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).