Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Unconsoled

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.

23 comments:

max said...

Great novel, The Unconsoled.

John said...

I love _Remains of the Day_ for one reason that you touched on below. In that earlier novel, Stevens must keep himself from utterly unraveling by telling and retelling and retelling a bearable version of his own life story. Many critics pull out the unreliable narrator line of argument--that Ishiguro distances us from his narrator by winking at us through Stevens' inconsistencies. I don't buy it, though, because I see this retelling and reworking and rethinking and justifying in the narratives that many real people in my life spin all the time. Who hasn't done that?

Ishiguro's first two novels are odd to me in light of what I've read about his view of his own ethnic/racial/national identity. By virtue of his surname, he occupies for many an insider position on what you've justifiably called an imaginary Japan. But if I remember right, the guy left Japan when he was five, so how can anyone force him to be a cultural informant through his fiction? And anyway, how can we expect any one person to write Japan or Great Britain, for that matter (reminds me of Miss Quested's expectation that Aziz be India in Forster's _Passage_...seems crazy, but we do often expect people to speak for whole nations or groups).

When I follow my own line of thinking when it comes to Ishiguro's stuff, I am not surprised at the narrative strategy in _The Unconsoled_. With multiple identities and expectations and meanings and experiences pulling in every direction, how could he (anyone at all) come to any definitive understanding, anything but an extended dream sequence?

Thanks for a great post.

bookfraud said...

i haven't read ishiguro; my wife keeps bothering me to do so (especially "remains of the day" and "never let me go"). your post did what it was supposed to, i imagine: i want to read "the unconsoled."

especially when you said no amount of analysis managed to dislodge its hold on me. that's a recommendation if i ever heard one.

rmellis said...

I couldn't get past the first scene -- John loves the weird stuff, but it reminded me too much of my own disturbing dream life.

However, Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of the last few years, and of course Remains of the Day is wonderful.

jrlennon said...

I agree that "unreliable narrator" is woefully inadequate as a descriptor of what Ishiguro is doing. His narrators are certainly unreliable, but like john implies here, why should they be? They're talking to themselves, creating themselves with the narrative. There's something very natural about this as a narrative method, but not many other writers seem to do it.

Rich said...

The only time i have for non-work related reading these days is right before bed. A few months ago i picked up the unconsoled and, without fail, i would end up having the most vivid and bizarre dreams all night long. I really enjoyed the book, but wasn't able to finish it because it was messing with my sleep too much! I attributed it to the novel's dreamlike narrative.

john said...

Ishiguro challenges my expectations of literature (anything that I read, in fact). Like most people, I often want to find some sort of nugget, a crystal-clear insight, some reinforcement of my own worldview. When I read Ishiguro, though, he eludes denotative meaning, and yet I go back for more for reasons I do no yet fully understand (and probably never will). He gives me a profound complexity, one that leaves stuff all over the floor. And still, it's deeply satisfying because it's a brave way to write.

To my mind, he is cosmopolitan, if by cosmopolitan I mean someone who is everywhere in the world and nowhere simultaneously. Such a position is profoundly rich but still very lonely. You could code him as British because of his politeness, but there is something about that particular brand of politeness that is distancing. And yet the novels are devastatingly intimate. When I read him, I often vibrate between two poles: one that is intimate/revealing and one that is distant/removed. I am intrigued by the vibration.

sdavis said...

The Unconsoled is one of my favorites, too. What a beautifully written post about it!

Ishiguro's dreamy terrors always give me a strange, comfortable feeling. I don't know what that says about me. (He does it almost as well in When We Were Orphans, I think.) The confounding nature of our lives has us digging for linear explanations all the time. Ishiguro lets us off the hook, as my favorite writers tend to do. It's not that he's saying it's easier this way. It's just that it IS this way, so glory in it, if you can: the concrete details of the everyday discoveries, the board games in the cupboards, and so on. Senselessness has never seemed so clear. Thanks for writing about it (and teaching it), John.

Hugo Minor said...

I just finished The Unconsoled. Wow...is there a way I could do this in less pages? I just finished a story that attempts to be like Lynch's Mullholland Dr. Maybe I could do a short-story rip-off of Ishiguro.

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