Today was the last session of the Weird Stories class, which we convened here at W6HQ in order to discuss what has to be my favorite novel of the past 25 years, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. I have to admit, I was a little nervous to bring this book to the floor--I suppose I wasn't sure how durable its spell over me really was, and I didn't want to break it by talking.
I needn't have worried. The class seemed to like it pretty well (a few people appeared almost as enthusiastic as I am), and no amount of analysis managed to dislodge its hold on me.
The book, in case you haven't read it, is about a concert pianist, a Mr. Ryder, who visits an unnamed European city for a concert. In the process, he becomes entangled in some kind of local crisis involving the arts, has some encounters with his estranged lover and her son, and fends off, with a kind of innocent arrogance, the hysterical demands of various hordes of townspeople. If this sounds rather vague and uninteresting, that's because very little of the fascination of this book comes from its plot; rather, the focus here is the narrative technique itself. The book operates on the logic of an extended dream sequence--characters appear and disappear in unexpected places; time is compressed or stretched; amnesia gives way to sudden, exhaustive recall; enormous physical distances are leapt over in moments. Ryder travels many miles outside of town to attend a meeting at a rural cafe; he returns to his hotel through a door in the back of a closet. Ryder enters an apartment he has never seen before--but moments later, he knows that a certain cupboard is filled with board games. Expected events never occur; unexpected events occur with regularity. A man conducts an orchestra mere minutes of having his leg amputated. A loitering stranger turns out to be a high school friend. At the end of an impossibly long elevator ride, Ryder suddenly notices somebody in the elevator he'd managed to miss. An impassible brick wall runs unexpectedly through the center of town.
If the book is about anything at all, maybe it's about impotence--the incapacity of Ryder to affect change; the inability of the story to reach a conclusion; the impossibility of communication, or love, or sex. Or maybe, as a student of mine suggests, it's about Ishiguro's frustrations with his reception as an artist. Or, as another student suggested, it might be an exploration of Confucian philosophy. Or maybe it's about exile. Or something.
In any event, it's not like anything I've ever read before. Like Ishiguro's other narrators, Ryder is stridently artificial, striving, with his amiable first-person narration, to create a version of himself he can bear to inhabit--the book is a story he's telling himself, the story of who he is, or isn't. Or, perhaps more likely, it's the story he's telling himself in order to avoid the subject of his identity. This is a tempting interpretation: Ishiguro has a complicated relationship to the writer's identity. He is stridently British, downplaying his Japanese heritage at every opportunity--yet his first two novels are set in an imaginary Japan--or two imaginary Japans, I suppose. The Unconsoled is as British a novel as has ever been written (the perverse layers of politeness that burden its characters are among its most striking elements); yet it is about homelessness, and alienation, and the difficulty of cross-cultural understanding.
Anyway, that's enough talking about it. I don't want it to make sense--and I want to fill the world with more of that same kind of senselessness.