I finished a book this week. Aren’t you so proud? Really, I finished a book in two days. It wasn’t the best story I’ve read, and it wasn’t the most captivating book I’ve come across. But how nice to still give myself over to someone else’s world, imagination, words.
The book is Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby. I first fell for Hornby before I knew it was him. Haven’t we all seen High Fidelity by this point? I cannot decide to this day if I would be head over heels for John Cusack’s character or be so annoyed with his pith that I’d kick him to the curb. (Which, really, is the story with every John Cusack character.) I loved the movie before I knew it was a book. Then I read the book. Are you surprised to hear me say that the book is better? No, you’re not. Anyway. Nick Hornby. British author. Writes occasionally for McSweeney’s, but is first a novelist. He writes accessible stories about relationships, people, disappointment, (un)requited love, and usually with some 180-gram vinyl thrown in for good measure
Juliet, Naked, according to the book blurb: “Annie lives in a dull town on England’s bleak east coast and is in a relationship with Duncan which mirrors the place; Tucker Crowe was once a brilliant songwriter and performer, who’s gone into seclusion in rural America-or at least that’s what his fans think. Duncan is obsessed with Tucker’s work, to the point of derangement…”
The title comes from a surprise-release of demos by Tucker Crowe, the artist about whom Duncan is obsessed. He took his savant knowledge and super-fandom to the intellectual extreme and now, by my best conclusion, teaches pop culture studies at the local university. Turns out that he has been sorely misled in his assumptions and conclusions about the songwriter’s life and whereabouts since Crowe’s self-imposed seclusion from the music world. So you could say this book hit a little close to home. What happens when we take the things we care so passionately about – an actor, a writer, a musician – and create a persona and a life for them so distinct, so specific in our minds that were any piece to be found mistaken or out of place from our constructed reality the entre Jenga tower of that person crumbles leaving a mere human? I sense this in my own resistance to reach out to the artists I focused on in my dissertation. What if they recognize nothing of themselves in my analysis, in my interpretation? Does it matter? Does the interpretation become false because the artist rejects it? Or is it still valid? There is some discussion about this in the book: when an artist creates something and, in a sense, turns it over, gives it to the audience, does it cease to belong entirely to them? Does it cease to belong to the artists at all?
Another interesting motif – what are nonnegotiables in relationships in terms of taste? Could I be with someone whose musical tastes differ really drastically from mine? What do musical, movie, television, reading tastes say about us? For example, if someone I was interested in told me their favorite band of all time is Nickelback, would that tell me something concrete, tangible, almost enough to walk away right them?
When Duncan, because of his internet fame as a “Crowologist,” receives an advance copy of Juliet, Naked, the album of Crowe demos, he, like anyone starved of (what we have convinced ourselves is) a basic need, devours it, loves it. Annie, on the other hand, with a bit of distance – emotional and psychological – from Crowe’s work (though she certainly has an appreciation for his songwriting), pans Naked. While we get glimpses in the early pages of the book that their relationship is stagnant, not happy, tired, it is their polar reactions to the album that seems to be the catalyst for their undoing. When Annie cannot understand how Duncan can find a better album in Naked than in the produced version of Juliet, it causes Duncan to second guess everything he ever thought he knew and felt about Annie. (And really, likewise for Annie second-guessing Duncan, or more precisely, felt confirmed in all the things she had been trying to ignore.) I think the reader is supposed to feel frustrated with these characters. I think we are supposed to wonder how they can so quickly change their minds about another person based solely on one piece of musical taste. Intellectually, it’s supposed to feel trite. Infantile. Shallow. But, honestly, I get it. Once, a guy I was otherwise totally into told me he couldn’t really stand The Decemberists or Iron & Wine because they were “too damn folky.” And that wasn’t a compliment. I couldn’t look at him with quite the same affection after that. In fact, that comment caused me question my judgment of him in the first place.
Is this superficial? Is it a matter of tastes? Or do these things that matter actually tell us something real, meaningful, true about ourselves and other people? The book was really a fast and light read, but I wondered if it was about me in some ways – I spent two years writing and thinking about things similar to Duncan’s character. Have I lost a simplistic understanding and appreciation of the art and craft itself? Have I lost the ability to relate to the artists themselves on a human level? (My answer to both of those questions is I don’t think so. I hope not.) But even more it made me wonder about compatibility – in matters of tastes and favorites, where is the line? How different can those things be and two people still find compatibility?