Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Juliet Naked

Nick Hornby is a rare find: witty, contemplative writing that actually appeals to the mass market.  Hornby's books are very  readable, funny, and full of pop-culture references (the right kind of pop-culture), and contain relatable characters going through emotional dilemmas most of us go through ourselves.  I can't think of any other contemporary writer with this same ability to combine readability with thoughtful prose that stands up to further inspection.  His novels aren't complicated, layered, metaphor-ridden works of great art, but they are as relevant to modern life as they are entertaining.  Well, most of them.  His 2007 novel Slam,  about a teenager who talks to his poster of Tony Hawk to deal with his problems (you know, all those real life, serious, important problems worth giving a crap about that 15-year olds have), was so amatuerishly and condescendingly written that I returned it to the library after reading only a few chapters.

And now we have Juliet, Naked, published last autumn.  Is it as bad as Slam?  Not at all.  I finished it, and enjoyed it, in the way that I enjoy a rerun of Will and Grace:  neither are mind blowing, and I smirk mildly more than I actually laugh, but both provide some level of  comforting mind candy.  But, compared to High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to be Good (which I liked, although apparently no one else did), and A Long Way Down Juliet comes up a little short.  The novel gives us Annie, a 39-year old woman who feels she's wasted her life on her boyfriend, Duncan.   Duncan's life is solely ruled by his obsession with Tucker Crowe, a one time musician who has now inexplicably disappeared off the face of the earth.  Duncan spends all of his time on the Tucker Crowe fansite that he started, and Annie blames his obsession for the fact that she is childless, hates the town she lives in and her job, and has wasted 15 years of her life.  We are also introduced to Tucker Crowe himself, living in America with his young wife and 6 year-old son.  Tucker contacts Annie after she posts a review of one of his albums on Duncan's fansite, and the two begin an online flirtation.

So why doesn't Juliet, Naked work as well as previous novels?  The more I think about it, the more reasons I discover.  For one thing, Annie isn't particularly interesting or sympathetic.  While I never found myself especially annoyed by her, I only wished her well in the way that you wish that nice, boring people well, without really caring what happens to them.  She takes no autonomy over her life, and even by the end of the novel, she still seems to be unwilling to admit that Annie is the boss of Annie, and she blames Duncan entirely for her empty life.  Duncan, I should add, is hardly the over-bearing, machismo boyfriend bent on controlling Annie, making her willingness to blame him even more baffling.  Annie's main beef with her life seems to be that she never had children.  But her nest is empty, not because Duncan refused to have children, but because Annie never even brought up the idea with him.  Take some iniative, woman.  She hands over control to the men in her life, and her culpability in this poor decision isn't sufficiently addressed.  She feels so much contempt for her boyfriend, her boss, her co-workers, and her therapist, that I suppose she doesn't have enough contempt left for herself, but she really ought to have saved some up.  Annie is painted as pretty enough, smart enough, and nice enough, but by the end I was left slightly bewildered that Hornby thought she was interesting enough to carry an entire novel.

Hornby's shown us in A Long Way Down that he's more than capable of giving all of his characters a sympathetic voice.  But in Juliet Naked, while Duncan is occasionally given his own narrative, Hornby seems to be deliberately preventing him from connecting with the reader, and in doing so, he not only removes a potential layer from the novel, he stabs his fellow music fans in the back.  Are we meant to understand that obsessive music fans are completely unsympathetic and that Annie has been victimised by someone else's inertia rather than her by her own?  The novel might have had a bit more bite if Duncan had come to similar dilema about wasting his life, rather than just Annie.  Instead he remains clueless and cartoonish, and I think Hornby misses a trick in keeping him distant.

The most sympathetic character is probably Tucker, despite having spent decades doing nothing in particular with his life, and having neglected all of his children except his youngest son, Jackson.  Tucker's children are fine, each with a wealthy and attentive stepfather who makes up for Tucker's neglect, so his bad fathering doesn't really make the reader like him less (and the only child who seems to mind is annoying as hell).  If Hornby can do anything, he can create flawed, rogueish, but likeable male characters.

The central idea, how to handle realising you've wasted years and years of your life through mere inaction, should be stronger than it is.  Hornby often tackles inertia, stagnation, lack of commitment, and lack of satisfaction with life, and usually tackles these problems thoroughly and thoughtfully, but somehow this central theme never seems to come alive in Juliet.  Quite frankly, this idea should have been an easy sell to anyone facing today's employment market, but I still didn't find the theme that compelling, maybe because the problems that Tucker and Annie face are a little too specific: while Tucker's sudden reclusiveness is well explained, most of us don't know what being a reclusive, inactive but celebrated musician feels like.  As for Annie's problems?  Well, honestly, if you want babies, there are plenty of them around for the taking.  If you hate your town, move, and if you find your boyfriend boring and inactive, get a new one.  We aren't given a sufficient explanation for Annie's inability to change her life, and Hornby doesn't linger in any kind of emotional dilemna long enough to tease out it's relevance to us.

Fortunately, we do still get flashes of Hornby's talent. For instance, Annie's problems are  treated with much more interest when she visits her maddenly old-fashioned and judgmental therapist, Malcolm.  The following exchange between Annie and Malcolm is a moment of Hornby's ability to combine depression and emotional dilemna with playfullness and wit:
[Malcolm] '"Well, lots of people I know have an unhappy or frustrating marriage.  Or a boring one....They put with it...."
[Annie]"....I don't want to be quite content with my unhappy, boring, frustrating marriage.  I want more...."
"Well," he said.  "I'm not sure that's it....You said you don't want to be quite content."
"Yes.  With A Rubbish Life...."
"But people who are quite content don't have a rubbish life," he said.
Annie opened her mouth, ready to fire off the dismissive one-liner that always came to her whenver Malcolm offered any kind of observation, but to her surprise, there was nothing there.  Her mouth was empty.  Could he be right?  Did the contentment count more than the life?"
If more moments like these existed in therapy, psychiatrists would be out of a job, but Annie's therapy sessions are some of the most entertaining and insightful in the book.

Ultimately, Annie is too annoyed with everyone else in her life, and not annoyed enough with herself.  Self-loathing has always been an integral part of Hornby, and we're missing that sentiment here.  I'm sure that a recovery from Slam is in Hornby's future, but recovery hasn't come in the form of Juliet, Naked and it's milquetoast heroine.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Golden Notebook

A few weeks ago I finally finished the novel I'd been slowly moving through for months, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.  The novel follows Anna Wulf, a one-time best-selling novelist, semi-committed communist, divorcee, and single mother living in London in the 1950s.  In an attempt to prevent herself from slipping into mental and emotional chaos, she divides her writing into 5 different journals: a black notebook for her creative life, a red book for her political life (get it?  Red!  She's a communist!), a yellow book for her emotional life, a blue book for her day to day life, and eventually a redemptive golden notebook (hey, that's the title of the book!)  Through Anna's eyes we see the fall of the communist ideology in the West during Stalin's reign, and the moral ambiguity that formerly ideological socialists undergo when they realise that the implementation of communism does not match their idealism.  We also witness a time of slow change for the marital state and women's position in society.

The novel is 576 pages of tiny print, and with no dominant plot-line, it moves very slowly.  Not a book for literary lightweights.  The narrative is meandering and incredibly dense, which might not sound like a good thing, but fortunately the narrative is delightfully meandering and dense.  Initially, I found my attention wandering to other books as I questioned the relevance of the novel, and was slightly put off by the choppy format.  What eventually hooked me in was Lessing's detailed, complex, and vivid character sketches.  Let's be honest, wonderful and compelling characters are very common in children's literature, but become rarities in adult literature.  Lessing broke through my lack of expectations with beautifully drawn secondary characters, but most importantly with the complicated, shrewd, and intensely relatable, Anna Wulf.  Anna's wit, intelligence, and insight lead you through the novel when the narrative slows down.  A million little clever insights run through Anna's narrative and make it impossible to breeze through the lengthy novel; each one deserves focus and thought.

This book is a writer's book.  The format is comprised of five different journals and a short novella, chopped up and alternated throughout the text, making the novel a narratological academic's dream.  The book is as much about writing as it is about psychology, feminism, and political commitment.  It's the kind of book that makes you want to put pen to paper.

The Golden Notebook is very much of it's time: we watch the reaction in the communist party to Stalin's death, and pity Anna and her single friend for being branded loose women simply because they are not married (they are a bit loose, but that's not the point). But there is plenty in the novel modern readers will find relatable, from Anna's struggle to commit to a political cause and her weary attempts to balance political idealism and realism, to her attempt to distance her own self-perception from the misogynist, Madonna/whore perceptions of her held by the men she sleeps with. 

The only real part of the novel I felt distanced from was the ending, involving a disturbing sexual partner and Anna's further descent into madness.  I felt less connected to Anna in this section; as she loses herself in her partner, she lost a bit of her relatability.

However, there are not many 576-page long novels that you don't want to end.  I spent a long time meandering in Anna's mind, and I would have happily meandered longer.