Just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s story collection Nocturnes, which isn’t bad – I don’t think Ish is capable of bad writing – but is, it must be declared, a little on the slight side. The subtitle, ‘Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’ says it all really: there are five stories; all involve musicians; all take place, at least in part, as night falls. And, uh, that’s about it, really. No buttoned-up butlers, no cloned teenagers, no pianos in the toilet.
The best of the bunch – and the one in which music is least central to the narrative – is ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, which involves a 40-something language teacher staying at the London flat of some rather more successful university friends. Ray (the teacher) and Emily (half of the successful couple) once bonded over a mutual appreciation of the Great American Songbook; which makes it especially jarring that Ray refers to the work of ‘Howard Arlen’, especially since it’s a Harold Arlen song that gives the story its title. (When I saw David McAlmont in London last year, he said that Arlen had been his favourite composer for many years, but he hadn’t realised it, because he’s a wee bit anonymous when set alongside the likes of Gershwin and Porter.)
Of course this may not be a mistake on Ishiguro’s part. He’s renowned for the unreliability of his narrators, so perhaps it’s a subtle hint that Ray doesn’t really know as much about music as he thinks, like Patrick Bateman not being able to distinguish the Beatles from the Stones. But it does feel rather similar to Julian Barnes’s booboo in Arthur and George, in which the Jesuit-educated Conan Doyle appears to confuse the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception.
I need to be careful here. Ishiguro’s writing fiction, as is Barnes, and that offers any number of get-out clauses for factual imprecision. I write about reality, and unless I’m going to pull the postmodernism defence, readers and critics would be fully justified if a book or article of mine includes something that just ain’t so. Moreover, my next book, The Noughties, aims to cover a whole decade, which means they’ll be entitled to point out errors not only of commission, but also omission.
Maybe I can redefine myself as an unreliable author.