Friday, October 9, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Unconsoled, the story of a concert pianist on tour. Of course that's not really what it's about, and its modus operandi--bizarre narrative complexity rendered in deceptively simple prose--is what makes it remarkable. The novel has a dreamlike logic, a rarefied and audacious version of the strange narrative technique of Ishiguro's other works; it's like a crazy machine that digs itself deeper and deeper as it goes, until it reaches some kind of blazing, highly pressurized core.

His new book is also dreamlike, and is also about music, and so I opened it with great excitement the other night. I was half finished by bedtime and done by the following afternoon (after teaching a couple of classes in between!), and I'm not sure what to think about it. Like the Lorrie Moore novel I just read, this book may be suffering at the hands of my excessively high expectations, or it might simply not quite be working.

Nocturnes consists of five long stories. I'd like to say "linked stories," and they are, sort of. In one, a guitarist accompanies one of his musical heroes in a serenade for the hero's dissatisfied lover; in another, that same lover encounters a saxophonist while recovering from plastic surgery. A songwriter meets a mysteriously tense couple at a mountain retreat, an unwitting visitor plays a strange (and only distantly musical) part in a lovers' quarrel, and a cellist falls under the spell of an unlikely teacher. They're all, to some extent, about sexual or quasi-sexual relationships, though there is no sex. They all are rather mysterious, but no mysteries are solved. And though they're all about music, the music seems almost incidental to the story--characters discuss it in abstract, almost dismissive terms, as though it's not worth going into.

Ishiguro's best books achieve by sleight-of-hand, and there is some of it on display here. First-person narrators in Ishiguro are always unreliable, and perhaps a little clueless; people react in bizarre, unpredictable ways to seemingly uncomplicated social stimuli; endings arrive unexpectedly and leave the reader scratching his head.

But in the novels, the head-scratching starts around page 50, and by the time you get to the end, you've scratched so long and hard you're almost all the way down to your id. Here, Ishiguro never lets us get very deep. His simple narrators stay simple, his waking dreams never fully take hold. Moments of comic awkwardness (a man with a bandaged face caught on a theater stage with a turkey stuck to the end of his arm) never have time to ripen into enigma, and seem more like slapstick. And the non-ending endings, which in the novels echo richly with the complexity of what came before, here tend to disappoint.

Still, none of it is bad. It just all feels underdeveloped. I think Ishiguro's genius remains with the novel, where he continues to expand and revise a curious subgenre that consists only of him; these stories, though, are for superfans only (like me).

16 comments:

sjwoo said...

I've only read one Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go. And after that one, I don't think I'll go back. I hate sound so stupid in my assessment, but the fact was, it was one boring book. There was nothing brilliant about the futurism, and I found the narrator to be painful and plodding to listen to: so much of what she said seemed so very obvious. If I had this much trouble with NLMG, is there any chance, I'll like The Unconsoled (I'm not even gonna touch Nocturnes)?

By the way, Remains of the Day is one of my favorite movies of all time.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, you might like The Unconsoled. I liked it better than NLMG, but I must warn you, I DID like that book pretty well. I do think Unconsoled is his masterpiece. It is profoundly odd. I'm gonna try teaching it to undergrads later this semester...or rather, the way the class has gone so far, they will be teaching it to me.

jrlennon said...

Oh, by the way, after nearly three years, I have uploaded a profile picture. It was taken by my friend Lindsey France for a Cornell article on creative writing, and is of me holding a rooster.

rmellis said...

I loved Never Let Me Go, because of the voice and the strange revelation of the place and the characters. In a way, I feel like I liked it in a personal way, rather than in a critical way... I couldn't read The Unconsoled, too dream-likethough, and I know I've lost respect from JR because of that...

The Butler one is great, though.

bigscarygiraffe said...

holding? or wistfully stroking?

bigscarygiraffe said...

the rooster, that is

jrlennon said...

Oh God, more like forcibly restraining. If I'd been just 150 pounds smaller, he would have happily pecked me to death.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that what you say about your reviewers, too?

jrlennon said...

*rimshot*

Hugo Minor said...

I loved The Unconsoled, and read it after you talked about it for one of your classes. I was so excited about Nocturnes that I ordered a copy from Amazon UK earlier this year, since it didn't become available in the US until September or so.

I enjoyed it, and thought the stories were funny, but agree that they are more on the surface. By the end of each story I was expecting something bigger to happen, but instead it felt like someone telling you a funny thing that happened to them one day.

I think The Unconsoled would be an interesting movie.

jrlennon said...

So who would direct it? i am thinking the Coen brothers, in their "Barton Fink" mode. Or Stephen Soderbergh.

ed skoog said...

Can't wait to read it. I was trying to describe a number of writers recently, and the best I could come up with was, "you know, it's like The Unconsoled."

Particularly: Jean Echenoz, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Sandor Marai.

Perhaps it's a signal of my simplicity that makes these connections. But they all make me love them, whatever it is.

Stephen said...

After placing Pale View of Hills in my pantheon of Favorite Books Of All Time, with Remains of the Day not far behind, The Unconsoled -- what I was able to read of it -- left me feeling like an oafish Philistine with an IQ of 70; what else could explain my inability to appreciate a work that, given its source, had to be a masterpiece? Was I so unsophisticated that I required characters to retain at the last the bare outlines of a consistent identity from page to page? Well, he's a genius, so I was glad to see him experimenting, but after a hundred pages I left him to it. Doesn't take away from the books of his that I revere, and I'll be giving Nocturnes a chance.

Hugo Minor said...

I think the Coen brothers would be great for directing a movie version of The Unconsoled.

Or maybe Akira Kurosawa, who did that movie Dreams.

David Rochester said...

I loved The Unconsoled , but I was far less impressed by it after reading Never Let Me Go , which I found to have an almost identical narrative voice and very similar surreal divagations (such as the thing in NLMG about the drawings of the animals, which could have been lifted directly from Unconsoled ). My perception of the uniqueness of the book was kind of spoiled, I guess. But as a psychological study and a narrative tour de force, it's still quite a bang.

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