Monday, November 09, 2009


On my first reading of Nocturnes, Ishiguro's recently published short story collection, its contents appeared to adhere to the template of what is sometimes called "the New Yorker short story": stories about unhappy people in unhappy relationships, in which nothing much happens, ending with a carefully calibrated "epiphany." Such stories are certainly not necessarily bad, and I enjoyed reading Nocturnes, but it seemed disappointingly conventional compared with Ishiguro's novels.

More than this, though, as I read I began to get the sense that something was off. I felt it most strongly in the first two stories, but to some extent in all of them except perhaps the third, "Malvern Hills": a growing feeling people don't actually act or speak like Ishiguro's characters do. In the first story, "Crooner," I put it down to Ishiguro being unable to convincingly portray Americans, but in the second story, "Come Rain or Come Shine," all of whose characters were British, I heard the same wrong notes (no pun intended). To put it another way, whereas the characters in Never Let Me Go were heartbreakingly real even though the society depicted in that book never existed, the characters in Nocturnes felt unreal despite supposedly living in real societies.

It seemed puzzling that the skill at characterization so visible in Ishiguro's novels should have deserted him when he turned to short stories. While trying to work out what was going on, it occurred to me that it was as if the stories were proceeding according to unfamiliar rules hidden from the reader. Of course, this description also fits The Unconsoled, which, like the stories in Nocturnes, is about a musician. Then a light bulb went on above my head: what if Ishiguro was following the same strategy here that he did in When We Were Orphans: under a superficially realist facade presenting stories that weren't realist at all?

Alas, I have no triumph of interpretation to announce. Whatever depths I missed on the first reading I also missed on the second. Nor can I say whether there are hidden rules or not. I did realize that several of the narrators were unreliable, or probably so; but this didn't help me much. Nor were the characterizations any more convincing on second reading. Sometimes they were less convincing. This was particularly true of Lindy Gardner in "Nocturne," who now seemed like a caricature, and not a very skillful one. In fact, that story was a chore to reread.

One thing Nocturnes did make me realize is how the theme of specialness or greatness, and the lengths people go to attain it or to assure themselves they have it, permeates Ishiguro's work. I've written about this theme in Never Let Me Go. In The Remains of the Day, of course, we have Stevens' ambition to be a "great" butler, and his belief that in Lord Darlington he has found a great employer. In The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, the protagonists struggle to live up to the expectations others have of them because of their "greatness." And in An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro's second novel, even after the protagonist recognizes that he was morally wrong to support the Japanese dictatorial regime of the 1930s, he still can't face the truth that his actions didn't matter all that much.

  (0) comments

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?