Category Archives: Millennial Literature

Natural Disasters, Graphic Novels, Blogs, Bio-Comics!

“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” is a graphic novel that demonstrates the underlying theory that made Art Speigelman’s “Maus” so haunting, memorable, and successful. In our current culture, saturated by televised images of destruction, we sometimes need to see major tragedies and disasters in a completely stylized way in order to avoid becoming desensitized. With “Maus,” Speigelman used cartoon animals to re-enact the Holocaust, and the effect was disturbing and sobering: mice slammed against the wall until their heads exploded by Nazi cats. It was as if our most innocent mediums were no longer safe.

Josh Neufeld might not have been attempting something so bold as “Maus,” but this series of graphic narratives (I use the term “narratives” because it is composed of seven nonfiction biographical tales, so while the term “graphic novel” is used for all book-length comics, this definitely isn’t a fictional novel) definitely helps us to see Hurricane Katrina in a new light.Yes, we’ve seen the CNN footage. Yes, we see Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Yes, we are outraged. Yes, we feel for the inhabitants of New Orleans. But somehow these comics heighten that feeling by forcing us to confront fresh and different images. The storm is more malevolent, more of a physical manifestation when hand-drawn. The destruction more surreal, as if–when it occurs in the comic format–it is striking New Orleans a second time.

Neufeld’s work is significant for another reason, too, this one not just aesthetic. “A.D.” represents two interesting trends: first, Neufeld used highly journalistic techniques to piece together the story, interviewing real survivors and writing their stories, a practice seen in disaster movies and documentaries, but not (necessarily) a practice I’ve seen in comics and graphic novels. And second, he published this as a blog, first and foremost, and then collected it into the graphic novel. In short, this is a book that is highly representative not just of our times and of the major event framing our times, but also of the many different mediums that we currently use to communicate and to publish; it’s nonfiction, and it’s journalism, and it’s an artistic representation/reaction to a real event, and it’s comics, and it’s a blog, and it’s a book…Neufeld certainly covers his bases, here.

“Housekeeping vs. The Dirt”: Reader’s Guilt

Hornby’s introductory essay for “Housekeeping vs. The Dirt” should be required reading for anyone who experiences any conflict in his/her reading life, and for any student or teacher of English/Literature. In the academic world, we are constantly made to feel bad if we don’t read a certain amount each month, if we haven’t read certain key books in the canon, if we spend more time with television or film or video games than we do with text, if we support one genre over the next, if (in short) we don’t make ourselves absolutely miserable for the sake of being “well-read.” We must speak of non-literary work as “guilty pleasures,” as if we’re not allowed to enjoy what we enjoy. Hornby’s essay succinctly defuses this argument, and it becomes a running theme throughout each of his personal essays throughout the book: “Housekeeping” is the name of a highly literary novel, a true treasure and a piece of art, and “The Dirt” is the name of a disgusting and dirty biography of Motley Crue, a book that no one could confuse as artwork. Is it possible to enjoy both? Can one find a balance in their reading lives between the artistic and that which is simply enjoyable? Can each enrich one’s life in a different way, or is literature the only type of text capable of enrichment?

Hornby is always engaging, always entertaining, and always brings an average-man mentality to his work. Maybe a pretentious academic wouldn’t buy into his argument, but the majority of readers (those who appreciate art, but don’t think that sophistication should be the only thing to define their lives) can easily connect and relate.

This isn’t a new argument, either, not necessarily, but never before has the line between “housekeeping” and “the dirt” been so blurred, with authors such as Michael Chabon deliberately writing so-called “genre novels” as follow-ups to Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. With weekly television shows (“The Wire,” “The Sopranos”) and graphic novels recognized as literature. With Stephen King (formerly relegated to the depths of “genre writer” only) editing “The Best American Short Stories.” It might not be a brand-new argument, but it is an argument distinctively of our time, when more and more people are reading and writing than ever before, and when it becomes difficult to tell a 19-year-old who reads The Wall Street Journal online every morning, then writes a blog about how the economic collapse has affected his hopes for a future career, that this type of reading and writing is not good enough.

Hornby is the right writer for this argument because he feels like one of us, and his essays–though mostly just conventional text–are also daring at times, rife with self-deprecation, and not afraid to use charts and other font sizes…it’s witty without being too proud of its own cleverness. This is indeed a book for a generation who realizes that our time is allowed to be split between dozens of different mediums, and who realizes that–just like the line between “Housekeeping” and “The Dirt”–the line between the elements composing those mediums (art, text, illustration, video) are blurring into a world where anything is possible in literature.

Mixed-Media Fiction: Sink or Swim?

“The Raw Shark Texts” is an interesting concept that never really rises above “interesting concept.” It’s a breezy read, moves very quickly and sometimes develops real suspense, and the plot is well thought-out, but it still feels superficial by the very end. Perhaps this is because the characters feel as if they could have been plucked from any novel/movie about twenty-somethings, or perhaps this is because the majority of the text is told through dialogue and seems to ignore the truly complex interiority  that it could have explored…but either way, this feels like Bud Lite. It’ll get you through the night, but it’s never going to rise above and really challenge you.

The concept, as I said, is interesting: there exists beneath the “real world” a whole other plain of existence, perhaps another dimension (though–since this book lacks much interiority and real development–we are never sure of the real facts, just the character’s observations), and in this plain of existence, there are seas and seas of creatures who feed on thoughts and memories and ideas. Most often, our dimensions never really meet, but occasionally, when someone falls into heavy thought and abstract conceptualizing…the fish are drawn to that person’s mind, and the sharks begin feeding until the person becomes a hollowed-out shell of their former self. Really crazy stuff, right? Hall has developed a nice little mythology for his novel.

And I think the overall book serves as an interesting commentary on our times, on the youth generation. We have finally entered an age where we believe we can document everything that happens in our lives: we can take thousands of digital pictures, we can write daily status updates, we can (as I am currently doing) write reviews of each book or movie or album we digest, we can blog our thoughts…We feel lost when we haven’t documented our lives. We fear a life adrift, where we cannot easily load our computers and search through all of the pictures we’ve taken over the past year. What would we do if we lost all of this? What would we do if something had feasted upon our digital selves, erased all of those memories? No matter the danger and cost, of course, we’d try to relocate our selves, which is exactly the mission of Eric Sanderson, the novel’s narrator.

In theory, it’s all very relevant, and very brilliant. It even incorporates innovative fonts, images, and a full flip-book of a shark attack. Very Millennial Generation.

But ultimately, it fails for the same reason that “House of Leaves” failed. It doesn’t really know where it’s going. The end of “Raw Shark Texts” seems to imply that the narrator has been crazy all along, and that he’s imagined all of this happening, which is a real shame and a real cop-out. “House of Leaves” failed because it decided to deliberately confuse and obscure the narrative at the end (likely because Danielewski was himself lost), and “Raw Shark Texts” does the same. Where do we take this story, he must have asked. How do I wrap it up in a way that services both the character, and the commentary I’m writing? When a book tries to serve both character and commentary, all is sacrificed because the character becomes a puppet.

Hall had a chance to truly do something special, here. But in the end, while this is fresh and often compelling, it just turns out to be an interesting little novel, and that’s sad because it could have been much more.

Middle-Class Guilt and “The Blind Side”

When I first saw the trailers for “The Blind Side,” I thought it was a joke. Sandra Bullock as a rich white lady who helps an under-privileged gigantic black boy to become a successful football player? After I realized it was serious, it just seemed like it would be a blatantly offensive story. Never mind that it’s true…but do we really need a movie about generous white people helping poor black folk to achieve all that they can? I mean, really…perhaps there should be a movie made about my generous donation to Haiti relief?

But I finally saw “The Blind Side” recently, not necessarily because I was waiting patiently for its DVD release, but instead because my wife has a woman-crush on Sandra Bullock, so it was time to test the theory: was this movie actually offensive and patronizing, or was it just a good story that a few filmmakers thought would make a good and emotional film? I’m actually happy to report that it wasn’t offensive, not really. And–because it’s true–it actually was a pretty good story. If “The Blind Side” was fiction, and the entire movie stayed exactly the same, the opposite would have been true: the choice of a white benefactor helping a black boy who couldn’t help himself would have pulsed with racist subtext. As a true story, it’s not offensive because the characters and the plot are not manufactured choices of a storyteller.

“The Blind Side,” in fact, represents a trend in literature that has been building and building over the last couple decades, and now seems to surface mostly in book clubs and award-season films: middle-class guilt. There is a motherly tone that drips from this film, and that drips from a large number of memoirs and novels that line the front tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble, a tone that can best be expressed by this line: “Oh my God! Look at what this person (whether he/she is from an under-developed nation, or a poor background, or the inner-city slums, etc.) has had to go through! I feel like I’ve just been educated about something awful, and during that educational experience I felt incredibly guilty, but now I feel a little bit better about my fortunate middle-class existence because I made the choice to watch that film or read that book instead of watching something more frivolous, like Jersey Shore.”

The characters in “The Blind Side” suffer from middle-class (actually, upper-class, but it’s Memphis, so…whatever) guilt, and this guilt drives the story. But more importantly, the viewer is made to feel this guilt, too, as we are saddened by the circumstances of young Michael. By the end, we are given a happy conclusion and the guilt lifts, and we feel better for having endured the tough circumstances, even though we’ve only watched a movie…we haven’t done volunteer work in the inner city or given money or done anything productive, really. We’ve just said, “Oh my God! Look at what this person…” Etc.

Does that make “The Blind Side” a bad movie, or does that make viewers evil? No. The trend of “middle-class guilt” does show that the filmmakers and the viewers are generous with their emotions, empathetic, caring. But the trend itself is a bit like clicking “like” on a dozen different charity pages on facebook; it educates, perhaps, but in many cases, it doesn’t really do much else unless the consumer is willing to take real action afterward. And often, in our current globalized and facebooked culture, we’re bombarded by so many online charities that we wind up supporting very few. We’re overwhelmed by choice. Same goes for “middle-class guilt” literature. There’s a whole lot of social and international problems posed by such literature, and in the end, we wind up overwhelmed by options and doing very little except patting ourselves on the back for watching/reading, and waiting for another opportunity to do it all over again.

Shopaholic: The Rise of the Chick Flick

I once read a Roger Ebert in which he made an interesting distinction between a “family movie” and a “children’s movie,” arguing that some films are great because they *do not* attempt to cater to an entire family, but instead speak solely to the children. Some family movies, he said, get so caught up in trying to produce sight gags and in-jokes for parents that they completely forget about the kids. On the flip side, some “children’s movies” are so geared toward children that the are downright unwatchable for adults.

To these definitions, I also add a distinction between “romantic comedy” and “chick flick.” There are some films that seem to be made for couples; there’s a strong male lead (Steve Carrell in “Date Night,” for instance, or Will Smith in “Hutch”), jokes that appeal to both genders, an awareness that men are in the theater and that we don’t want to squirm too much. “Sex and the City” (the series) actually has quite a few episodes that fall under this category, focusing enough on the male mind/ego that we don’t mind listening to Carrie talk about shoes the rest of the time. But “Sex and the City” also has quite a few episodes where the sole focus is the shoes, where it’s all girls everywhere, pink and purple, Cosmos and martinis and screaming screaming girls, and–as a man–I can only watch this sort of thing with headphones on. This is a “chick flick,” not a “romantic comedy.” I am not the audience, not even remotely.

“Confessions of a Shopaholic” is a “chick flick.” It is a movie created solely for females, preferably large groups of females. The male characters are interchangeable, cardboard cut-outs, and the women seem to make all of the interesting decisions and remarks and jokes. There wasn’t a single moment in “Shopaholic” where I actually felt comfortable watching. Thus, I can only defer to my wife’s opinion on this thing and say, “She liked it.”

It’s important to note, though, that “Sex and the City” seemed to make the modern “chick flick” a possibility. There are tons of these types of movies now, films that cater to a female audience without ever pausing to look at or speak to the men in the audience. And while I don’t (and shouldn’t) enjoy this type of movie, I think their existence and their frequency are a much better indication of “gender progress” than a thousand female-empowerment movies/shows like “Catwoman” or “Dangerous Minds” or “Commander in Chief,” which just seem desperate and obvious in their social statements. There’s a huge female audience out there willing to spend a lot of cash to watch independent female characters; we don’t need the women to be presidents or superheroes. We just need them to be strong protagonists.

I don’t know if “Confessions of a Shopaholic” succeeded in any real way, here, but I do think that this represents a trend in Millennial Literature: chick flick as distinct from romantic comedy. Whether it will ultimately prove to be a profitable decision in the long-run…?

“Iron Man” as 9/11 Literature

I originally wrote this quick review on the night that I saw “Iron Man” (way back in 2008), but I figure I’ll see the sequel soon, so we’ll see if some theories on 9/11 Literature are furthered…

What’s great and interesting about “Iron Man” is that it marks a cultural turning point. We’ve snapped. For the last seven years, post 9/11, we’ve been creating action movies that are all about patriotism (Spider-Man), conquering adversity (World Trade Center), and nabbing terrorists as they sneak around the United States (name your film). We’ve also been flooded with movies that represent “Pure Good” vs. “Pure Evil,” most of them fantasy movies that serve as wishful thinking metaphors for our ongoing War on Terror (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia). But until “Iron Man,” we’ve never made a movie that flat-out says, “Let’s just go kill a bunch of terrorists in their own country!” Sure, we’ve had a lot of Iraq-Afghanistan movies, but most of them have been super-political, and based completely in our real world (“Lions For Lambs,” “Stop-Loss,” “Over There,” etc.).

“Iron Man,” though, is like an American fantasy. A single guy, rich beyond belief, creates the ultimate weapon, and just flies over to Afghanistan and blows the shit out of some terrorists. No danger to the U.S. No negotiations. No innocents killed. In a cultural climate where our own Iraq war is stalemated, where gas prices are rising and recession is beginning, we’ve simply snapped, and we want to believe that all can be better, and the evil-doers will pay, and it can happen quickly, easily, all to a hard rock soundtrack.

I got no problem with this fantasy. Just like “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man” is the right superhero for the moment, and it’s a very cathartic experience to view while you’re frustrated and pissed off with the economy and the state of world affairs.


Adam Mansbach’s “Angry Black White Boy” has been billed as “the first great race novel of the twenty-first century,” and maybe it is. In fact, this novel–the story of a privileged white kid named Macon Detornay, who becomes disgusted with his own white heritage and decides to brand himself a “race traitor” and advocate for mass apologies to African Americans–seems to be a perfect representation of all the strange contradictions of Obama’s so-called “Post-Racial America.”

More on that in a moment.

First, I want to comment on Mansbach’s prose quality, and on the narrative itself. “Angry Black White Boy” seems to pulse with the energy of hip-hop, and it takes only a few pages before you almost start nodding your head to the rhythm of the words. I won’t claim to be a scholar of hip-hop literature, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book which more perfectly captures the cadence and vocabulary of Hip-Hop (and no, I’m not talking about the dialect of “Black America,” but instead the culture and attitude of the music itself). I’ve read novels which seem to exude the spirit of rock music (“Hairstyles of the Damned,” “High Fidelity”) and new wave music (“The Informers”), but never a novel that really feels like hip-hop on the page. “Angry Black White Boy” is, from a prose quality standpoint alone, a remarkable achievement.

The narrative, though, is a bit rockier in quality. The novel begins slowly, allowing us to truly become immersed in the character of Macon Detornay, to see his goals, to see his daily tasks, to see how his mind works, but at perhaps the one-third marker, the book takes a strange turn: Macon is arrested, then winds up on TV, then becomes a sort of black-white prophet, calling for a “Day of Apology” and starting a “Race Traitor Project,” and then there are massive riots, etc.  Essentially, this novel becomes more interested in the highly satirical plot elements (the riots, especially) than in the characters; even though it remains well-written until the very last word, the characters take a backseat to the general craziness that Mansbach has imagined (much in the same way that many summer action films allow their CGI effects to overtake the actors). The novel never fails to engage us, and we’re always interested in what comes next, but we stop caring about the characters after page 150 because…well…quite simply, the author seems to stop caring about them, seems to stop treating them like flesh-and-blood people, seems to see them more as human props amidst the special effects. By the end of the novel, when Mansbach tries to zoom back in on Macony Detornay and his (by now) wildly inconsistently characterized friend ‘Nique, I barely understand the motivations of either character; it’s a disorienting pan-in and pan-out technique that Mansbach has employed, and his frequent use of point-of-view shifts doesn’t necessarily help our emotional detachment.

In short…fun to read? Yes. Highly flawed in character and plot? Without a doubt.

But about that “Post-Racial America” comment I made above…this is interesting stuff. “Angry Black White Boy” presents the irony that the moment of true reconciliation between races will actually lead to greater chasms between races. Reconciliation will always be approached with some motive in mind, whether that motive is guilt (“I’m so sorry for all that we’ve done to you”) or commodification (“I support rap music…because it’s profitable.”), and forgiveness will always be a choice. Some will offer it, and some will refuse it, and some will even retaliate against it. If we say we live in a Post-Racial America, that means we’ve likely avoided reconciliation because we know that reconciliation can cause conflict. It’s as if we’ve constructed a bridge by taking some engineering shortcuts…and sooner or later, those shortcuts will lead to the demise of the bridge anyway.

“Angry Black White Boy” is about five years old by now, and was published long before Obama’s “Post-Racial America” speeches. The book seems to illustrate our unique Millennial ability to willingly ignore problems that do not feel immediate, and the disastrous consequences of actually confronting those problems head-on.

I’ve written a great deal about how the true “Great Millennial Novel” will show us characters who are striving toward some unifying noble purpose (a la the “Greatest Generation” and World War II, and the Baby Boomers and the Social Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s), and “Angry Black White Boy” gives us one imagined purpose: racial reconciliation. Do I think that this will be the cause to unite the Millennial Generation? Probably not (especially considering the collective pat-on-the-back that Millennials have given themselves for getting a black man elected to the presidency). And anyway, the horrifying effects of Macon Detornay’s pursuit of his purpose likely won’t win him any followers in Post-Racial America.

Here’s a quick link to Mansbach’s author site.

The Great Millennial Novel?

Finally, I think we have a book worthy of being called the first “Millennial Generation Novel.” Finally!

“Attention. Deficit. Disorder.” initially struck me as a gimmicky book, meant to capitalize on the popular Dave Eggers style of mixed-media, mixed-form, mixed-genre fiction. The sentences are short, choppy, and there are constant interruptions, introducing dictionary definitions and strange historical tangents. The author, Brad Listi, is obviously trying to re-create the experience of information overload, but the first few chapters just seemed so obvious. Why did we need 350 pages more, then? And would this novel wind up using the form for a real function, or was it–as I said–just a gimmick?

My thoughts changed several times as I was reading (which is an interesting statement, itself). Sometimes I felt as if the form lent perfectly to the character, as he attempted to figure out his life and was distracted at the point of every meaningful realization (perfect!). But sometimes I just felt as if the author was over-indulging in the interesting form that he had created.

Listi, though, manages to wrap this novel up perfectly. The characters and ideas all come together to finally give us (yes) a meaningful overall resolution, without forcing the character into tying up all loose ends in his life. Just as some decent movies are devalued by their sequels, I think that the conclusion to Listi’s novel strengthens all that came before it. In other words, the jury is still out until the final few pages, but it is a testament to the writer that he maintains the form consistently, and that there is a payoff to the information overload form (thus justifying the form itself, and rendering moot any question over “gimmicks”).

And this is the reason that this book is the first novel to honestly portray the youth generation of America, those ages 15-25 or so, the Millennial Generation. Dave Eggers, I think, offered us one of the best depictions of Generation X life with his “Heartbreaking Work,” but his “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” was a boring and stale attempt to do the same thing for a slightly younger age bracket. Every young writer, I think, dreams of writing an “On the Road” for his/her generation, and Eggers was no exception…except that his version stunk. Listi gives it a go, also, but actually manages to capture the intelligence and the restless energy of Millennials without condescending to them at all.

The Millennial Generation is one that, I think, everyone in the mainstream media is struggling to characterize (if for no other reason than marketing purposes), but few are actually trying to empathize with. Just because they’re privileged and entitled does not mean that they do not have real human issues…the glut of resources and options available to them has become frightening, crippling, and sometimes even the most basic decisions are impossible for them. “Attention. Deficit. Disorder.” is the first book to actually capture this condition, not to simply scoff at it or to be amused by it.

“House of Leaves”: Mixed-Media Fiction or Gimmick Fiction?

“House of Leaves” falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category of literature, a book all at once intriguing and inventive and mind-blowingly creative…and also gimmicky, needlessly difficult, frustrating, and self-indulgent. It is a book that defies easy genre categorization (just call it “fiction,” and more specifically, “mixed-media/ post-modern fiction,” and don’t try to further label it), but also defies easy critical review.

Here’s the basic idea: Danielewski gives us–at the core of the book–an academic study called “The Navidson Record,” written by a strange and now-dead loner named Zampano, about another man’s experiences (and his documentary film) living in a haunted house. Already, at its most basic, the book is two narratives in one: Zampano’s and Navidson’s. And the academic study is heavily footnoted, providing hundreds of other academic perspectives on the Navidson narrative. So the central story becomes a satire of academia, as well as a meditation on narrative and story structure in the age of mixed-media. Brilliant, right?

But then we have an added sphere of narration. Someone has found this academic study, and has interspersed it with a story of his own, how it has affected his life, etc. Simultaneously, then, we have up to four stories happening on a single page, all at once (Navidson, Zampano, Random Scholars, and Narrator). And sometimes even a fifth: the unnamed editors who have taken this entire collection of material, and have published it as a book called “House of Leave.” And it is here that the book loses its effectiveness, I think. While Navidson’s and Zampano’s stories both resonate, and while the scholars are simply a tool for satire or further depth, the narrator (Johnny Truant is his name) simply isn’t interesting. He writes in abstractions, going on for pages and pages about darkness in his soul, horror in the world, etc., etc., giving five-page footnotes so focused on creating a dark and creepy tone that they wind up sounding as cliched and meaningless as a “Hellraiser” monologue. One of the most basic tenets of good creative writing is “show, don’t tell,” and the Johnny Truant narrative fails miserably in this regard. It’s all adjectives, emotions, and abstractions. It detracts from, rather than enhances, the story.

There’s a whole lot more going on throughout this novel, too, of course, so my over-simplification of the book’s structure is…well…simply an unsatisfying discussion of “House of Leaves.” This is also a book that plays with typefaces, fonts, and even the placement of text (we have text in the margins, text swirling in circles, text that leads us on elaborate “wild goose chases,” text that is crossed out, text on top of text); Danielewski is offering us a reading experience that we’ll never have again, in other words, and many of his choices are brilliant, form serving function, much like a breathless progressive verse poem. Some choices, though (a series of letters from Mother to son; the inclusion of an index; the inclusion of appendices) simply feel like gimmicks, unnecessary mixed-media additions designed (through their very strange-ness) to gain mainstream attention rather than actually building upon the narrative at all. They’re no different than a hologram cover, or a pair of 3D glasses packaged with the text. Danielewski, in other words, got carried away.

“House of Leaves,” in the end, is best remembered for the fantastic story at its core, for the satirical look at modern scholarship, and for the inventive use of text and mixed-media…but one cannot simply deem the book an “instant classic,” or “seminal” (though we might regard it as such with some perspective). It fails as often as it succeeds, mostly because of the author’s excesses. Sometimes, the very best works are a combination of remarkable energy, and remarkable restraint. Think about it this way: would you have watched Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy if each film had been 12 hours long (and they very well could have been). The best writers know when to stop, when to edit, when to cut. They know when to omit bad ideas. Sometimes, not every throw strikes the bull’s eye, but the best and most enduring writers know when to pluck the errant darts from the wall.

Hornby’s “Juliet, Naked,” Message Boards, and Wikipedia Pages

I was recently able to finish reading Nick Hornby’s “Juliet, Naked,” an excellent little novel about music nerds and aging rock stars and women who feel they are past their prime. Great book, highly enjoyable, but also very interesting for how Hornby approaches some of the Millennial concepts/ concerns that I detail on this blog.

Quick recap: Here, Hornby again tackles the dual perspective novel, though with “Juliet, Naked,” he isn’t quite so ambitious as the four-narrator “A Long Way Down,” this time choosing to focus on just Annie (discontented and aging woman caught in a mediocre relationship) and Tucker (once-famous rock star, now living in obscurity). And although I thought “A Long Way Down” was a fine novel, I’m much happier with “Juliet, Naked” overall. This is Hornby writing about music, and–with the possible exception of sports–there’s nothing I’d rather see him write about.

The characters are drawn with the same confessional pen as Hornby’s other protagonists, and there is–as always–equal parts humor and heartbreak. And it’s sharp and emotionally affecting because it’s so honest: sometimes, just hearing Annie or Tucker speak is enough to cut your soul.

The most lasting aspect of the novel, though, was in its critique of the online message-boarding communities, clusters of super-fans worldwide who–now, in the internet-connected digital age–discuss ad nauseum and with cultish vigor their favorite celebrity or subject, focusing so intently on an individual’s life and sharing information and commentary with such fervor that you might think these message-boarders were instead magazine editors and writers. Hornby is honest with these characters, and though it sometimes feels as if he is lampooning them, he does treat them fairly, letting their actions becomes his critique and never intruding too heavily with his own voice.

This is an important aspect of the book, though: a focus on how the internet has changed the way we communicate, has changed the way we form and maintain friendships. Though Hornby is not the first (nor will he be the last) to explore the message board communities, his novel offers one particular example of how the comment boards can influence lives/

“Juliet, Naked” is also an interesting read for its use of Wikipedia pages, something entirely unexpected (Hornby isn’t a big “mixed-media” writer, and I don’t know that I’ve seen much real extra-textual experimentation from him). Here, we also seem to have a sort of critique on our current culture, as the pages themselves are likely the product of a supporting character, Annie’s old boyfriend Duncan, one of the message-boarders. Again, Hornby won’t be the last to explore Wikipedia’s influence over our lives, how it shapes our knowledge and is shaped by those who have some stake in the knowledge that it offers, but it’s an interesting inclusion nonetheless. And if you’ve ever read Hornby’s “Polysyllabic Spree” or “Housekeeping vs. The Dirt,” you know that he has a problem with “alternate history” novels, those books–like “The Plot Against America” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”–that sometimes allow the characters to speak at length about how different their world is than ours, which Hornby claims (for him) kills the illusion of the alternate reality, since the characters (if their voice were true) would not need to educate the audience about how different their world is than ours. Here, Hornby cleverly circumvents this “voice flaw” by allowing the Wikipedia pages (not the characters, who would assume their audience would know as much about Tucker Crowe as we might about Michael Jackson) inform us about Tucker Crowe’s rise to fame.