Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked

While I thought the movie Sideways was funny enough, it wasn’t a movie I would enjoy rewatching; I detested Paul Giamatti’s and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters, Miles and Jack, respectively, in that movie.  The one standout scene in that movie, for me, isn’t when Miles talked about how much he likes pinot noirs – which is just a self-pitying comparison between him and the grape. (That is, the care and cultivation needed for that grape to reach its full potential as a wine is the same care that a woman needs to give to him. Really. The effort expended on the grape is less aggravating, since the grape isn’t boorish and doesn’t talk back. Why should anyone, even his mother, spend that much attention on him?)

No, the scene that made me feel some sympathy toward Miles is his guzzling his prized bottle of wine (a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc), from a styrofoam cup, in a fast food restaurant, after he found out his ex-wife is pregnant. I believe that’s the occasion he was saving that bottle for, with them still being married and finding out they are expecting  (or nowadays, probably waiting until she gave birth and finished breastfeeding). In a nutshell, one can see that maybe the wife didn’t share all his interests, and that he had spent way too much time indulging in his own passion while not sparing any for his wife. It is sad, and seems a common affliction.

I am not the first to point out that a number of books and movies that focus on unattractive, compulsive, abusive, jerky men who luck into wonderful relationships with walking sex fantasies with a heart of gold and infinite patience. The writers are writing about their own desires, and these writers are all white, middle-aged men who, if we assume that these movies and books express their ideas about relationships, do not work at building friendships. These men sound like assholes.

And so we finally come to Juliet, Naked, the story of Annie, Duncan, and Tucker. Annie is an intelligent woman, stuck in a dead-end relationship with Duncan. Duncan is obsessed with a musician (Tucker) who disappeared during a tour; he was not seen nor heard from again. However, a core of diehard fans kept paying tribute to Duncan in the form of website and forum, trading in bootlegs and speculating about why Tucker turned away from the life of a rock star. They share stories about pilgrimages to locations deemed an important part of Tucker’s life.

As one imagines, the problem is not the compulsive behavior of these men, in the microscopic examination of every shred of public evidence of Tucker’s life. A major problem is in how these men feel Tucker owes them access to his life, to the point where fans try to intrude on his life.

However, I think a small part of the novel deals with  fan behavior; Hornby is gracious enough to recognize that some fans look weird and obsessive because most other people make them out to be weird. It is expected, until the advent of web based tools that let artists easily engage in self-promotion, that artists keep distance from their audience. I would suppose that artists would prefer that fans don’t talk back and certainly not to break into the homes of people who have some relationship to them.

At any rate, spending a vacation touring suburbs and bathrooms in the Midwest suggests that Duncan is a pathetic, infantile man who cannot move on. Of course, it also describes Annie, and her situation is even worse because she won’t or can’t leave Duncan, despite his problems being abundantly clear to her.

Things change in Duncan’s and Annie’s life when she opens mail intended for Duncan. The package contained a disc of unreleased material; it is basically a draft of Juliet, a record Tucker had released, and dubbed Juliet, Naked. Annie listens to it and concludes that the produced version is much better. This differs from Duncan’s view, and eventually their relationship breaks under the strain. Annie also writes out her thoughts about “Naked” on the Tucker fan site, managing to catch Tucker’s attention.

There are some interesting ideas here, mostly in how it is much easier to cultivate a relationship with someone who doesn’t reciprocate (in this case, it’s Tucker.) By traveling the same tour path as Tucker, by interpreting his music, and by doing everything short of treating Tucker like an actual person, Duncan and his compatriots can indulge in their pop psychology analysis of Tucker, of his drive and motivation. In short, fans like Duncan can project their own desires onto Tucker.

From my reading, Hornby’s books tend  examine the many different ways men engage in these one-sided relationships. It is much easier being a fan of a soccer team, ranking musicians, and generally being self-absorbed. Again, the idea of being a fan is to establish ones identity relative to the object of his obsession. It isn’t so much admiration as a mirror. The men interpret the art or the game or the players as they like (and it is their right), but it never seems as if they ever considered that the artist or the players may have their own views.

A major part of the work is in the idea of interpretation and how much an author has control over the nature of his works’ impact. There is one good bit with Duncan, towards the end of the novel. He meets Tucker and sees that Tucker isn’t the person Duncan has in mind. We also found out that these obsessives have staked a lot worship on the wrong information. They live on rumors about Tucker’s underground gigs, his supposed influence in production or writing of songs, and sightings of a person who isn’t even Tucker. So real Tucker doesn’t conform to Duncan’s idea of the man. We find out that Tucker also feels like that he can’t recognize the person he was anymore.

Tucker, it turns out, left music because he felt that his anguish over losing the love of Juliet, made tangible by his writing the songs on the record Juliet, was fake. He realized, while on tour, that he might actually love his new infant daughter more. That relationship may be more meaningful than young love. Perversely, he felt this feeling distanced himself from his own music, because whatever he wrote would be fiction. The music would no longer be authentic.

Duncan’s moment comes after this revelation. He argued the less creepy and more meaningful point that while an artist has his own motivations in creating a work of art, he cannot control how others perceive the piece or what meanings they take from it. Art inspires, but it is a mistake to think that it is an exact science in what feelings other take away. The important thing is that people take something from the piece, even if the artist loses touch with his own work.

This is the very argument I would use to justify me writing these musings about books I read. I was wrong to describe this blog as a series of book reviews. It is a collection of thoughts about books; ideally, I connect these ideas to themes from other books I read and, I hope, relatively novel thoughts I have based on my experience.

I would take the Duncan argument a step further; an artist shouldn’t feel inauthentic if his motivations and passions change. The sculpture, book, song, painting, photograph, or whatever, probably came from an authentic place, at the time the piece was created. If life happens and the artist feels differently later, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t he grow or regress? Why not author something new?

One final note: I suppose the Duncan argument runs a bit close to the post-modernist’s “textual analysis” justification. Everything is open for debate; meaning is in the eye of the beholder; there is no primary interpretation, thus ignoring the author’s own ideas, as if he has no idea why he created a work of art. This is a philosophical difference I am not reconciled with. I think that art should have some meaning or motivation. This comes from my finding art an absolute waste of time when the artist has no point of view. Rather, if his point-of-view is that he wants to say everything about everything, where symbols mean all things to all people, he says nothing at all. What I want from art is a particular thought, or feeling, something that convinces me that the author/painter/musician had something specific in mind. I don’t want to go to an artshow to look into a mirror, where I leave with what I  brought. I want to hear what the artist has to say, and think about it, and agree or disagree with it. With that said, of course individual interpretation has value; it’s just that I prefer it when the artist treats me with respect and has enough confidence in his own ideas to be specific. The problem is, this does require that an artist uses his vernacular to establish a framework for interpretation. That is, there is a so-called primary interpretation – that is, a true meaning – even if at a very skeletal level. Isn’t that the point of language, and, more generally, communication? Why write, speak or draw if the audience simply edits things on the fly to fit his own preconceptions? I do feel that interpretation is and should be constrained, and I do not respect artists who abrogate this basic responsibility.

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