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Tag: faber and faber

Novel: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

313 pages, saith Wikipedia

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.

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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.

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Novel: The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

535 pages in the paperback, ? words

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. (Edited to add: Ishiguro says in an interview, “In a dream, one character often will be portrayed by different people.”)
  • Stuff that unifies/simplifies this book: having just one narrator and a tight three-day structure.