Wednesday, April 23, 2008

When in robe

I'm in the midst of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. I've liked his writing for a long time, but I've avoided this one: partly because at 535 pages, it's about 150 outside my comfort zone (I have no compunction about casting aside a book after a few chapters, but I'm sufficiently bloody-minded that if I do get to the half-way point, I have to keep on to the end, and 200+ is just a wee bit too dutiful); and also because this is the one that makes even devoted Ishiguro groupies raise their eyebrows and change the subject. The back cover quotes include "complex and ambitious" and "a work of great interest", which are often criticspeak for "tries too hard" and "brave failure".

Well, maybe, but it looks OK so far (currently, not quite half-way). Essentially, it's the story of Ryder, a concert pianist who arrives in an unnamed European city to play a concert. Beyond that, he seems at a loss about what his schedule is, although he's happy enough to fall into step with any suggestion made by his hosts; indeed, he seems perfectly at ease in any situation he encounters - it's the past and future that seem to present problems.

At first, you think Ryder's suffering from some sort of amnesia, rather similar to condition of the protagonist in Memento, existing in a permanent present. It's Kafka meets Jane Austen, where the greatest threat is social embarrassment. But things get odder when Ryder goes to a cinema showing 2001: A Space Odyssey - which for the purposes of this narrative stars Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. It's when Ryder fails to notice this that a new explanation presents itself. He's dreaming.

More specifically, it's that banal category of dream where every component is normal, but the order and context are just a little bit muddled. People Ryder hasn't seen since childhood accost him on the street, as if they've popped up fully-formed from the deepest recesses of his memory. He overhears conversations from several rooms away, which he couldn't possibly pick up in real life. Most telling, he finds himself at a posh reception in his dressing-gown and slippers. It's a classic dream scenario, the vulnerability of pyjamas-in-the-playground, the sort of experience that would result in abject humiliation in reality, but in the dream state only provokes a mild discomfiture, the sensation that something's not quite as it should be, similar to a familiar film suddenly being recast before your eyes. It also summons up the ghost of Arthur Dent, who in the TV and the movie versions of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (but not, as far as I recall, the book or radio incarnations) wears pyjamas and a dressing-gown. Which brings up the question - is Douglas Adams's own universe (not to mention life and everything) just an extended dream sequence as well? Another character that comes to mind is Ivan Goncharov's idle anti-hero Oblomov, who gave the Russian language the glorious abstract noun "halatnost", literally "dressing-gown-ness", a state of intertia, apathy, daydreaming and general blaaah.

And somewhere in between the two come my own juvenile scribblings. When I was at primary school, we were supposed to keep a diary, detailing what we'd done at the weekend. Being a pathologically nerdy and anti-social child, what I'd done at the weekend usually comprised watching Play Away, reading half a dozen Ladybird history books and eating cheese on toast, which, frankly, didn't make great copy. So I'd concoct bizarre stories of aliens, zombies, criminal masterminds and general high-jinks, all of them ending with something along the lines of "...and then I woke up."

I'm not sure yet whether Ishiguro is going to reach for the same cop-out. I'll let you know when I get to page 535.

PS: Talking of Adams, this excavation of the long-lost Milliways computer game pulls off the scabs of the creative process; thanks to Dr Hocking for flagging this one up.

18 comments:

Sniffer said...

"So I'd concoct bizarre stories... ending with something along the lines of "...and then I woke up.""

Kind of like Ian McEwan did with Atonement?

Marsha said...

Ooh, I can't agree with you about "Atonement", Sniffer. Surely it's a book within a book, not a dream?

"watching Play Away, reading half a dozen Ladybird history books and eating cheese on toast"

Ah, bliss. Sounds very like my own childhood weekends, although I tended to favour the Ladybird natural history series.
I was just thinking the other day about the way story-writing school kids will introduce hugely complex, interwoven storylines and then, due to boredom or lack of time, write "...and then there was an earthquake and they all died". The last book I read (The Secret River - Kate Grenville) was a bit like that, and it was nominated for the Booker. I feel your time could be at hand Tim.

Tim Footman said...

Hello, Sniffer. As Marsha suggests, [SPOILER ALERT] Atonement isn't quite a dream sequence - it's a book within a book. Although you don't realise that until near the end - maybe you can see it as being similar to the nested narratives of Wuthering Heights (Nelly's within Lockwood's) but with the front half sliced off, so you don't know what's going on. On the other hand, maybe the combination of guilt and vascular dementia is a bit like dreaming.

"...due to boredom or lack of time...". That, Marsha adds a whole new dimension to critical analysis.

patroclus said...

I wish I'd had this post to hand when I was trying to argue to the Green Wing detractors that the dream sequence is a perfectly valid artistic device.

Iain Banks's The Bridge is also set in a dream world, although a progressively more bizarre one. I believe it does actually finish with 'and then he woke up', or words to that effect. Then there's Marianne Dreams, which terrified me as a child. Not to mention Life on Mars, although I don't know how that ended because I never saw series 2.

Arthur Dent was definitely wearing pyjamas and dressing gown in the book of THHGTTG.

My infant diaries are all about what happened in Doctor Who and how my little brother is infinitely naughtier than me.

Charles Frith said...

One of my fave books The Unconsoled. Complex but lots of stirred up feelings.

Sniffer said...

Well, Marsha and Tim, that told me. My comment was meant to be facetious but I feel that the 'nested narrative' (I do like that term), in Atonement is a device of not much more more depth than a child's 'and it was all a dream' story; po-mo for slow coaches.
Regarding Ishiguro's works, I think When We Were Orphans bears some relation to The Unconsoled in its off-kiltereredness but is also much more unsettling. I had the misfortune, though, recently to see The White Countess (Ishiguro screenplay, Shanghai under siege setting) and I couldn't believe that someone whose I respected was involved in such a meretricious work. A bit like my feeling when I first read Atonement

Tim Footman said...

Sorry, Patroclus, I didn't have a copy of the book to hand. Until the TV version, I always pictured Arthur as being a meek little clerk in a pinstripe suit. And my only sibling was entirely absent from my school diary. Like Trotsky, scrubbed from the revolution.

I know what you mean about stirred up feelings, Charles. Because of the slight disconnect from reality, I find myself filling in the gaps with my own life story. Hmm.

Many apologies, Sniffer, my sarcasm detector is clearly on the blink. "Po-mo for slow coaches". Like it.

dh said...

Re the Milliways link...it amazes me that Adams could write everything he did and still deal with bureaucracy and all life's other realities. Quite a guy.

Billy said...

The last line of my never to be written novel will be "...before turning the gun on himself". Better that than waking up and it had all been a dream.

Annie said...

I applaud Sniffers comment about Atonement. Ian McEwan wanting to seem clever and give it depth that wasn't there.

I loved When We Were Orphans, when the narrator appears to lose the plot and think his missing parents will be in the same place decades later. Kind of similar to Empire of the Sun in the way it captures the chaos of war and how it drives people mad.

(incidentally, I lazily Googled 'Kazuo' and saw a photo of the scariest human being I've ever seen.)

Tim Footman said...

DH: But considering he had a career of 20+ years, he didn't really write that much. He blamed it on writer's block - I reckon it was ADHD.

Billy: What about "...and it was only then that he remembered this was the novel he was never going to write."?

Annie: Ewww! Quentin Crisp going through a Goth phase!

Dr Ian Hocking said...

I can confirm that Mr Dent was wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown in all incarnations.

By the way, a great book with nested narration is, of course, the Meisterwerk of David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. God, I love that book.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Very glad to see Oblomov mentioned. Idleness or accidie? Metaphor for 19th century Russia or Goncharov's auto-therapy?

Brian Cant was clearly a seminal influence during your childhood. I wonder how you got on with Peter Glaze? And can you still whistle the Bod tune?

Tim Footman said...

I see what you mean about Cloud Atlas, Ian. But Wuthering Heights takes it further - Bronte is reporting Lockwood reporting Nelly reporting the main narrative. (I think there's a Roald Dahl story that goes even deeper.)

Christopher: Peter Glaze! The man who invented d'oh! before anyone had heard of Homer Simpson. And... da-da doo-da-doo-da-da-doo, da-da-doo-doo-doo-doo (by Derek Griffiths, who was even cooler than Mr Cant).

Nick Pegg said...

Without wishing to Dent anyone's beliefs, Douglas Adams is on record as having admitted that it was only during the making of the TV series of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (i.e. after the first two books had already been written) that he realized that the demands of the story meant that Arthur didn't have time to get dressed after the incident with Mr Prosser's JCB, and thus remained in his dressing gown for the duration; until then, like Tim, Adams had pictured Arthur in a suit. But he liked the dressing gown idea, and accordingly went on to open the third book ('Life, the Universe and Everything') with a whole lot of dressing-gown-specific material.

Tim Footman said...

Thanks, Nick. So the dressing-gown is like Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker...

Miss Schlegel said...

There's a subculture of Ishiguro groupies who love The Unconsoled best of all. I'm in it and so's me mum. The whole effect of the book is soporific, firstly because it's a dream but also because it's like the boringness of someone telling you about their dream times five hundred pages, and even though that doesn't sound particularly rewarding, I found it truly transporting.

I sometimes wonder if I ever actually finished reading it, or if I've just entered it.

You must post again when you finish, Tim, and tell us how you coped* with the end.

Meanwhile I've spent the last half hour in another kind of reverie, plotting on how I can work "po-mo for slow couches" into conversation with impressionable friends

* That's not a spoiler. I read it a hundred years ago and can't even remember the end. I'm going to go have a squizz now.

Tim Footman said...

Greetings, Miss Schlegel (a fine, bluestocking name). A second Ish post is forthcoming.