Because I like to occasionally blog about the books I read, but because books aren’t all I like to blog about, I made the decision at the beginning of this year to only blog about the books I was reading for the “From the Stacks” challenge. In other words, I would blog about the books languishing on my book shelves that I was finally getting around to reading and until now, I’ve kept to that decision fairly easily. Oh – I’ve read some amazing books – upon reviewing the books I’ve read thus far this year I feel I’ve had a highly satisfactory reading year with some really stellar picks, including most recently Never Let Me Go, which I deemed un-put-downable and really just captured my imagination so completely I was left breathless by the end. I wasn’t moved to blog about it, though.
Last night I completed Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked – and I found myself eager to write about it. Now, I should note (as I think I’ve noted before) that I am a terrible critic (obligatory apology to my graduate school friends who received little helpful criticism from me) -it’s not that I can’t think critically, I do in all sorts of instances – but when it comes to movies, books, plays – for the most part I consider the whole of my reaction and not the many intricacies that make a piece of art. All of which is to say, I loved with my whole heart Juliet, Naked and want to share that love on my blog.
The book focuses on three “main” characters – Annie, a small-town museum curator, her boyfriend, Duncan, an English professor obsessed with the third main character, Tucker Crowe, a “once brilliant songwriter and performer gone into seclusion in rural America.” The blurb on the back of the book describes the initial action that takes place and sets of the rest of the novel quite well: Duncan is obsessed with Tucker’s work to the point of derangement, and when Annie dares to go public with her dislike of his latest album, there are quite unexpected, life-changing consequences for all three.
This is a character-driven novel and I think part of my pure enjoyment of this work stems from the fact that I know people like Duncan and Annie and Nick Hornby just gets it so right – Duncan is the kind of guy with a few driving obsessions, including Tucker Crowe’s music and the television show “The Wire.” He is vocal and passionate about these and a few other things in his life, and these passions are what define him, what make his taste superior, his intellect superior, to those around him (in his eyes). And oh, how I’ve known people like this – people who decide for whatever reason that say, the combined obsession of Paul Auster’s novels, The Sopranos and Wilco provide their reason to be, and they share these obsessions vocally and assuredly, as to leave no room for error. In many ways, I am sure I can be like this on occasion, especially if talking about one of my favorite musicians or books – but the point of Duncan, I think, is that in order for him to have any value in his life, his opinions and his taste has to be better (by his standard) than anyone else’s – inside and outside the classroom he has to be the teacher – he long ago closed off the possibility of learning from others.
Her (Annie’s) inability to recognize the brilliance of the album was indicative of a failure in taste that appalled him. How had she ever managed to read or see or listen to anything and come to the right conclusion about its merits? Was it all just luck? Or was it just the boring good taste of the Sunday newspaper supplements? So she liked The Sopranos – well, who didn’t? He’d had a chance this time to watch her have to come to her own conclusions, and she’d messed it up.
With someone as vocal as Duncan for a partner, Annie loses her own opinions and thoughts about music and movies and television series, finding it easy enough to adopt Duncan’s obsessions as her own. In this way, she loses much of herself – she constantly questions her own responses to music and movies and rarely shares them with Duncan, since he is the de facto expert in their home. When her response to a Tucker Crowe album differs from his, and she actually goes on record as stating such – well, that’s when things change and the novel takes off.
I am, in this post, neglecting the character of Tucker Crowe, and he is a GREAT character, one you root for despite his many failings. This neglect is partly a function of time (I have to get ready for work shortly) and partly a function of importance – while in a thousand different ways the character of Tucker makes the novel, for me he wasn’t what the novel was about – the novel is about Annie and Duncan and their response to his artistry, and how pieces of art, and our identification with them, shape us and make us feel – how when we are unable to create art of our own we identify with the art of others – and how that identification can express itself in a heightened sense of self-importance, or groupie-like obsessions , or how sometimes it can give us the courage to find our own voice when its been lost for a very long time.