Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, pp 1-151

I used to have a colleague who, once she had started a novel, had to complete it. She could not permit herself to leave it unfinished, and I would see her every lunch time, poring mournfully over some tome that she simply hated. Fortunately, I have no such compunction, which is why, later this morning, you'll find a copy of The Unconsoled in my local Oxfam.

I'm aware that this is a controversial novel and it's reviled and revered in equal measure. I'm in neither camp: it elicits no strong emotion in me either way. Rather, it commits the unforgiveable sin for an experimental novel of being boring. I simply couldn't care less what was happening to Ryder.

Those who know Ishiguro's work will know that he is extremely fond of the unreliable narrator. Things are never what they seem, and there is always an edge of uncertainty with his work. I like that. When We Were Orphans was fascinating, and the alternate world he created in Never Let Me Go did, indeed, never let me go. But here the unreliability has subsumed the whole piece. From the outset it is clear that nobody - least of all Ryder - has the faintest idea what is going on. He is in some European city - he doesn't know where - where he is the honoured guest - he doesn't know why - giving some sort of performance - he doesn't know what - in three days time. All very mysterious. And, given a scenario like that, I'd be seduced, I'd want to read more.

Ishiguro is a brilliant writer. His control of language and narrative is exceptional. Here, the twists where he slips into outrageous points of view errors are beautifully handled - one little sentence and you're taken into conversations or memories that Ryder could not possibly have any cognisance of. There is, initially, a fraught feeling about the whole piece, an air of menace and foreboding. It is all set up wonderfully.

But then it just goes on. More of the same. More of Ryder's incomprehension. It is the same conceit being repeated over and over and over again, like a child who learns his first magic trick and insists on demonstrating it to his family for the rest of the holiday. That, inevitably, has the effect of making the drama lose its edge. In the end (or, strictly speaking, the middle, since I got no further than page 151), I was reduced to shouting, 'Why don't you just ask what's happening, man?'

The Unconsoled is clearly an experimental novel but, for me, the experiment fails. Firstly, it is just too dense, with too much detail, too much narrative. By coincidence I was reading this as the news was announced of James Purdy's death. The parallels are striking: with Malcolm, Purdy also creates a dream-world where nothing is clear and where the main character inhabits a world he doesn't understand. But Purdy's narrative is crisp, clipped, precise. It says in 240-odd pages everything that Ishiguro labours over in 500 plus pages. That is important: experiment, especially where we're talking about mental disconnection, needs to be clear and steer free from clutter. There is too much narrative clutter here, and it becomes tedious.

Secondly, its register feels wrong. It is too unremittingly flat. In a shorter piece that disparity between voice and narrative might work, but not with something of this length. When Ishiguro gets it right, it works brilliantly, but here it fails because it never changes. Reading When We Were Orphans, for example, was an exhilarating experience because it starts perfectly rationally and gradually becomes weirder and weirder: it is like witnessing the mental breakdown of a novel. That makes the experiences of the main character all the more powerful. Here, it is the same thing from page one, unremitting, ultimately boring. It is a pity, because I am a great admirer of Ishiguro generally. I'd like to be charitable and say it is an interesting failure, but, really, it isn't that interesting.


JerryB said...

You think you are really in a position to say "the experiment fails" when you've sampled less than a third of the book? As a reader, I try to have more humility than this ... especially when I'm reading someone like Ishiguro. To give experimental novels (or experimental anything) a fair trial, I think you need at least to "surrender" more to the experimental manipulation than, clearly, you have done. "Caring about Ryder" is a reasonable measure to use for a "traditional" novel, but I don't think it's quite appropriate here. Ryder's character is complex, and one actually might grow to like him less, but he also becomes more interesting, as the as the novel progresses. If you respect Kazuo Ishiguro's talent and artistry, maybe you should be willing to give this novel more of a hearing than you have before passing judgment.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jerry

Yes, I think you're probably right in what you say. I am a big fan of Ishiguro, but I just couldn't get into this one at all. I'm sure it's more my failing than Ishiguro's, though.

Marlene Detierro said...

At the time it is very frustrating, later you realise how accustomed you are to the rhythms of conventional storytelling. My thoughts have returned to this remarkable book on a regular basis. The reader is really the unconsoled of the title and reflection over time is soothing.

Samsung Level Box Review