Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nocturnes: Kazuo Ishiguro's variations on a theme always amabile, rarely animato

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s most widely admired novels, such as
The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans or his most recent, Never Let Me Go, memory’s vice grips conspire with some essential inward tendencies within his narrators to gradually reveal intricate discrepancies between the personal story being relayed and the larger story of the world surrounding. Unreliable narrators constitute a well-mined trope in fiction, but Ishiguro has raised it to a highly particular, melancholy art though crisp, concise language, inventive narratives, a sly manipulation of genres as varied as science-fiction and mystery, and, most especially, an unusual willingness to immerse himself so fully into the minds of his protagonists. I’ve pretty much adored everything he’s written, and greatly admired its daring variation, so I guess I’ve set the bar pretty high.

Still, with Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Knopf, $29.95), Ishiguro’s first story cycle, I began to wonder if the one literary boundary Ishiguro’s genius can’t quite traverse is the one that separates the needs of long-from from the short. The stories in Nocturnes are each perfectly absorbing and worth the relatively brief investment required, but taken either as separate components or as a whole—which is presumably the author’s intention—they never quite ascend to Ishiguro’s established heights of emotional complexity. As with all Ishiguro’s work, these stories—of vagabond third wheels trying to interpret the cryptic tensions that exist between couples; of musicians who never quite make it as big as they’d hoped; of lives in stasis contrasted with lives in upheaval—observe the precariousness of nostalgia and the pitfalls of poor communication with knowingness. The problem might simply be that few of these characters truly come to life so as to make that knowingness resonate deeply.

In ‘Crooner,’ Jan, a cheerful young Polish guitarist living in Venice, plays for tourists on the piazza circuit, one of whom being Tony Gardner, a 60ish, once-famous American vocalist. He asks Jan to play backup during a moonlight serenade for Garnder’s wife Lindy. They discuss strategies for injecting specificity of feeling into one’s performances, cultivating those unuttered mental images that imbue one’s playing with texture. What Jan has in his mind—memories of his mother taking consolation in Gardner’s records during bleak days in Communist Poland—differs greatly with what Gardner has in mind—memories of a marriage that for his wife has essentially been a career move. Jan says of his playing: “I tried to make it sound like America, sad roadside bars, big long highways, and I guess I was thinking of my mother, the way I’d come into the room and see her on the sofa gazing at her record sleeve…” Each is lost in private, disparate reveries, but if Jan’s reverie is slightly clichéd, I can’t say I ever bought into Gardner’s story at all. Like a number of the larger-than-life Americans found in Nocturnes, he feels like a conceit.

Lindy Garder however is more developed, particularly since she’s able to return later in ‘Nocturne,’ the fourth story, which—get this—finds Steve, a struggling Los Angeles saxophonist, agreeing to allow the rich man who stole his wife from him to pay for Steve’s plastic surgery, a dubious effort to help forward the unhandsome session player’s lagging career. Steve winds up spending his post-surgery rest period in the posh hotel where he meets the slightly older, rather convincingly batty Lindy, who’s just gone under the knife for the third or fourth time. There are several moments in Nocturnes where Ishiguro, who mastered a Kafkaesque comic vernacular in his underrated The Unconsoled, strains for laughs. But once Steve and Lindy meet, the both of them traipsing around the hotel in the middle of the night with their heads wrapped in bandages, at one point trying to retrieve a stolen trophy from the bowels of a roast turkey, I have to hand it to Ish: this stuff is pretty hilarious. And it cries out for a younger Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, say, to do the movie version.

But in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ similar hi-jinx are thwarted by an uncertain tone or too much repetition. Middle-aged university pals reunite. They’re so comfortable with each other that they can insult each other and, despite protests to the contrary, insist they know what the other is thinking to increasingly absurd degrees. Basically, they don’t listen to each other. This not listening goes on for a while. Again, Ishiguro holds things together. He never betrays the basic traits with which he’s endowed his protagonist—though he does, rather improbably, have him imitate a dog. But what he has endowed his protagonist and his narrative with here is pretty limited, even for a short story. The more serious ‘Malvern Hills’ is similarly founded in a solid premise—young English guitarist meets long-married Swiss tourists so oblivious to each other they don’t seem to exist on the same planet—that doesn’t arrive at a very satisfying resolution.

Which leaves us with ‘Cellists,’ the collection’s final and in some ways strongest tale, partially because while being written in Ishiguro’s customary first-person, the narrator is telling the stories of other people who remain sufficiently enigmatic as to make us wonder about what really transpired between them and where their paths led them in the shadow years after the story finishes. It concerns Tibor, another talented young musician from another Eastern European country—Ishiguro’s quite sensitive to the distinctive experiences of Eastern Europeans who fall under the spell of Western music—whose taken under the wing of Eloise, another American musical celebrity—or at least that what Eloise advertises herself as. Eloise is a fascinating question mark, existing on this strange frontier where it’s hard to distinguish between what passes as lived-in wisdom and as pure fantasy. Her true nature is fundamentally unknown to us, yet what we do know about her are details so carefully arranged that we leave the story wanting to know more without feeling we’ve been ripped off.

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