Politics and Society

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Redux

     A recent on-line discussion of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes caused me to revisit this topic and to develop, from a slightly different angle I think, a fresh approach to presenting my critique. It is different and detailed enough to provide perhaps a clearer statement of my position.
    Oddly, though the work is entirely mine, I almost feel guilty for moving it here from its origin. This is especially odd since this is exactly what I did in a number of early reviews-before I committed to the blog. I think it has to do with the fact that the ideas were worked out in response to two or three particular interlocutors. It presents to me the strange feeling of publishing my own mail. Anyway, I feel more sincere in including the first paragraph here as well. All other comments and opinions being, obviously, for general consumption.

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    A few good comments from reliable critics (Luc and Beth), and you yourself, Kevin, have turned me to a more hopeful perspective regarding Ishiguro's novels. But I am still perplexed by the short stories.
   I think my basic reaction is this: In the collection Nocturnes, Ishiguro seems to toe, and in my view, overstep the line between 'pathos' and 'bathos'. There is something stubbornly stupid (incredibly so) about most of the characters. By my lights, that something is only given substance in the first story: "Crooner". In only this one story, do I feel sure that I know why the character acts as he does. Though I can't say I agree with his (the character's) reasoning, I accept that he believes it. The rest are not nearly so fully drawn. There is no sense that they must be/act so, they simply are/do act so. I can't empathize with them. There’s nothing there to empathize with! It's not that the dawns and dusks of destiny they face aren't true to life. It's that they are not!
    This may seem overly fastidious, but to me, this is a matter of the writer's Art, and his presenting the case means everything. It is what makes the difference between a story read, and an anecdote overheard.Perhaps it is best seen as a matter of degree. I know that one character is said to want to win back his wife; while that character claims to want to get something special out of his music, etc. But after reading the stories about them, I remain unconvinced. His (Ishiguro's) merely saying so, doesn't - for me - make it so! Simply put: I don't believe the author means it about his characters. Their velleties are pinned on them like ID tags. The claims are not supported or exhibited enough in action or depiction to be convincing.

    For example: "Malvern Hills"; can we see this character as anything other than a selfish teenager? (a virtual tautology, I know!) I can not. And yet Ishiguro appends a London, club-scene history to his 'bio' that belies his own subsequent characterization. He tells us we are dealing with a young adult, and then he presents a kid. Whatever drama might have developed in this tale of a young musician facing the polar extremes of fate - one, represented by Tilo, cherishing his opportunities for what they are, the other, by his wife, embittered beyond solace - is lost on this guy, because this is just so much "water off a duck's back" to a kid--any kid. It is the stuff of light comedy. Ishiguro doesn't seem to know this! I think the story fails because the writer is more interested in the "message" than the character. In Art as in football, the play is only good if you have the man who can carry the ball.

    Given the chance, I would say, 'Ishi, old friend,' - since that's my way - 'you've got to convince me that this guy is not just an obstreperous kid, not just say so on page 1; because everything that follows says otherwise in no uncertain terms. And your (Ishi's) earlier 'say so,' notwithstanding, that's what I've got to go on.' And, in the end, there is nothing poignant about a teenager with a mischievous streak. I smile, or laugh even, and wish him well. But I don't respond with either hope or fear. After all, neither will he!
    If one says, 'Ah, but that's the point: He (Ishiguro) just wanted to dramatize the extremes,' I answer, 'then the kid-angle is superfluous. Stick to the old couple and the mean teacher, and stop running two plays on the same down.' (Or two dramas on the same stage?)
    I think similar criticisms of the other stories (excepting "Crooners") can be brought, mutatis mutandem, with similar results.

    The issue, then, as I see it is this: Are these characters (though fictive) here to live out a human truth? Illustrate an insight through their character and action? Or, are they really there only to be examples of a pre-established, pre-conceived "message"? I think Ishiguro has leaned toward the latter. Their destinies are not poignant, hell, they are not even real--neither the characters, nor the destinies. Yes, 'the Idea' of "pipe dreams" is very poignant: And, as evinced in the interview with the Guardian, Ishiguro has great sympathy with people who just don't fulfill their own dreams. But it is poignant only in relation to people; i.e. those one can identify with or believe in--be they 'real' or just "characters" of fiction. 'Tokens' or 'Types' or empathetic stand-ins just won't suffice. Ishiguro, I'm afraid, is not concerned with characters, per se. He is concerned with the vaguely unsatisfying destiny of a certain 'type of character' (a class, really), i.e. dreamers.

    Finally, even the uncertain quality of his focus convinces me: ‘He just doesn't see these characters as individual people.’ Evidence: in "Nocturne" (Pg. 164), a character (the Sax-man) whose head is wrapped in medical gauze tells us he couldn't see the emotional reaction of his companion - whose head is also wrapped in gauze - because of the poor lighting. Did he forget  - that his whole head and her whole head were wrapped, so as to make such seeing (read: interpretation) impossible in any light - or did Ishiguro forget? If we assume the character forgets, we have slap-stick comedy. If the writer forgets, we have something else again. Since there is nothing in the text to suggest the former, I have to play the odds here: the writer forgot what he was about, but since it didn't really effect the message, he didn't notice. (Or he thought we wouldn't care.) But I did notice, and therefore, I don't care!

    I think I get his "message": Life ain't all sunshine and roses, nor is it made of 'moonlight and music.'  But this is not yet interesting. (Indeed, it's obvious.) How and why real people must face this is interesting. What is interesting is not that they do, but how and, especially, why. The first option (that they do - fail, fall short, fade or 'whatever' ) is 'Bathos'; the second (how and/or why they do so) is 'Pathos'. To finish off my football metaphor, then: if Ishiguro wants to make the endzone (pathos), he's got to stop running out of bounds (bathos). Give the ball to someone who can carry it with authority--right up the middle, one play at a time.

(Interesting idea: Compare Ishiguro's "Cellists" to Henry James "Beast in the Jungle"; same theme, but which character is full blown? which story is easier to believe?)

    Sorry to go on like this; but I think I just achieved a life long goal: to marry football to literature. (I will never feel guilty again for neglecting either one for the other!)
    Thanks for bearing with me!

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