By Bruce Jacobs

hornsbyimage“Juliet, Naked”
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books ($25.95, 406 pp.)

The cover of Nick Hornby’s new novel, “Juliet, Naked,” simply shows a set of  ear buds tangled in the silhouette shape of a kissing couple.

The image is a fitting representation of his fiction, which, in an amusing, easy-to-read fashion, so often dwells on romance and the background musical playlists against which romance is born, and even more often, dies.  In Hornby’s world, what we listen to is as much a determinant of romantic compatibility as any eHarmony checklist.

His new novel once again is about music and love, but Hornby is getting older.  The romance now carries the adult troubles of ex-spouses, children, step-children, illness, wrinkles and baldness; and the music centers, not on a young band, but on a singer-songwriter who has dropped out of the game and been underground for twenty years.  “Juliet, Naked” is a looking back novel, not the youthful looking forward comedy of Hornby’s first novel “High Fidelity.”

In the early novel we hear:  “Barry, you’re over thirty years old.  You owe it to your mum and dad not to sing in a group called Sonic Death Monkey.”  In this latest, the bar band scene is old:  “Shouldn’t something have moved on by now?  Did you really still have to lug all your equipment in by yourself, sell your records and T-shirts at the back of the room, talk to the crazy guy with no friends who’d been to see you three times this week already?”

“Juliet, Naked” is the story of Duncan and Annie, unmarried cohabiters for fifteen years of shared musical taste and quiet domesticity. Duncan’s love for the music of the mysterious Tucker Crowe, however, has become an internet obsession. He spends his nights deconstructing Crowe’s masterpiece album Juliet with other Crowe fanatics around the world.  While Annie is also a big Crowe fan, she could use a little less of Duncan’s nightly blog-posting and a little more nightly loving.

Love on the Internet

While music is the background to the plot, the internet is the back story that gives Hornby a new satirical target and a metaphor for the disconnectedness of our romantic connections.  Through a bootleg internet release, an acoustic version of Crowe’s earlier masterpiece called Juliet, Naked reaches his fanatical acolytes.  Duncan immediately posts a rave review which stimulates speculation about a Crowe return to music.  Annie finds the “naked” version of her favorite album woefully short of the well-crafted electric histrionics of the original.  She posts her negative review, and two things happen:  Duncan is shattered and their relationship without shared musical taste begins to unravel, and Crowe himself sends her an email of appreciation for her review, opening the way to further email conversations.

She has always been a bit distant from Duncan’s Tucker Crowe webpage.  He reassures her:  “Everyone has their own website…Nobody gets forgotten any more…It’s what the internet is for.  That and pornography.”  But she wonders why Duncan and his fellow Crowe-heads spend so much time posting.  “’Why bother’ was never a question you could ask about more or less anything on the internet, otherwise the whole bunch of them shriveled to a cotton-candy nothing.”  Still, it is through email that she begins a relationship with Crowe.

Crowe disavows nearly all the fan speculation about why he quit the music scene:  “Stopping had been a very smart career move – provided, that is, you ignored the lack of a career that was the inevitable consequence.” There was no epiphany in a Minneapolis club restroom or crushing love disappointment as his web blog fans frequently posited.

He is now just an older, balding man raising a young son by his latest girlfriend and vaguely keeping touch with his other distant children living with their mothers.  He is heartbreakingly close to his most recent son Jackson, but is reluctant to share information with all the step-siblings and ex-wives.  “He would read up on parenting if he thought it would help, but his errors always seemed too basic for the manuals.  ‘Always tell your kids they have siblings…’  He couldn’t imagine any child-raising guru taking the trouble to write that down.”

The life story Crowe dumps on Annie through email reveals the kind of confused and bemused sort of man she longs for.  Her frank, middle-aged personal replies from her small English seaside town in turn attract Crowe, for he is ready for a new kind of woman having “misspent his youth on deathly pale English models with cheekbones instead of breasts.”  He plans a visit with Jackson to see one of these former girlfriends and their daughter in London. At the same time he hopes to meet Annie.

Never What You Expect

Hornby brings all these internet chains together in the second half of the novel where all the misrepresentations, speculations, and just plain errors that float around in cyberspace come face to face with reality.  Annie throws Duncan out when he falls for a flirty colleague and calls her an idiot for panning Juliet, Naked.  Crowe arrives in London only to have a heart attack just before he meets Annie.

Annie, it turns out, is the nervous first dater standing in front of Dickens’s house.  “It hadn’t occurred to her that he simply wouldn’t show up.  But what did she expect?  He was a reclusive recovering alcoholic former rock star.  None of that suggested a person who’d trot up to a museum at three o’clock on the dot on a Thursday afternoon.”  They do finally meet, but in the real world, connection is much more difficult than on the internet.

Hornby seems always to come back to the theme of how we manage our time and our relationships with others during that time.  Annie spent fifteen years with the cold, nerdy Duncan while Crowe left family and music for twenty years.  Behind all the laughs and bad mix tapes, Hornby has a serious question to raise – especially now that we are all getting up there in age:  do we really waste much of our lives?

“If it was really wasted time,” Crowe tells Annie, “then I have some bad news:  it’s gone.  You can maybe add a little onto the other end by giving up drugs, or cigarettes, or by going to the gym a lot, but my guess is that those years after the age of eighty aren’t as much fun as they’re cracked up to be.”  For the traveling Crowe, who reads books only when the plane is in flight, but reads magazines while waiting, “that’s what the last couple of decades had felt like:  one long flick through a magazine.”

It’s Complicated

When it comes to relationships, Annie understands. She says it best when she realizes that the warm companionship she developed with Crowe during his convalescence will end when he returns to his farm in Pennsylvania.  “The terrible inconvenient fact is that, without you around, everything slides back to how it was before.  It can’t do otherwise…whenever you read anything about love, whenever anyone tries to define it, there’s always a state or an abstract noun, and I try to think of it like that.  But actually, love is…well, it’s just you.  And when you go, it’s gone.  Nothing abstract about it at all.”

No matter how much we connect on-line or through music or during short visits, we only have the time we make to be together, hands on so to speak, to provide any kind of lasting love and meaning.  This is pretty heavy stuff for a guy who cut his teeth writing about sports fanaticism, rock music and one night stands.  Hornby has earned his fame, and “Juliet, Naked” shows he has also earned the lines around his eyes and bald pate.

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