Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
1995, 535 pp.

When researching which book to read from a well-regarded, well-established author whose work I am unfamiliar with, I tend to canvass all the available reviews and select not the most famous or most decorated book, but the book which sounds like the one I will enjoy the most. I try to give an author the benefit of the doubt, to begin on the best possible foot, then to proceed to the more difficult, more obscure, or more clich├ęd works. In retrospect, I have no idea what led me to decide to read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. It's true that the front cover carries a quote from the New York Times Book Review calling it "a work of art," but I am certain I didn't read that review. I read the one which says it "tries the reader's patience." And indeed it does. It tries and it fails.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must immediately report that I did not finish The Unconsoled, and I never will. I made it to page 314, where I found myself in a surprisingly detailed and explicit monologue about extremely elderly people having sex. The preceding 313 pages had given me no reason to continue, and when I skipped to the end to see if the whole thing was a dream or a death-hallucination, I found no explanation there either. I put the book aside and watched the airport carpet instead.

The Unconsoled deals with an apparently brilliant pianist named Ryder, who comes to an unnamed Central European city to give a concert. He is immediatley diverted and sent on a series of little errands. His schedule is apparently very busy, but he has no idea what is on it, and he seems to know (or thinks he knows) everyone he meets. He knows what the hotel porter is thinking and worrying about, in great detail, and when he meets the porter's daughter, he seems to have been married to her, or thinks he had been, or possibly remembers he was. He often has a whole conversation, then suddenly notices that someone else was standing there, or that the person he's talking to is carrying a large package, or that he's in a movie theater. He takes long, circuitous routes on his mysterious errands, then goes through a door and finds himself back where he started. Half the people he meets are old childhood friends. Some of his experiences are textbook nightmares: the person he tries to catch up with but can't, the place he has to get to but can't find, the party where he shows up in his bathrobe and has to give a speech, and so forth.

So I caught on pretty quickly that Ishiguro was playing games. I can handle the tired old auspices of the Unreliable Narrator, and I am well versed in the little games the surrealists play. I don't even need a plot, let alone one that makes sense. I read Thomas Bernhard and liked it. I got Ishiguro's general points (assuming, kindly, that he had any): every character seems to have problems relating to close family members, there is a sort of satire of the middle-class cult of art and artists, and the tension between personal duties and the duties of a public identity. That's all well and good, but the novel is terrible.

Part of the problem is the writing. The prose is flat, stilted, and formal, devoid of a single interesting phrase or memorable line. The first page contains six adverbs. Every line of dialogue is indentically stilted, and every character speaks in the same flat, horribly dull English, even Central Europeans and children. Look at this dreck:

"'As a matter of fact,' I said to her quietly, 'there was something I wished to talk to you about. But, er...'"

Say that out loud. I dare you. Obviously the "to her" can go, since she's the only person he's talking to. The "quietly" can probably go too, as any first-year writing teacher will remind you. "Wished" and "talk" belong to two different levels of formality: either you can "wish to speak to someone" or you can "want to talk to someone." "Wished to talk" sounds stupid. And "But, er"? Seriously? No one has ever said that, for the very good reason that someone might offer him toast.

And people blather this sort of stuff in monologues that can drag on for five, six, eight, or ten uninterrupted pages. It's utterly unreadable, and the slow pace, meaningless little quests, and total absence of logic make any given ten pages of The Unconsoled an identically boring, pointless, and frustrating read as any other given ten pages. Perhaps Ishiguro was trying to do a Kafka thing here, and make a few points about self-centered demands. But Kafka wrote about Everymen, who were always sympathetic and easy for the reader to identify with, caught up in the teeth of a cruelly indifferent, soulless bureaucracy. Ryder, the protagonist and narrator of The Unconsoled, is a bore and an ass, a totally self-centered, self-righteous, self-regarding imbecile whose personality consists entirely of his sense of entitlement and complete lack of curiosity about the world and everyone in it. He is a miserable presence to spend any number of pages with, let alone 538 of them. Nowhere is it suggested that Ryder is dreaming, hallucinating, dead, an alternate personality, or for that matter, a realistic character, an interesting figure, or in any way a worthwhile creation. The book ends with no explanation, no justification, no resolution. I do not mind a book with no point, but I object to a terrible book with no point.

I wonder why I read this instead of The Remains of the Day, which won Ishiguro the Booker, or Never Let Me Go, which the great M. John Harrison loved. Those may be perfectly good books, but I will probably never read them now, since Ishiguro will always taste for me like the grinding, stupid drudgery of this appalling mockery of a book. I paid a penny for it on Amazon and intend to leave an irate note complaining that I was cheated.

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