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Simultaneously annoying and compulsive reading...
on 30 June 2010
It's always difficult to review a Kazuo Ishiguro book. The naturalistic, fluid nature of his writing is very compelling and consistently worthy of at least four stars. The problem is with some of the characterisation in his novels and the desultory nature of his narratives. He's well known for the kind of stories that meander towards an anti-climax, the emphasis not so much on the destination as the journey. What do we learn about the characters from this snapshot of their life that has been revealed through the tale? Now this sort of passing-through approach should be ideal for the short story format, surely? Well yes and no. 'Nocturnes' has five stories for which the phrase 'hit-and-miss' is most apt. For every decent tale the next falls flat. The worst offenders in this collection are 'Come Rain or Come Shine' and the eponymous 'Nocturnes' for no other reason that they feel the most contrived and left me the most dissatisfied with their resolution. 'Cellists' comes a close third.
There is a running theme throughout the book of implacably shallow women who only value the men in their lives according to their social status and achievements. Another Ishiguro favourite is the docile male character who allows those around him to trampel his self-worth into the ground. These combined factors make for extremely irritating reading and reaches a nadir in doormat Ray and his supercilious, bullying friends Charlie and Emily in 'Come Rain...'-a story that actually starts off very promisingly.
'Nocturnes' is the tale of a talented but supposedly underachieving saxophonist, Steve, who is convinced by his callous ex-wife and opportunistic manager to have plastic surgery to improve his looks and -by their logic-his chances of success. Whilst re-cuperating after surgery in a plush hotel, he meets media-whore Lindy Gardner who he initially abhors due to her being a celebrity-chasing non-entity. And she is indeed obnoxious, resenting his talent and feeling it's her God-given right to set herself apart from being 'just public'. Steve comes close to putting her in her place only to be apologetic about it later-which just about sums up the propensity for spinelessness of the majority of male protagonists in 'Nocturnes'. And Steve is one of the more forthright ones, believe it or not.
In 'Cellists' a gifted young Hungarian Tibor, drifting through Italy, meets an American woman with delusions of grandeur. She claims to be a virtuoso cellist, offering to mentor him, despite not being proficient on the instrument herself. He still manages to fall under a spell... By now you get the drift.
The problem with this approach is that Ishiguro's characters throughout 'Nocturnes' end up being quite two-dimensional. In adhering to his non-explosive literary style, the author often forsakes realism. There are too many times when a confrontation would seem the natural outcome. When it doesn't occur, ironically, it betrays the realism that one assumes Ishiguro is after.
Having read quite a few of his books now I am also puzzled about some of Ishiguro's binary representations of women. Most of them are especially manipulative and unpleasant in 'Nocturnes'. I also feel the author sits on the fence too much with some of the subjects broached in the book. Is he critiquing the superficial nature of celebrity culture and aspirational living or is it merely a backdrop for another aimless tale? The thing is, Ishiguro is perfectly capable of making a point as demonstrated in 'Never Let Me Go'- my first exposure to his work and by far his best. 'Never...' raises some profound questions about medical ethics without being heavy-handed. Such reflection is missing in 'Nocturnes'.
That said as a music lover myself I appreciate that Ishiguro is a man enamoured with the art form; one with diverse taste and an excellent grasp of musical technicalities and the history of various genres. This definitely comes across throughout the collection and alongside the irresistably simple-but in no way facile-way he crafts a story, elevates the book in a way few others could manage. Knowing that there's always an infuriatingly repressed tone to Ishiguro's work, perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment to keep returning...or it's just plain addictive.