Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Reading List: "The Unconsoled."

The Unconsoled
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1995
The Unconsoled was described as a "sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work" that "left readers and reviewers baffled". It received strong negative reviews with a few positive ones. Literary critic James Wood said that the novel had "invented its own category of badness."
Well hey, I thought The Unconsoled was fabulous. It was, to be sure, a initially frustrating book, and I spent the first several chapters feeling as though I was listening to a dissonant chord that refused to resolve itself. Later, it occurred to me that "dissonance" is often what we call rich harmony, before we get used to it.

The plot: Ryder, the world’s preeminent concert pianist, arrives in a provincial city with a profound identity crisis. Everyone is hoping that he will reconcile the contrasting impulses towards artistic conservatism and innovation, and in the days leading up to a major concert performance he has a full slate of scheduled appearances with local civic groups and media.  How will he be able to juggle all of these commitments as well as his considerable personal entanglements in the city?

[[Spoilers from here on out. No way around ‘em.]]

The narrative is pretty straightforward for the first two of the novel’s 500+ pages. Ryder checks into his hotel, and enters the elevator with a porter for the trip to the second floor. They enter into conversation – or rather, the porter enters into a monologue, a polite surrealist rant about the history and status of hotel porters in the city. After he has spoken at great length, Ryder eventually realizes that there is a third person in the elevator as well, someone whom he had not noticed earlier, and the conversation now encompasses her as well. As a reader, it eventually becomes impossible for you not to notice that the laws of time and space are being violated; far too much is happening, or at least being said, to fit within a reasonable time frame of an elevator voyage that, we eventually learn, only goes up a single floor.

As things unfold, the logic of time unravels completely, and the logic of space follows close behind. Ryder reports watching or listening to things that are happening in places that he should not be able to see or hear. As he travels through the city, he sometimes must take long journeys to places that should be adjoining, or discovers that places distant from each other are actually two parts of the same building. Crowded urban areas let on to open countryside in impossible configurations.

The social space of Ryder’s experience is pretty messy too. He encounters strangers whom he is surprised to remember are actually people he is intimately connected with. Throughout the town, he randomly encounters friends from childhood and school. People make strange demands, requests, and confidences, and respond to him with unreasonable anger or enthusiasm. Finally, Ryder’s own behavior seems out of his control. He continually resolves to take action, only to be immediately distracted from his decisions, and meets every new request and demand put to him with acquiescence, even when it means abandoning commitments made earlier, even a few seconds earlier. He is continually revaluating his own behavior, typically in a self-serving light, especially when his passivity has made him behave like an ass (which is quite often).

Ryder, in short, is living according to the logic of nightmare. Much is expected of him, he is aware that he is falling short of expectations, yet when he sets out on a course of action it is impossible to follow through. Hell, I had that dream just last night.

So, What Is Ishiguro Up To?

When you begin reading The Unconsoled, you notice that something pretty bizarre is going on, and naturally you start looking for the explanation, the clue, the key that explains why things are so strange in this fictional setting. They never come. There’s the big spoiler: although the narrative will progress, and there will be a sort of cockeyed playing out of cause and effect, the dream logic will persist right up to the final page (which, I might as well tell you, finds our hero riding contentedly on a city streetcar that has a comprehensive breakfast buffet at the back). Naturally, you can’t help but wonder what Ishiguro was up to in writing such a strange story. Here are some of my theories:
I: He wanted to see if he could write an entire long novel set not in a particular place and time, but in an alternative logic. He wanted to see if he could sustain the sense of a dream/nightmare over the course of an entire book.

II: He wanted to weave a large collection of surreal episodes into a long continuous narrative.

III: He wanted to suggest that human experience and nightmare logic aren’t as far apart as we would like them to be. Novels and the stories we construct around our intentions and achievements are all fine and good, but in the actual practice of trying to move forward in the world we are more like Ryder: passive, bewildered, ineffectual, inconsistent, inconstant, and forever in the process of rewriting our own histories to make tolerable sense of the present.
Another writer I happened to be reading at the same time in an unpublished manuscript wrote this about her process:
When I write a story, I write a sentence. The themes and sounds and ideas and shape of that sentence help to shape the next sentence, and so on. So I may start out a paragraph or a chapter, intending for the protagonist to get in their car and drive to the store, but I end up being unable to shape sentences that lead naturally to them doing so. My character can't find their car keys because it somehow becomes dissonant to what I've written for them to do so…. The rogue sentences stay. The story diverges from the plan.
Those intended as minor background characters seize control of the story and don't let it go. Those intended as major characters get involved in something and let the others carry the plot for them. Events I planned to happen won't fit in, and an event I had never considered suddenly emerged as a result of a sentence that was trying merely to marshal the story to a conclusion.

I don’t know if Ishiguro writes this way. But he might be expressing in The Unconsoled the notion that we live this way, the books of our lives unable to reach their planned dénouements as we are battered by the inevitable, relentless rogue chapters, paragraphs, and sentences.


The Unconsoled is told in a formal, emotionally arid first person, with long paragraphs of looping, repetitive dialog spoken by secondary characters. It has comic elements, but it is also rather sad. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is quite long. I feel like I would be going out on a limb to recommend it to anyone, especially knowing as I do that Mrs.5000 found it tedious and unlikeable.

But, after the initial period of disorientation, I thought it was fabulous. I tore through it in a handful of sittings, staying up late because I couldn’t put it down. So, who knows? Maybe you’d like it too.


That concludes my reading list.

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