Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled struck me, at an early stage in my reading, as a book the critics would have panned. The idea snuck into the nest I was building around the book and settled there, unannounced. By the time I got to about page 200, I had a chance to put it down and use the internet.
A Wikipedia-linked profile, published in 2005 at the time his most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, was published, confirmed it. The interloper was a pest, it was true. Because as soon as I’d had that thought another emerged: the book is magnificent.

The Unconsoled (1995) creeps up on you but the story is desperately interesting. I’m not sure where the idea of a musician as a messiah came from, but it’s sort of like feedback from a strange pop band’s lead guitar. The curious logic of the device subverts more formalistic speculation as to how Ryder’s abrupt changes in direction reflect on him or contribute to an evolving set of values by which the story can be judged. It’s not going to be easy, we’re resigned to admit. It’s going to be a stretch to make sense of this novel. But we’re not without pointers, and Ishiguro must be aware of these, especially considering his youthful involvement with music and writing musical lyrics.

We’re accustomed to reading critics who invoke Shelley’s old chestnut about poets being the unrecognised legislators of the world. Here, a musician is supposed to save a small city from decay. We’re not told what sort of crisis there is, but we’re exhorted to believe that the city is increasingly filled with unhappy campers.

But that’s just the superstructure. Around it Ishiguro builds a net of unexpected outcomes. Each conversation - and they tend to be long and intrusive exchanges between two people meeting in a hallway or a crowded movie theatre - seems to announce another odd twist, another possible outcome for us to handle. As the story progresses, these intrusions cause less anxiety, and we become used to seeing how things turn out alright in the end.

Nevertheless, each encounter seems to be about to lead to a satisfying thread, something we can latch onto as we strive to comprehend the extent and nature of the city’s malaise. But each one subverts the comfortable conclusion by introducing either a new plot twist or setting up unease due to a pending change in circumstances Ryder has no control over.

Nothing makes sense for long and we seesaw between the pleasure of making sense of the story’s threads and discomfort at the dawning knowledge that nothing will turn out as prescribed. The riffs are uncomfortable. They’re insinuating. They’re strident and evocative of the timbre and texture of life itself.

In this rather plodding but skilful manner, Ishiguro gives us a sounding board against which we can measure the depth of our own perceptions, both literary and contingent (that is, to do with life as we live it). There are also plenty of spaces that are 'like life' amid the surreal twists, and resting in these we latch onto other, more personal, elements of the story. We start to feel other things, unbidden.

If Nabokov is correct and the best literature pits not characters against one another, but the writer against the reader, then Ishiguro has written a great novel.

Little things get under our skin. It’s soon apparent that we’re in for a rough time. At one point early on, Ryder (the protagonist) is following a woman down a torturous path. He’s got a little boy with him. It transpires that the boy is his own, the woman his wife. His father-in-law is the hotel porter who met him in the very beginning, but toward the end of the story we learn that they‘d only just met recently.

But even before we know any of this, however, we realise that the woman is about to disappear and this fills us with a kind of despair.

Later he’ll get angry with her. But after they go into a cinema to watch a movie, he ends up leaving without her. He’ll catch up with her later, at the modern housing estate, but not before he meets up with the city’s outcast, a desperate man with an ambitious wife who intends to leave him. He has theories about music that the city rejects and, Ryder being the ultimate judge, that are doomed.

The things that happen are too odd. How much does Ryder know? How much do we know? How much SHOULD we know?

Ishiguro’s placing the story in an Eastern European city adds to a destabilising effect. It is masterful because we get a patina of strangeness that is nothing compared to the real strangeness the book produces in its twists and turns.

The language, too, is highly artificial but nevertheless doesn’t stray far from the normative discourse of the everyday. It’s slightly stilted but modulates easily as it inhabits the mouths of different characters. It is flexible without being weak, strong without being stiff. It’s just odd, like the story and like the book itself.

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