Annie.
“With you sitting on it, you mean? You wouldn’t get it past Health and Safety,” Annie retorts.
“I didn’t mean that,” Duncan replies.
This funny exchange is symptomatic of how badly communication has broken down between Duncan and Annie after 15 years of being together, a relationship in which Annie describes herself as “less like a girlfriend than a school chum who’d come to visit in the holidays and stayed for the next twenty years.”
Annie, though, wants to be more than just Duncan’s mate — she wants to be desired, she wants to be in love and, most importantly, nearing 40, she wants to be a mother. Not that Duncan knows any of this, as immersed as he is in the life of a musician he has never met, a person he refers to as his “life-partner”, and “our child”. As anyone familiar with Princess Diana knows, it’s hard to have a relationship with a third person lurking in the background.
This is another aspect about music that Hornby understands so well — how it can be a substitute for the real emotional needs some men have, and how they use it as a shield to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of real life.
The irony behind Duncan’s fascination with Tucker Crowe is that he knows even less about him than he does Annie. Duncan’s ignorance, as well as that of other Crowologists, makes for a funny running joke throughout Juliet. Hornby even creates a fake Wikipedia entry about Tucker Crowe where nearly every “fact” is inaccurate — a clever commentary on the unreliability of information on the Internet. A supposed picture of the reclusive musician that surfaces on the Internet makes for great comedic fodder, too, as it actually turns out to be a photograph of Crowe’s neighbor, who is subsequently dubbed the Fake Tucker, or Fucker, for short.
The novel’s turning point happens when an unreleased, stripped-down version of the album Juliet (hence its title, Juliet, Naked) arrives at the home of Duncan and Annie in Gooleness, a fictional town on the coast of England. The album of acoustic demos, Crowe’s first release in 22 years, sparks an online war of words between Annie and Duncan, and leads to an unlikely love triangle between the two and Crowe. This time, though, Annie is the one who forges a bond with Tucker (a real one, too), not Duncan.
Crowe’s emergence as a real character is one of the more enjoyable aspects of Juliet. We get to see the wizard behind the curtain, as it were, warts and all, and how divorced his reality is from the one his fans speculate about online. We also discover how desperate he is to connect with someone, too, despite his horrible track record with women.
It’s said that the greatest pop and rock songs are almost always about love — wanting it, getting it, losing it, trying to get it back. And in a sense, that’s what most Nick Hornby books are about, too. But his books are also about the things in our lives that we use as substitutes for love, the things that we cling to in the absence of relationships in an effort to make sense of our world — namely, music, or art. But as Duncan discovers, and Rob Fleming before him, your records can only nourish you so much, or as the Motown song goes, ain’t nothing like the real thing.