People can get awfully territorial about their pop culture interests, and that goes double for music. If you consider yourself an expert on a particular artist, you like to know everything about them and be the first to know about it. And when you come into a relationship, you’re bringing more than just yourself, your furniture, and the rest of your belongings. You bring your interests into that relationship. And if you, say, introduce your favorite band to your girlfriend, you want her to love it. Support you in your love of that band. But you don’t really want her to become a bigger expert on the band than you are. It’s your domain — you feel like you have a certain ownership of it.
That’s the emotional driving force behind Nick Hornby’s new novel, Juliet, Naked. And no one better explores these more ethereal notions of pop culture and music than Hornby, who, thematically speaking, applies the same concepts from his obsession with a soccer team in Fever Pitch to a fictional novel about an obsession with a musician — artists, after all, are very much like your favorite sports teams. In a way, they belong to you, and your willingness to share them with others only goes so far.
Duncan is a 40-year-old college professor whose life is essentially defined by his devotion to Tucker Crowe, a Dylan-esque musician who put out what was considered something of a masterpiece in 1986. Halfway through the tour of the album, however, Crowe disappeared into a Minneapolis bathroom. After he walked out, Crowe cancelled the tour, quit making music, stopped giving interviews, and essentially disappeared into obscurity. Since that time, however, Duncan — and a few other hard-core Crowelogists — have made a life out of their obsession with the artist, spending hours a day on a website devoted to Tucker Crowe, parsing his lyrics and speculating on Crowe’s whereabouts.
In the meantime, Duncan’s live-in partner of 15 years, Annie — a museum director in small-town England — has become something of an expert on Tucker Crowe by proxy. However, her relationship with Duncan is otherwise unexciting and driven mainly by contentment, a need not to be alone, rather than actual affection for one another.
Everything comes to a head, however, when a copy of Juliet, Naked, an early, stripped down recording of Tucker Crowe’s masterpiece, arrives in the mail. Annie opens the package first, listens to the album, and for the first time, forms her own opinion of a piece of Tucker Crowe’s work, without the filter of her boyfriend. Duncan, meanwhile, is furious that Annie would listen to a recording of his favorite artist before he did, and the entire episode forms a rift between the couple which continues to widen as their individual opinions of the album reveal fundamental differences in their personality.
Meanwhile, Tucker Crowe himself is living his own life of obscurity in America and dealing with the fact that he’s a has-been with several children by different marriages who has completely lost his creativity. Through the release of Juliet, Naked, however, Tucker Crowe gets mixed up in the lives of Annie and Duncan.
For fans of Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked is something of a return to form. There was nothing particularly wrong with his last three novels (OK, Slam kind of blew) — they were well written, the characters were well-rounded and interesting, and the storylines were compelling. But they felt a little artificial and forgettable. Juliet, Naked, once again, digs at the feelings and themes and thoughts and concepts that made Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and to a lesser extent, About a Boy such wonderful, successful novels. The novel deftly explores our obsession with certain musicians, how we let those obsessions define us, and — in a way — what it means to the artists being obsessed, and how the actual artists differ in real life from the way we imagine them in our minds.
Nobody writes about the emotional aspects of music (and sports teams) better than Nick Hornby, and with Juliet, Naked he gets back to what made him such a gifted, relatable author for so many of us in the first place. It’s not the masterpiece that High Fidelity was, of course, but it at least dabbles in the same territory, with the same clever and often wry sense of humor. It does wane a little bit near the end, but in a way, that’s kind of the point: As Tucker Crowe gets demystified, he becomes less interesting and more real. And reality is never as interesting as the alternate version we’ve created in our minds.