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.