It begins with a dank, grimy toilet. Well, a camera and a toilet. And of the two people standing beside the stained porcelain, only one of them wants to be there. The woman taking the photograph -- she definitely does not. But she's doing it for the man who is pretending to urinate in the bowl where, allegedly, a cosmic rock and roll event took place twenty-two years earlier.
For the man, this rank lavatory is tantamount to most tourists' mythic notions of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building or the Grand Canyon. Duncan did not come to America for the aforementioned sites; he has come only to visit those that are relevant to the life of the 1980s rock-star-turned-recluse, Tucker Crowe. Such locales include recording studios; a childhood home; an ex-girlfriend-cum-muse's driveway; and this grotty restroom in the Pits Club, Minneapolis.
His latest novel, Juliet, Naked, is another confirmation that Nick Hornby writes misery well -- particularly oblivious misery (think Will Freeman in About A Boy).
Duncan is miserable, though he doesn't realize he is. He avoids it in his Tucker Crowe fixation. Annie, his girlfriend, is also miserable. She is acutely aware of it. She's childless and bored, and doesn't even really like Duncan, despite having spent the last 15 years with him.
Then there's Tucker Crowe. He's miserable too. Although his six-year old son, Jackson, goes some way to curbing the feelings of deficiency and despair that have come from two decades of not being able to produce an album, let alone one song after the release of his critically acclaimed record, "Juliet", in the late 1980s. There's also his four failed marriages, and five illegitimate children. He has one friend. He's called Fucker.
Nonetheless, despite having gone Howard Hughes for over 20 years, and in fact, kind of because of it, a group of obsessive fans -- self-dubbed Crowologists -- have managed to find each other on the internet, allowing this washed up musician to be rabidly dissected, every day, by a pathetic virtual assemblage. Duncan is their leader, or thinks he is. So when Annie uploads a review of "Juliet, Naked," Tucker's first release in over two decades, which contests Duncan's own critique, their relationship implodes. Duncan realizes his misery. Annie's desperation is heightened. And Tucker's silence is broken; in response to her analysis, Tucker emails Annie.
In Juliet, Naked, music is a central character, as important as the men and women who it brings together and breaks apart. This is no surprise coming from Hornby, for whom music is fundamental; "a kind of fuel," he says. His most well-known incarnation of this creed, High Fidelity -- a comic salute to record store nation and its quirky inhabitants. In this latest offering Hornby goes a little further, examining the relationship between artist and product; artist and fan; and both in the wake of the digital media revolution.
"One of the things I wanted to write about is art and how much it means to people, and the artist's relationship with his own work and his audience," Hornby says over the telephone. "And it's not necessarily just about music; [Juliet] could be could have been about writing too."
The English author has just completed a grueling two-week tour in which he simultaneously promoted his new book, as well the Sundance multi-award-winner, An Education, which he screen-wrote. In his film review for the New Yorker, David Denby said Hornby's "dialogue is sharply etched," and the film's stars, Peter Sarsgaard and newbie, Carey Mulligan, have garnered impressive reviews.
"[The film] is more and better than what I had in my head," Hornby says. "The director could imagine and see things I couldn't. And the cast is just sensational; every single performance is brilliant. They find material in lines that I hadn't noticed while writing."
When he answers the phone for our interview, Hornby is in L.A, watching the tail-end of a baseball game. He appreciates the sport, but the love of his life is undoubtedly soccer, and more specifically, Arsenal Football Club. This obsession paid off; his memoir on fandom, Fever Pitch, launched his career ("I was a ten-year overnight success," he quips) in 1992. The book was adapted into not one, but two films. His other much-loved novels, About A Boy and High Fidelity, were also adapted for the big screen, and Johnny Depp has bought the film rights to his 2005 dark comedy, A Long Way Down.
"The one thing that's different in the film is that the actors are better looking than the rest of us," Hornby says drolly. "They can never look like the characters you create in fiction."
Hornby's work has been so successful at the box office, that now, long before he finishes his latest travail, movie-makers clamor to plan the cinematic adaptation. Juliet, Naked is no different. During this two-week stay, he has met with many interested parties; "I haven't sold it... yet," he says.
I have no doubt that Juliet will be made into a film. It's full of time-honored Hornby misfits: sad, bewitching and always entertaining -- characters that seem born to flit from paper to the silver screen. Duncan is too pathetic; Annie is too deadpan; Tucker is too broodily good-looking (in my imagination at least); and sideline characters, like Annie's tragic shrink, Malcolm, and Tucker's embittered love-child, Lizzie, are too hilarious to be left theatrically unrealized.
As for the meta aspect of the novel -- the internet and its relationship to art, art makers and art devourers, Hornby is unresolved.
"I think it's quite an exciting time, if you're a consumer," he says. "You have a little box on your desk that contains every piece of recorded music ever made; you can find things you didn't know existed. But no-one has figured out yet how the artist is going to get paid."
In his own line of work, Hornby's royalty statements are yet to be affected, which he attributes to his readers having a strong relationship with the printed page. "But we're breeding kids who are reading things on screen," he acknowledges. "I can't do it myself. I can read a short newspaper piece, but not a whole novel."
Recently, he was frightened to read about the imminent arrival of the "vook," a new e-reader that will make the Kindle look like parchment.
"Half video and half book... That, to me, seems like a repulsive idea," Hornby says. "You're leading people to a post-literate society; you can see a society where we eventually don't bother with the written word at all... That's pretty depressing."
However, he grants that what matters most are the words themselves, and his children give him hope. "My little one is frighteningly adept with a computer," he says. "But they're still literate!"
Our conversation is brought to close when Hornby has to decamp to a final U.S appointment before he flies to Europe for the next grueling leg of his film/book PR tour; he's off to meet a party interested in turning Juliet into a film.
Despite writing more than a handful of best-sellers, which can now be consumed via paper, film, fiber optic cable or mp3 player, Hornby says the book-writing process doesn't get any faster or easier: "The only thing I've learned, is that I will probably finish it."