Politics and Society

Monday, June 6, 2011

“‘Music and Moonlight’, Blah, Blah, Blah!”

   Recently, I vowed to look into the legacy of William Trevor to find for myself the reason behind his quasi-invisibility in modern anthologies. At the time, I intended to compare him and his work to others, including Kazuo Ishiguro (a winner of the Booker Prize, in 1989, for The Remains of the Day, and various other awards and accolades), with a focus on their short stories—since that is what Trevor is best known for. Well, as promised, I have read Trevor’s stories  (in After Rain) and I have read Ishiguro’s stories (in Nocturnes) and I have this to report: the comparison isn’t even close; indeed, it is not even fair! Ishiguro’s Nocturnes makes such a poor showing as an entry in the Art-of-storytelling category that it can’t be compared, any more than high school football can be compared to an NFL play-offs game. It was an unfortunate choice on my part! For they are playing different games altogether, dictated entirely by their strengths and relative maturity (This is Ishiguro's first volume of short stories!)—to say nothing of the invidious influence of money.

    When I recently finished reading Ishiguro's Nocturnes, a collection of short stories ('of Music and Nightfall'), I found myself wishing there were more. Not more stories, but more to the stories presented. I learned from an interview, that these stories were written thematically and sequentially during a period of months. (This link was provided first by John Self. See <theasylum.com>) Though some are better than others - some funnier ("Come Rain or Come Shine"), some more melancholy ("Crooner") - they are, none of them, poignant or gripping, or any other adjective that carries weight. And the more I thought it over, the more disappointed I became. Frankly, I began to suspect the method of production, modeled as it apparently was on the music industry’s studio session. (In the interview Ishiguro asserts: "Maybe it's better to say it's more like an album, and you don't sometimes want a track released as a single.") That's no way to write short stories! And the proof is in the pudding. I found that they are light stuff, through and through.

    But wait, it is more than that. They are not just light fair – after all, some stories are only meant to amuse. What’s wrong with that? Briefly, with one niggling exception (“Come Rain or Come Shine”), they don’t amuse. In fact, they don't do much of anything so as one would notice. They present themselves as mood pieces for which the mood is already set by the sub-title. "Stories of Music and Nightfall"? Not so much! The pretexts of both music and night are really just a pretense in all but one of the stories.

   It should be no surprise that "Crooner" is the only tale that didn't seem forced in the telling. It is also the only one in which both the narrator and the main character are fully functional, fully rendered characters and, though the story left me questioning the plausibility of the outcome, it was ultimately satisfying.  It is the first story of the book, and probably the germ of the sequence. And it involves both music and nightfall as structural and thematic elements – successfully, I think -  though it is very melodramatic!
   The rest of these stories could have been about any types at any times. Instead, they are populated by one-dimensional character-types, merely; stunted vellieties upon whom experience leaves no mark.  (Think Prufrock without the irony.)  Characters about whom I often asked: Is it really possible to be that dense? Perhaps not, but the stories  should make me believe that it is. They didn't.
   It seems to me, those terms (music and nightfall) are included in the description in the hope that we will attribute to the stories a lyricism and melancholy (already associated with the author) that the stories, themselves, fail to deliver. Is this evidence that writing thematic stories sequentially to fill a book can yield padded results? Probably (he said, nodding his head vigorously and frowning).

   All too often I felt sure he had 'mailed this one in.' For the most part, the stories are rather glib renditions of – literally - incredibly shallow people, narrated either by this gossipy fool, or by an equally banal, first-person, cartoon character. Their minds are shallow, their stories (at least what we know of them) are shallow, and their descriptions are shallow. (I can’t remember what any one of them looks like!) No matter what insult or hurt they suffer or sling, they don’t seem to register the event beyond the next line. They are like cartoon characters that bounce back into shape the moment the moment is over. The stupid ones remain stupid, and the vain ones remain vain, the flat ones remain flat and the narrator doesn’t seem to notice – or register – the difference. Indeed, the narrator might just be the most insipid witness in literature.
     Sometimes, he doesn’t even have a reason to be (in “Cellists” he is merely a bad habit of the author), and sometimes he gets in his own way. E.g.  How could a working, plaza-musician – the narrator of two stories - know what happens in the hotel room across the plaza, never mind in the mind of the characters? Never mind, Ishiguro doesn’t seem to notice or care, one way or the other. It doesn't make me want to read more, though I probably will. But from all the accolades he's garnered, I expected more.

*          *         *

   To add insult to injury, the writing, itself, seems distinctly trivial and/or perfunctory. Take, for example, the pop culture cleverness in "Nocturne" (Pg. 167): we get:
                       "LAPD", he said. "Name's Morgan."
a wry but unsubtle allusion to 60's American TV cop show, 'Dragnet'? ('Sgt Friday' talked this way, in every episode: his partner was the actor, Harry Morgan.) Why do this?
Or, from “Cellists”:
              For another moment, they remained standing there together, just
              beyond the pool of light cast by the front of the hotel, the bulky
              cello between them.  (Pg. 220, italics added)
Do fronts of hotels cast light? (Do writers have time to learn what does?) Of course, we know what he means, but it’s his job is to say it, not ours to interpolate.
    And, finally, there's this gaff from “Nocturne”:
              Lindy had gone silent, and when I turned to face her,
              I couldn't see well enough in the light to guess what 
              she was thinking.     (Pg. 164, italics added)

This doesn't sound odd if you don't know (or have forgotten, as did the writer!!) that his characters' faces are completely masked in medical gauze, so that such a guess, or interpretation, is obviously and unforgettably impossible!

    One can say that most of what I’ve said has been merely subjective; my own personal take – a feeling, if you will – about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. I won’t dispute that, but I will argue that any defense of this book has got to explain these obvious failures of attention and integrity. I cannot shake the sense that this collection was produced for market like a third-rate music album, with the same goal. (And me with a signed copy of the 1st American edition!) With all due respect to others' views of Ishiguro and his Nocturnes, and with hope that his novels offer more, I cannot recommend this book.


    On a lighter note, the challenge is still afoot, for their are others. I am looking now at the Canadian master of the short story, Alistair Macleod, and his collection, Island.
More on him and William Trevor, shortly.

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