Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

I run hot and cold with Kazuo Ishiguro, I think. His early books, especially The Remains of the Day, were magnificent, and I'm still a big fan of his cold, distant, murky The Unconsoled.

But I feel like everything he's done since then has fallen flat for me, which makes me wonder if it's a change in Ishiguro or in me. I will admit Never Let Me Go has its strengths, but none of those strengths are related to the SFnal idea, or anything within a thousand miles of plausibility. The only book of his I've previously hit in the life of this blog was the Arthurian misfire The Buried Giant, which does not have as much utterly frustrating passages as Never Let, but instead meanders and wanders semi-aimlessly through itself to a muted and dull finish, endlessly refusing to engage in any of the questions it raises or tropes it borrows.

As I think about my memories of those books - and the vaguer memories of When We Were Orphans - and of what I liked about the early novels, I'm coming to think Ishiguro's protagonists are inherently passive. They may do things, but they're not the motivating forces in their worlds. And some plots work much better with main characters who actually have goals and aims and intentions - genre fiction structures deform in unpleasant ways under the weight of lumps who just sit there and let evil scientists harvest their organs because they are Sad Clones Who Cannot Love.

Nocturnes is not a genre book; it was an original collection of five thematically-linked stories published in 2009. I bought it soon after publication, but it sat on my shelves, weighed down by the weight of so much else disappointing in Ishiguro over the years. I suppose it had been long enough that the disappointment was no longer fresh, because I picked it up recently...and maybe that's what made me realize my essential problem with Ishiguro's characters.

The subtitle is "Five stories of music and nightfall." They're not stories set at particular moments - it's not that kind of microfiction, or Nicholson Baker-esque mediations - so "nightfall" is more there as flavor text than something intrinsic to the core of the stories. They are all about musicians; that's what binds them all together. And all five of the main characters are very Ishiguro-esque; they are all led around, through their lives, by others, even as they seem to think they have desires and aims.

Ishiguro is a literary writer, and the clump of loosely linked short stories is a very literary format, which means his skills and aims line up well with the expectations of the reader and the possibilities of the form. I still found the narrators oddly passive at times, but none of them are carrying the weight of a novel's plot, so it's less intrusive.

And what happens in these five stories? They're mostly about the other people the narrators encounter: a guitarist in a public-space band in Venice helps an aging crooner serenade his current wife for the last time; a dull Brit expatriate whose only distinguishing feature is his declared "perfect taste" in classic jazz visits married old college friends because he serves them as an object lesson in how they have it good; a young songwriter working in a mid-England tourist trap for the summer also gets in the middle of a spiky marriage, this time of middle-aged Swiss, with an unfinished song that triggers their respective optimism and pessimism; a jazz musician who has never made it gets expensive plastic surgery as a backhanded gift, complains unsympathetically about everything, and has a brief friendship with a world-famous star in the same rehab facility; and the story of another musician in the first-story Venice scene - a cellist who learns that his new teacher is not quite what she seems - is told at second-hand in a way that seems to act as an iris-out for the whole book.

As I said, they are all literary stories, all about people who made arguably bad decisions, people who aren't driving their own lives, people who encounter others more compelling or driven or energetic. They definitely all come from the same story-space, and they work well together as a cluster of stories. I found the whole assemblage to be pleasant but somewhat lacking, like a pop tune with a chorus that you can hum but isn't hooky enough to remember more than a day or two. 

Your mileage may vary; Ishiguro is a Nobel winner, so clearly a lot of people think he's totally awesome.

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