Novel: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

313 pages, saith Wikipedia

Published in 2000 by Faber and Faber; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

I was deeply invested in this book when I started reading. A riff on old-fashioned detective stories, plus Ishiguro-style meditations on memory and self-deception, seemed like about as much fun as I could ask for. Then I got to the transition point—I think it’s when Banks first returns to Shanghai—and realized I was in for a long stretch of Unconsoled-style dream-life. I waited impatiently for the original story to be resolved, but you can’t resolve semi-realistic tension with dream logic. And Banks, who had been likable and easy to relate to, became basically like Ryder in The Unconsoled: a knot of neuroses and literary themes, untrustworthy, unrecognizable. Eventually the dreamlike section ended and the plot stuff got resolved, and there were genuinely moving moments as well. But the fun never came back. The dreamlikeness never got explained either.


Edited to add that I think Ishiguro is trying to find a way to combine the dreamlike mode of The Unconsoled with the semi-realistic mode of his first three novels. It seems like a reasonable thing to attempt, and it makes sense to nest the dream stuff in the center of the more realistic storyline, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think the problem is that, while I can accept a dreamlike story on its own terms, I can’t accept it in such a realistic context. The dream stuff lowers the stakes, brings the “real” story to a halt, nullifies any stable sense of worldbuilding and thereby kills suspense, et cetera.

Novel: The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro

535 pages in the paperback, ? words

Published in 1995 by Faber and Faber, received the Cheltenham Prize (thanks Wikipedia!)

I adored this book, but I don’t know if I could ever reread it. It makes various parts of my body hurt from tension.

I’m just going to jot down a few standout points about how this bizarre thing holds together:

  • The dreamlike lapses of logic start early on, with a long, long monologue taking place on a short elevator ride, and they reappear pretty consistently throughout.
  • The changes in point of view also start early on. At first Ryder (the first-person narrator) “remembers” something about another character’s life, and the reader can infer that these are memories of when he lived with Boris and Sophie. But his knowledge becomes more and more interior to the other characters, and it isn’t confined to the past or to anything he might have the opportunity to observe.
  • I once heard someone say that the most characteristic feature of dreams is the credulity of the dreamer. Ryder never questions most of the illogic around him. When he does question it, his attitude is always frustration at incompetence and foolishness and misplaced authority. He never touches the fundamental unreality of his circumstances. In particular, he never questions how he knows something, which means he never comments on the point of view shifts at all.
  • Writer types have told me that a first-person past-tense narrator needs to have a reason for telling a story. In this book, I think we’re supposed to understand Ryder as basically out of control of the story: he doesn’t know why he’s telling it, he isn’t aware of how he’s telling it, he’s reliving it the way a child relives a bad dream. The narration is in past tense, but it has a present-tense feel because of the narrator’s inability to reflect on what’s happening. Or no, he does reflect, but his reflections are dream-muddled and futile.
  • Every character and every plot seems to mirror every other. To my mind, this constant mirroring gives the novel a certain coldness: it’s not really about any particular characters, it’s about the themes and situations they repeat over and over. Ryder isn’t a person we feel for so much as a focal point where these themes mesh together with the greatest intensity. He is son, father, lover, friend, artist, careerist, thinker.
  • Stuff that unifies/simplifies this book: having just one narrator and a tight three-day structure.

On one meaning of criticism

Whenever I see a writer criticized for obscurity and pretentiousness, I somehow expect the critic to write clearly, unpretentiously, and well. This is not always the case. Often the critic makes a far worse mess of far modester ambitions.

Should we accuse such a critic of being hypocritical? To do so is surely to miss the real meaning of the criticism. Criticism is a way of saying, I am here, I have opinions, I am important. And often that is also true of the writing being criticized. There is no contradiction, no hypocrisy. We are all frogs piping back and forth across the bogs, I am here, me, me, me.

Short story: “The Night in Question”

“The Night in Question,” by Tobias Wolff

3,450 words (my first estimate was 2,000)

Appeared in the New Yorker on April 22nd, 1996 (subscribers can read online); read aloud in the April 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; collected in a book of the same title; found a PDF version online in the archives of a site called A Modest Construct

I feel like I can’t top what Akhil Sharma says about this piece on the podcast.

I wonder if Frances’s seemingly pathological coping methods aren’t, in some sense, healthier than her brother’s. The sermon Frank loves so much is about fathers (God, Mike) hurting their sons in some of the cruelest ways imaginable, and being justified in it. The implication is that Frank has no right to be angry with his father (Frank Senior, God). Whereas Frances insists on keeping her anger, even if it means repeating the cruelty of their father(s), demanding that Frank put himself in an impossible position for her sake. What’s terrible is that she’s willing to hurt Frank just as badly as their father did in order to keep being his protector.

When a piece this short works this well, I think about boxes and keyholes a lot. How did Wolff sit down and write this? Did he have to pare away a novel’s worth of detail and backstory to get this story? Or did he start with the brother and sister and the ghastly sermon, and fill in just enough to show us what they’re really talking about? I should diagram this shit and figure out exactly how much information we get at each point in the story.

I don’t like the title, but then I often don’t like titles. It places undue emphasis on the slightly pompous phrase Frank uses and on Mike’s terrible choice.

Short story: “Victory Lap”

“Victory Lap,” by George Saunders

Maybe 5,000 words??—short version is around 3,400

Appeared in the New Yorker on October 5th, 2009 (subscribers can read online here, but I regret to say I am not a subscriber); collected in Tenth of December, which is what I’m reading/listening to now; also found a very different, shorter version online on Longform

Unlike “Puppy,”* this piece strikes me as differentiating effectively between the three characters’ points of view, even though they all have a similar Saundersian goofiness. Of course, I might be biased by the audio recording.

I’m not crazy about how closely this story follows the classic, cliché female victim/male hero model. The story opens with Alison’s naive, self-aggrandizing fantasies; Kyle’s first section shows him to be a genuine innocent who deserves a better life than he has. Alison judges Kyle harshly for his looks and eccentricity; Kyle idolizes her for her beauty. Alison gets “punished” by the narrative, and as a direct result, she realizes how much she’s misjudged Kyle, her friend and rescuer. It’s never quite implied that the two will end up romantically involved, but the possibility is never averted either. At the very end, the story wisely dwells on Alison’s attempt to recover from her trauma, and on her own small act of heroism. But if we’re looking for some kind of closure for the romantic nonsense in the opening, we have to look at this final scene, in which she’s wholly preoccupied with Kyle—his moral choices, his growth as a person, his safety. And we’re used to the sort of story where the girl’s feelings for the boy are treated as his rightful reward.

On the other hand, we spend more time on Alison’s moral fantasies than her romantic ones, so it makes sense that her running outside to shout at Kyle would be the pivotal point of the story for her. At the beginning, she believes in goodness and moral courage, and at the end, her faith has been vindicated.

The Longform version is missing the sections in Kyle’s point of view, which makes me wonder whether Saunders added them in later or took them out. I think I might have preferred the shorter version. I like Kyle’s parts a lot, but he kind of steals the protagonist role. He takes action sooner and more dramatically than Alison does, and the way his character changes is bigger and more positive. Even the title belongs to him, not to Alison.

All that aside, I’m pretty impressed with the way this story works. Each section break switches voices gracefully. Each voice is distinct and fun to read for its own sake, even the slightly cliché rapist-murderer. Maybe he wouldn’t be as much fun if he weren’t slightly cliché, if his hokeyness (abusive stepfather, Biblical delusions of grandeur) didn’t take some of the stuffing out of his scariness.

Here’s a type of transition I find tricky to carry off: “For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down.” How does that work so well? It comes four paragraphs (163 words) after a section break. Alison’s point of view is familiar and a relief, jumping from one idea to another in her characteristic fashion. The transition is the opening sentence of the fifth paragraph. And it doesn’t break the tension, either; we still have to find out what really happened and how Alison is recovering.

*Apparently that was two years ago. In my defense, I’ve spent the last two years reading a bunch of other stuff—it’s not like I decided not to read any George Saunders for a while.

Short story: “Exhortation”

“Exhortation,” by George Saunders

1,865 words

Collected in Tenth of December; appeared in Prospect on December 12th, 2012 (online here)

Pitch-perfect corporate pep talk.

“Write what you know”

This has always been one of the more baffling pieces of traditional advice. Who is it aimed at? Who could possibly benefit from it? I can only think of two possibilities.

  1. A writer who insists on tackling subject matter they can’t handle. Like maybe they’re imitating spy novels, but they don’t know how to make the plots believable or generate suspense or imbue their badass characters with any depth. Or they’re trying to write Serious Drama, but their portrayals of murder and grief and PTSD ring false. “Write what you know” would be okay advice for that writer, a reminder that their own experience is valid and worth telling stories about, and that too much ambition can undermine a good project.
  2. Somebody who claims they can’t think of anything to write. At least it would force them to write something. Though probably not something readable.

I don’t understand why people say “Write what you know” to anyone besides these two specific types of people. I’ve seen advice-givers try to justify and expand it (“Write what you know emotionally“; “Don’t write without doing the research”), but wow. Just scrap it and start over.

What ending is


—George Saunders in his essay “Rise, Baby, Rise!” (PDF hosted by Paul Saxton in this post)

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, and you’re a girl …”

The absolute best part of Brett Booth’s recent tantrum was his invoking of the Bambi Rule. According to Booth, if you write an article criticizing a piece of commercial art on artistic, moral, and commercial grounds, you have to say some nice things too. Otherwise it’s “incredibly negative” and “biased” and “an attack.”

What made Janelle Asselin’s thoughtful, rather mild article stand out for him? It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of vitriol you see in any Twitter conversation about gender politics. It actually does offer a few words of praise for the artist, without getting personal. The only remarkable things about it are that 1) it’s written by a woman, 2) she openly criticizes the slightly ludicrous, fetishistic way women (even underage women) are drawn in a lot of superhero comix, and 3) she’s rooting for DC to target a more diverse audience, and specifically to appeal to more women. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Short story: “Juice”

“Juice,” by Rachael Katz

665 words

Appeared here in the first half of April 2014 in matchbook

For me, this is not a story. It’s a good opening for a story: brisk, funny, full of memorable characters, rife with potential problems. (I also like to think I spotted a Baby-sitters Club cameo, humor me on this.) I want to read the middle and end of this story. Maybe it’s a long April Fool’s thing and matchbook will post the middle and end tomorrow.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers