Ishiguro, Kazuo Entries

Dreams and madmen


Having loved all his other novels, I finally got around to reading Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and boy, was it strange and wonderful. I'd heard a vast array of opinions about this book, from "It is one of my top ten novels of all time" to "I loved it in a tense, uncomfortable way" to "it was an unmitigated train wreck." It's always intriguing to me when a book attracts such a wide variety of reactions, so I was looking forward to The Unconsoled for that reason. It also just so happens that I read Ishiguro in what you might call "increasing order of weirdness," and I had heard that this is indeed his weirdest book. There is something deeply satisfying about continuing my trajectory in this way, although at this point I doubt it's sustainable any longer - it would be quite a challenge to write a stranger book than this one.

Of course, many of its strange qualities have been explored before. The surreality, the language of dreams and nightmares in which the protagonist tries in vain to accomplish simple tasks, the sudden and confusing shifts in setting and perspective, the garbled rationale and bizarre priorities of the natives in a strangely familiar city: all of these elements have been combined and recombined to create the "Kafkaesque" genre. That said, this book does all of these things in a way that seems more tense and fluid than many other dreamlike stories I've read. Ishiguro really captures the shifting sands of perception that mark a dreamlike consciousness. At the same time, he manages to maintain cohesion within the narrative - just barely, at times, but he manages it. Sometimes the balance between the surreality and the sense of coherent character and voice, feels like a virtuosic juggling act that the performer is just barely pulling off; the audience is poised at the edge of their seats, transfixed at the intricate patterns traced by the juggled objects, and simultaneously nervous that they will, at any moment, come crashing down on the performer's head.

Appropriately, then, the main character of The Unconsoled IS a performer: Ryder, a famous English pianist revisiting a city which may or may not already be familiar to him, where he is supposed to give a performance which may or may not be very important in a variety of ways. One of the things I loved about this novel was the unique way that relationships slid in and out of focus; a few pages after seeking out the daughter of an acquaintance in a café, Ryder will gradually "remember" more and more details about her. Although it is at first implied that they have just met, they are soon having conversations that suggest a long history of mutual resentments and shared hopes, attacking and reassuring each other in a manner reminiscent of a (dysfunctional) long-term relationship. Ryder's own emotions and thought processes regarding the happiness and mental health of the woman's son, Boris, achieve a level of intensity more appropriate to a stepfather than a chance acquaintance, and Boris' own reactions to Ryder indicate a deep desire for approval reminiscent of a neglected child. At the same time, the closeness of Ryder's relationships with mother and child is never explicitly stated, and seems to wax and wane unpredictably throughout the novel.

In a similar vein, the life stories of different characters start to mirror and imitate one another in eerie and intriguing ways. Having been drawn into a conversation with the hotel porter, Gustav, about how Gustav has fallen into the habit of never speaking directly to his daughter, Ryder gradually adopts the same practice toward Boris, his sometime-son. Witnessing the fraught relationship between the hotel manager Hoffman and his son Stephan either suggests to or reminds Ryder of his own nebulous connection with his parents, who may or may not be arriving in the unnamed city to hear him play the piano for the first time in many years. The reader is never sure the extent to which the conversations and stories going on around Ryder create his perceived world, the extent to which he is extrapolating his own story outward onto those around him, and the extent to which a more complex dynamic is at work. The primal fears involved in many of these interactions (rejection by parents, arriving unprepared for important performances, the sudden realization that one's actions have been wildly inappropriate) add another level to the question of what Ryder is "half-creating" and what he perceives; there is a sense that we may be caught in an uncontrollable spiral, continually creating the worlds we dread through the very act of dreading them.

This sense of inappropriate behavior is a constant throughout The Unconsoled, and it runs the gamut from exhilarating to horrifying to surprisingly unexceptional. Nobody seems to notice, for example, when Ryder shows up to a fancy dress event in his dressing gown and slippers, and Ryder himself is strangely nonreactive when a journalist and photographer who are interviewing him commence talking about him as if her weren't present, planning how they will flatter and distract him into making unwise publicity decisions. On the other hand, he is horrified when the mourners at a funeral stop their sobbing to flock around him and deluge him with manic adulation, searching their pockets for refreshments to offer him and castigating themselves for having only a small piece of cellophane-wrapped cake. In one of my favorite scenes in the novel, Ryder and his wife-or-maybe-just-casual-acquaintance Sophie attend a late-night showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey - an alternate-universe version of the film involving interstellar gunfights between Yul Brenner and Clint Eastwood, who star as the astronauts who must dismantle HAL. The atmosphere in the theater is depicted as almost carnivalesque, with people laughing, talking, playing cards in the aisles, and, most bizarrely, rolling onto their backs with their legs in the air, shrieking with mirth, whenever anyone needs to inch by their seats. This is the flip-side to the terrifying or disconcerting abandonment of logical behavior in other sections - a giddy, liberating feeling which pervades the theater and lets the locals, as the hotel manager puts it, "unwind."

But the strangest narrative quirk of The Unconsoled is the way in which Ryder occasionally takes casual notice of a long, complicated back-story just by looking at a person, in the same way that he might notice a runny nose or a lipstick smudge. The first time this happens, as Gustav is showing him around his hotel room, I found the trick strangely disorienting, and actually doubled back to see whether I had missed a small phrase such as "I found out later" or "he would go on to tell me." But as I went on with the novel and similar incidents followed, it struck me as a very clever way to play with narrative. Readers are already familiar, after all, with narrators who notice small physical details about people they're observing, and even make assumptions or draw conclusions based on those observations. The next (il)logical step, in a novel of surreal perceptions taken to grotesque heights, is the ability to simply perceive another person's thoughts, feelings, past or present actions simply by looking at or thinking about them. So, for example, Ryder can take casual notice of Gustav's preoccupied air in the hotel room, and also casually notice that the porter is worried about his daughter, who has been handing off her son on certain days so that she can do errands, and then (Gustav has reason to believe) not doing the errands after all. Similarly, he can be waiting in the car with Boris while Stephan Hoffman runs an errand at a woman's apartment, and tell us how he watches Stephan climb the stairs and ring the bell, then recount his conversation with the woman as he enters the apartment and follows her down the hall, recounting the interior design as well as the conversation. Then, in case the reader is thinking that Ryder must have followed Stephen into the apartment after all, he writes that his attention was recalled by a noise made by Boris, and goes on to interact with the boy within the confines of the car. The liquidity of perception here is masterfully done, and once I cottoned on to this unique little trick, I quite enjoyed the experience of having the narrative stretch and balloon in unexpected and sometimes humorous directions.

Just as Ryder describes audiences reacting to the ultra-modern musical pieces performed in the novel, I loved The Unconsoled on a purely aesthetic basis. I'm not sure what lasting messages or morals I'll take away from it, beyond a sense of the universality of human fears and fallibility, but the tense, intriguing mood and skewed, shadowy universe it created are still tangible to me days after closing the covers.

Always one for mucking in

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I'm on a major Ishiguro bender. Since I wrote a few weeks ago about his newest novel, Never Let Me Go, my enthusiasm has only grown; in fact, I just finished When We Were Orphans, which was every bit as intriguing as the other three of his I've read (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World).

As always, the act of narration takes front and center position in When We Were Orphans - I think Ishiguro has got to be the master of using the unreliable (or at least highly subjective) narrator to great effect. In The Remains of the Day there are some scenes that truly take the breath away with their ability to juggle multiple subjectivities while still telling a story that, while multi-layered, is riveting on its most basic level as well. So, for example, there is a scene in which Miss Kenton, the semi-impetuous housekeeper, comes to "bother" Stevens in his study while he's reading a novel, and there is a moment of acute sexual tension between them, except that Stevens (the first-person voice) both refuses to acknowledge such things as "sexuality" to his readers, and may not even understand himself the attraction he felt. In addition, the entire episode is told in flashback, with the past Stevens holding a different set of attitudes and opinions toward the events than the present Stevens. There is also a plotline in the present day which is influencing the moods of Stevens the narrator, and past embarrassment about the novel in question, which adds a certain huffiness to the demeanor of the man, both past and present. Through all of these prismatic narrative challenges, Ishiguro manages to tell a story that is elegant and affecting, as well as communicating, through the reticent and muddled eyes of Stevens, a clear portrait of Miss Kenton's motivations and emotions. No mean feat, obviously.

In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's trademark unreliable narrator is used to excellent advantage in the way that the novel plays off of the detective genre, creating an amazing experience for the reader by turning the whole idea of a whodunit on its head. Usually, the detective in any given mystery novel is the ultimate word in veracity: if he or she says it, you can believe it. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are many of Sherlock Holmes' cases, in which Holmes professes to know the solution to the case before he and Watson even start investigating - he's more just trying to tie up a few loose ends, and then he'll reveal everything to us.

But Christopher Banks, the ostensibly great detective in Ishiguro's novel, is wildly unreliable, constantly overlooking the obvious, insisting on the ludicrous, and attempting to paint a picture of himself that's at odds with the memories of seemingly every person he runs across in the course of the novel. Over and over, although he insists on his own social acumen, he meets old acquaintances and classmates who remember him as "a miserable loner" or "an odd duck" - claims to which he takes startled exception ("You must have me mixed up with someone else, old fellow. I was always one for mucking in."). Likewise, when he remembers or encounters anyone who expresses compassion about his orphanhood (his parents are kidnapped when he is a child), he reacts with brusque annoyance.

These character quirks are rendered mysterious rather than absurd or amusing, by the fact that there are also people who do seem to take Banks seriously - he's not simply a deluded maniac believing himself to be a great detective. There are instances that seem to corroborate almost positively certain claims that Banks makes at one time or another, and other passages where he does seem genuinely perceptive and honest, balancing out his more outlandish moments. The interplay between these elements leaves the reader floating along on a superbly-crafted bed of quicksand, always unsure quite what to believe, which events Banks has reported accurately, and why or in what ways he has been inaccurate. Banks' own frustrated description of the citizens of Shanghai could equally well be a description of his own narrative style:

"People here seem determined at every opportunity to block one's view. No sooner has one entered a room or stepped out of a car than someone or other will have smilingly placed himself right within one's line of vision, preventing the most basic perusal of one's surroundings. Often as not, the offending person is one's very host or guide of that moment..."

Generally, murder mysteries are only interesting until the detective reveals the solution, pointed out carefully by all the clues. After that, all the ends have been tied up neatly and the reader is no longer held to the story. But in this case, the novel remains fascinating long after finishing it, because the reader is never quite sure what actually happened, what motivated the characters, or, more importantly for the book itself, the larger ramifications of those events. Not that this uncertainty is ever down to poor writing or simple lack of character development - far from it. Instead, it is as if the possible realities of Banks' life are refracted through the prism of his perception, and Ishiguro somehow manages to communicate many interwoven possibilities via one impressive narration, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions or simply wander forever among the potential choices.

Like Ishiguro's other novels, When We Were Orphans has much to say about British and Japanese imperialism - in this case, the British occupation and Japanese invasion of Shanghai and mainland China in the first half of the twentieth century. Being far from an expert on the history of foreign aggression in eastern China, I can't break down the political allegory in any detail, but I do think that Ishiguro paints a brilliant portrait of the surreal self-involvement of the occupying British society, still putting on dinner parties and hosting events while a war rages around them. Christopher Banks' own insistence that finally "solving the case" of his parents' disappearance will somehow bring an end to the Sino-Japanese conflict is an excellent metaphor for the egregiously inflated self-importance of the declining British Empire. And the scene in which Banks stumbles upon his childhood home, now almost unrecognizable and occupied by a Chinese family who have spent years dreading his return, is a poignant and bizarre reminder of the literal effects of an "occupying force." But not only do these scenes make for fascinating political commentary; they are also gripping and beautifully told on a literal level, and the atmospheric prose contributes to a craftsmanly web of suspense surrounding Banks' narration.

When We Were Orphans is what I always wanted mystery novels to be: intriguing, insightful, ambiguous, atmospheric and amazingly well-written, ending with some ends tied in surprising places, and some still dangling enticingly in the reader's mind. I've heard that the next Ishiguro novel on my shelf, The Unconsoled, takes ambiguity and strangeness to a whole other level, and I'm delighted at the prospect of continuing and expanding my Ishigurophilia. I'm sure y'all will hear about it when I do.

Library Tuesdays: Never Let Me Go

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I am supposed to be leading a bookgroup on Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, on Thursday. I thought maybe I shouldn't write an entry about it before said bookgroup takes place, because people might read it and it might influence what they think about the book, and I didn't want to foist my own opinions on others. But right now I sort of suspect that my boss Eva might be the only person in attendance on Thursday, and I trust that even if she reads these meditations prior to our meeting, she is sufficiently strong-minded to bear up under the strain. Also, if you read this entry and think I'm (a) brilliant; (b) a raving lunatic; or (c) sort of onto something but not quite there yet, I urge you to come down to CubeSpace (622 SE Grand Ave.) around 6pm, as Eva and I would love to talk with you. Really. Otherwise we will just be at work, like every day.

Originally I was a little bit leery of Never Let Me Go. I had read Ishiguro's famous The Remains of the Day and his slightly less-famous An Artist of the Floating World, both of which I thought were masterful studies of regret and the loneliness of social hierarchies, of what happens to people who are trained and/or develop into a very specific social niche or pattern of behaviors, and who are then left behind by a changing world where that niche is no longer valued or even acceptable. The delicacy of the language and the perfection of the narrative voice and careful structure of the plot were all breathtaking. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I got a little dubious when I heard that Ishiguro's new book was a kind of semi-scifi dystopian novel. It was getting a lot of attention because it features cloning, that medical-ethics buzzword on the tips of everyone's tongues. Yes, it was snobbish to assume that "current events" and "vaguely science-fiction plot" equaled "not so timeless as his other novels," but what can I say? I'm a snob.

And now I'm a humbled snob, because Never Let Me Go is fantastic. Ishiguro's characteristically restrained understatement is a brilliant counterpoint to the potentially over-the-top plot line. It makes the dystopianism all the more believable, because, as we've all been taught by Pink Floyd via that blowhard Thoreau, "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way," and Ishiguro points out that it would still be the English way even if a complex system of forced organ donation were integrated into British society.

But this was not a novel "about" a scary dystopian future. It's not a warning about what might be, not a tirade about the dangerous waters exposed by recent advances in medical science. Or, if it is these things, being so is not its primary aim. I'm really glad it wasn't the first Ishiguro novel I read, because having The Remains of the Day and Artist of the Floating World under my belt made me realize that the three novels share a concern about individuals who are used by society, who are forced or cajoled into surrendering their own fulfillment in order to serve others' needs, whether that be through a lifetime of faithful service, indoctrinated traditionalism, or being required to give up your vital organs so that someone else can live. All three novels explore the darker side of social hierarchies, of what is gained and lost by people who become invested in the myths of systems that may not be to their best interests. But all three also make the point that in order to confront the negative or oppressive aspects of a social system, people also have to compromise the images of beauty and understanding to which they have clung all their lives. In the case of The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens is heavily invested in the value of the upper-class British lifestyle and his own role within it, and he is an old man before he is able to admit his regrets or even contemplate the possibility of a different life. An Artist of the Floating World has a protagonist whose memories of coming of age as an artist are inextricably bound with the rise of militant nationalism and oppression in Japan. In Never Let Me Go, young people whose lives are also drawing to an end have to choose between believing in the idyllic childhoods they enjoyed at a prestigious boarding school, and confronting the fact that during those childhoods they were objects of scorn and fear for most people, and also being manipulated for political purposes.

The point I'm trying to make by drawing these connections between Ishiguro's novels is that Never Let Me Go is a metaphorical comment about current social hierarchies, or perhaps about the innate nature of human social hierarchies, rather than a warning about what might or might not happen at some point in the future. In every case, individuals are scarred by the ways in which society uses them as a tool rather than a sentient being, even while they also gain meaning and relevance from being so used. An Artist of the Floating World is especially interesting in this regard, since the manner in which the main character becomes a pawn of Japanese militarism takes place within a narrative of the independent artist, rebelling against parents and teachers to strike out in his own artistic direction - not a type of person that one expects to end up serving the entrenched power structures. Even so, Ono struggles between regret and self-justification about the role that he and his art have played in the leadup to the second World War, and has to reassess his place in a changing society.

Never Let Me Go takes the theme of self-examination within the larger societal context to the next level; since the main characters are facing imminent death and have no children or family members that will be left behind (as in An Artist of the Floating World), there is no easy answer to the question "Why bother to face the truth about this culture or our role within it?" There is no question that the easier path is to sink into an abyss of nostalgia, remembering happy days rather than dwelling on harsh realities. Take away the usual motivating factors for facing hard truths (it will allow you to lead a better, more honest life, or make a better life for those you love), and the novel becomes a fascinating meditation on the dilemma of seeking out the truth, versus remaining in blissful ignorance. Some characters choose one path, and others choose the other; I was left at the end of the novel asking myself if either group was really better off. My whole being rebels against the idea that striving for the right is useless because we're all going to die anyway, and I think that Ishiguro would object to this idea as well, but he definitely takes his reader through a hard and unflinching look at why one ought to search out the truth, when the usual answers don't apply.

I also think the layers of social knowledge and naivete in Ishiguro's novels are fascinating. They mostly deal with people who are operating below the surface, behind the scenes: a butler, with his intimate knowledge of how to keep a huge upper-class household in top working order; an artist, creating propaganda that bolsters a gathering political storm; a group of young people who belong to the shunned "donor" class, about whom regular citizens know very little but on whom they depend for replacement organs. You would think that each of these people would be possessed of inside information, that they could give us a glimpse behind the scenes, into the clockwork that makes society tick. And to a certain extent this is true. But to a greater extent, reading the books makes me realize that to people in their situation, the world I consider normal is "behind the scenes," and knowing more about their own realm of influence only means that there are other aspects of life about which they are naive. So, for example, the donors know very little about the prevailing attitudes towards them in the outside world, just as the English butler has trouble conceiving of a life not selflessly dedicated to service. It's an interesting revelation, that absolute knowledge resides in no one person, but is a mosaic of (often conflicting) experiences from across the social spectrum.

All of this is more fun to read than I'm communicating. Ishiguro has an amazing ability to maintain complete control of his narrative at all times, making it all seem breezily simple while juggling complicated past-and-present plots and telling the story from a very subjective, sometimes unreliable first-person perspective which never falters in its consistency. I can only imagine that for anyone who appreciates the art of novel-writing, the experience of reading one of his books is just as breathtaking as it is for me.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography