Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked

In his first novel, 1995’s High Fidelity, British author Nick Hornby gave heroic voice to audiophiles and culture snobs everywhere, showing life and love as a series of top-five lists and all big questions therein revolving around which is the best Velvet Underground record.

Now, with his sixth and latest, Juliet, Naked, Hornby revisits the spiky terrain of pop music and the obsessives who consume it, but his tone is calmer, more assured, and ultimately more nourishing. Now, when a wide-eyed fan tells his favourite musician that the man’s work changed his life, Hornby gives the musician a welcome dollop of big-picture rationality. “Great,” he responds. “I mean, great if your life needed changing, that is. Maybe it didn’t.”

The musician in question is Tucker Crowe, a reclusive American singer-songwriter who suddenly vanished from the public eye after releasing a critically acclaimed breakup album called Juliet in the mid-1980s. Content to let his legacy slowly fizzle out, Tucker’s public persona and music are unwillingly resurrected in the Internet age by a tiny niche of “Crowologists”: middle-aged men who gather around an online message board to obsess over every scrap of Tucker’s biography and parse every lyric to within an inch of its life.

At the forefront of their ranks is Duncan, a plain college teacher from small-town England, who has slowly brought his long-time girlfriend, Annie, into sharing his enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that turns to outright fanaticism when Duncan learns Crowe is breaking 20 years of silence to release an album of demos from the Juliet sessions, titled Juliet, Naked.

Alternating between Annie’s and Tucker’s perspectives, the novel takes a step back from the mentality of the superfan while still digging into the juicy questions of what art means to its audience. Are rough drafts more “authentic” than the end results? Can art transcend the autobiographical details that inspired it? And—in a clear echo of High Fidelity—can we really learn anything about a person from the culture they love?

It’s a testament to Hornby’s achievement in this quick, funny, thoroughly likable novel that these questions appear so fully formed, and are given such thoughtful consideration besides.

Riverhead, 406 pp, $32.50, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 29, 2009)

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