Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Ishiguro sum-up

Oh noez, another author who has disappointed me. It started out so well, with me loving Never Let Me Go, and liking The Remains of the Day a lot. The next three however, failed to tickle me quite as much, and I'm going to be honest with you - no. 4, The Unconsoled, it's just never going to be read. I've reached page 54 or something like that, and the narrator seems to be caught in a reality that's a bit like a dream, with events randomly following one another, and people suddenly saying and doing odd things that nevertheless seem sensible and that you accept, and dialogue that is just making no common sense and leads nowhere. I was reminded of the really surreal stuff, like Flann O'Brien. As I've written before, this is a type of genre that I can't take. I get really annoyed. I'll just come right out and say it - I like my reading to be linear, and if not linear in time necessarily then linear in sense thank you very much. Call me unimaginative if you want, but no dwarfs in red velvet rooms for me (yes, I also get unreasonably angry if forced to watch David Lynch films). So The Unconsoled is out. It'll be there when I'm ninety if I get the urge.
Going back to the ones I have read though, I think part of the problem is that I overdosed. Ishiguro is rather formulaic. You have a narrator, and the narrator is remembering the past while going about his or her business in the present. You therefore get two narratives one might say, that merge into one as the past unfolds to explain the present. Ishiguro also has a special way of writing these memories, which is part of what makes his novels so appealing - he understands that no-one remembers an exact chain of events, or precisely what led to the memory being retold. A memory will often just be a snippet of the larger event, for some reason stuck in the brain. So the narrators will often discuss this, sort of wonder aloud what the circumstances surrounding a particular memory might have been, or even backtrack and realise that the dialogue they remember must have not been spoken like that, that they are confusing two memories. It sounds tedious, but in my opinion it works very well most of the time, because it adds to the realism. When you read five or so novels pretty much back-to-back however… Like I said, I think I overdosed. Ironically, the one I am not going to finish, The Unconsoled, does not follow this formula (some tendencies to it do exist, but by no means as strongly). And the one I thought was oddest (apart from Unconsoled), When We Were Orphans, also had less of it.
So let me write about that book first. The story, as it is told in a mixture of present happenings and memories, is as follows: an English boy, growing up in Shanghai, loses both parents in what is believed to be some sort of kidnapping. First the father disappears, then after some weeks his mother. He is taken back to England to live with his aunt. We get to know him as an adult, when he is making a name for himself as a (private) detective. He becomes very well known and respected, and subsequently has the opportunity to return to Shanghai. The idea is that he will manage to crack what is behind the surging instability of the region (this is just before WW2). Okay. Problem 1: he is a detective. Now, if you change that into "vampire hunter" you get a job title that more accurately fits the tone of the novel. Something just seems off about it. I get a kind of Van Helsing (the film) meets Sherlock Holmes meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vibe. Problem 2: he comes to Shanghai with some sort of assumption (which seems to be shared by the majority of the English colony there) that solving the current problems will solve his parents' abduction. Not only that, he will any day now find them alive and well. To blithely assume that his parents will be found in such a state after being missing for twenty-odd years is just too queer. It makes no sense. The last chapters of the book has him leaping to conclusions in the war-ravaged sections of Shanghai, scrambling through rubble to get to a house where he believes that his parents are being held (still! after all this time!), finding a Japanese soldier whom he thinks is his childhood friend, and just generally not making much sense. I do admit that I've been racking my brains over this book for a while after finishing it, which I suppose is some credit to it. I'm leaning towards some sort of theory that the narrator never really grew up. His whole detective career is a sort of fantasy, born from his childhood games and desire to find his parents. Because the way he behaves and reasons once he is in Shanghai is just too far out to be based in reality, in my opinion. Sadly, that theory flies out the window somewhat since there's an epilogue that disproves it. Ah well.
I've also read two novels set in Japan. There is something that feels a little bit wrong about the tone of these too. I pondered for a while if I was picking up that Ishiguro, having lived in the UK since he was five, is actually writing about a society that he only knows second-best - a bit as if I were to write a book set in Ireland. This idea is supported by the fact that the same names keep popping up in both books, as though Ishiguro doesn't really know that many Japanese names (just like my hypothetical Irish novel would be populated by Dermots and Aoifes). This could of course be entirely wrong. The oddness in tone that I feel could be just a faithful rendering of the tone of a society and culture rather alien to me, the identical names could be anything - those names are very common, perhaps, or else it's a tribute to the author's family members.
I liked An Artist of the Floating World best, I think. Set in the 50s, it's about a retired artist whose work, we are led to understand, helped kindle the war-mongering in pre-war Japan. He has understood that if he does not in some way recant it will affect the well-being of his family. His younger daughter will perhaps never find a husband unless he can show that he is no longer a member of the "losing side". As he remembers we see that his praise of the traditional values that were so heavily emphasised before the war is to some extent a defensive measure, as he does not always like to be reminded of the sadder things that happened because of his political choices. There is a nice twist at the end, when his daughter comes with a different interpretation of events that make the artist less important. What she says implies that he has, to us, aggrandised his importance, perhaps so he'll have a reason to publicly repent of actions that he feels guilty about.
A Pale View of Hills was stranger. I'm still thinking about what it meant, what the underlying tension was about. Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England, is visited by her younger half-English daughter following the suicide of her elder daughter by a previous, Japanese husband. (God that was an unwieldy sentence but I can't be bothered changing it. It's half twelve at night and I'm writing from work, after all… ) During the visit she remembers the summer in Nagasaki when she was pregnant with Keiko, and she was friends with a woman called Sachiko, who lived with her daughter Mariko in a tumbledown house near the new apartment blocks of the suburb. There is something more being said between the lines of this book, and I'm missing it. It has something to do with the mentioned fact that children were being murdered in Nagasaki that summer, and the parallell between Sachiko planning to go to America with her American lover, and Etsuko later taking her daughter Keiko to England when she herself marries a foreigner. Why are the murdered children mentioned unless I'm to suspect that I know the killer? Is it Etsuko's bullying husband? Is it Sachiko, who tries to drown the kittens? I don't get it. I must scour the internet for other thoughts. Starting with Wikipedia, maybe. Enigmatic indeed.
Despite my OD:ing, I still like Ishiguro and would recommend him. I'm going to take a break from him now though, and return to him some other time with a fresh mind.

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