Life is Messy: Author Kazuo Ishiguro Plumbs Dreamland
At any given moment on the planet, a billion brains are dreaming. These brief forays into madness are at once our most mundane and most exotic activity. In his new book, The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro has managed to lift the dream up into the light of day.It's difficult to prepare for an interview with Ishiguro -- but not for the reasons you might imagine. Usually, someone of Ishiguro's stature -- Booker Prize-winner, globally-known, best-selling author -- creates a rather daunting figure. Everything he writes wins some prestigious prize or another. And the bookjacket testimonial blurbs... A pantheon of luminaries, from Michael Ondaatje to Salmon Rushdie to Doris Lessing to Richard Ford, have given Ishiguro an avalanche of accolades. Ann Beattie called his The Remains of the Day "A perfect novel." Now that's a kudo, all right. Geez, you wonder, am I gonna sound like a bumbling idiot?Ishiguro, however, presents a different sort of problem. Two problems, really. If you've read The Unconsoled (Vintage; $13), you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, here's a quick sketch of the plot:World-renown pianist Mr. Ryder has come to a Central European city. The city has suffered a cultural decline in recent years, and so the citizens are looking forward to Ryder's arrival. In a grand ceremony at the main auditorium, he will make a speech, perform a piece on the piano, take questions from the audience -- and in the process, he'll nourish the aching soul of this city.Nothing is simple, however. Ryder can't seem to get enough sleep, for one thing. Then there are the simple, heartfelt requests from various people around him -- will you please listen to my piano-playing, Mr. Ryder, or, Mr. Ryder, it would mean so much if you would mention us during your speech.This, then, is problem number 1: I am compelled to ask Ishiguro for small favors. He is on a mini Midwest book tour, and I know it's ridiculous, but my mind is spinning scenarios: Mr. Ishiguro, while you're in Chicago, please, sir, it would just take a phone call: my sister, whom I haven't spoken to in three years, is such a fan of your work. She's ill, you see, a neurological condition, nothing life-threatening, sir, but it would mean so much.Mr. Ishiguro, while you're in Madison, Wisconsin, my oldest friends, they're going through a difficult time in their marriage. Could you take a moment, please, sir, just to talk with them -- a phrase or two from you, why, even a physical gesture, say, a shrug or smile, however small, might just have a positive effect. Please, Mr. Ishiguro -- it will only take a moment and could make such a big difference.Okay. It helps to spin these requests out loud -- their utterly inane nature is revealed, and I know I can restrain myself when we finally talk. Problem number 2 is more serious, however.In The Unconsoled, Ryder is guy who can't say no; this places him in a terrible fix. Every time he leaves his hotel en route to an appointment, he ends up somewhere else. The surrounding citizens assail him time and again for small favors, and the more he travels the labyrinth of the city, the more he begins to recognize it and its inhabitants as the constituents of his deepest memories. Yet everything keeps changing: his hotel room, the route to the auditorium, the corridors he inhabits. The maze unfolds before him, unceasingly.The Unconsoled messes with your mind, all right, but it also appears to influence the external world, too. I was so engulfed in its narrative flow, I needed Pocket Jaws of Life to extract me from the book so I could attend to domestic details.Simply put, I have never encountered a book whose narrative structure and content more closely resembled the metaphysics of my dreamstate. I don't know how I can restrain myself from telling Ishiguro he's cracked the code of my own, personal dreams -- he's entered my dreamscape as a full citizen. Problem 2 is inescapable: I'll simply have to tell him that.Ishiguro, who lives in London, was in the Midwest recently on a tour with The Unconsoled. I reached him by phone in Chicago, and I told him my reactions to his book, he sounded relieved, almost grateful. He says he "always assumed that dream language was something we all had in common," yet the reception of The Unconsoled has not been all-embracing. That's certainly due, in part, to the stunning celebrity generated by his 1989 novel The Remains of the Day. That book centers on Stevens, a psychologically self-controlled English butler, who commits a most uncharacteristic act: he goes on vacation. His roadtrip gives rise to flashbacks that reveal glimpses of truth. The subsequent film, starring Anthony Hopkins, only further enhanced Ishiguro's status.In fact, his first three books, A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World and Remains are all "confessional novels," as Ishiguro puts it -- first person narratives told in conventional way. The Unconsoled, fueled by its alternate reality-mode, is a wholly unique narrative.Told in the first person, Ryder is the "I," yet the first person perspective pointedly goes where Ryder himself can not. For example, while he waits in the car for Stephen, a young pianist living in the community, he nevertheless is able to follow Stephen into the house, overhearing the conversation with local arts activist, Miss Collins. Later in the novel, He himself visits her, and when she bolts from her house, he waits for her in her living room. Yet somehow he is able to view her interaction a number of blocks away with the conductor Brodsky. These first person forays into third person are jarring, yet they make perfect sense from a dream perspective. In the process, Ishiguro has created a startling, yet fluid, first-person/third-person voice, a kind of subjective omniscience.Ishiguro refers to this and other tactics as "tricks or devices" and stresses that "I'm not interested in dreams per se. I'm not one of those people who write down their dreams in the morning. As I writer, I was quite interested in the narrative form that dreams take."Dreams, he says, have "the texture of memory," and so, using dreamworld metaphysics helps to expose the powerful emotions that both memory and dreams make available to us.However, "I was quite keen not to go too far down the road," he remarks in his gentle, and very British timbre, stressing that the alternate reality he creates in The Unconsoled had to have a strict set of parameters. In a way, The Unconsoled's protagonist, Ryder, is very much like Stevens the butler, in that he finds himself constantly in service to everyone but himself.In many other ways, however, The Unconsoled is a highly experimental piece of fiction -- and no small risk for an author whose previous book reached the pantheon of best-seller and critically-acclaimed status. "Part of the challenge of writing" a book like The Unconsoled, he says, "is that while you're actually telling the story you are also at the same time teaching the reader" how to read the book.The devices he's developed in The Unconsoled will be used again, he promises. In fact, Ishiguro feels like he's only begun the process of exploring the emotional possibilities of those devices. His next book, he says, is not nearly -- at least so far -- as dream-like as his present book.Now that he's had some distance from Remains -- he says that book originates "from a younger part of myself." He is not comfortable "with the implication that life is as ordered as that -- that you can look back on your life" in such an ordered manner. Life, he says, is much "messier" and The Unconsoled, in part, is an exploration of just how messy life can be.Too messy for some? Perhaps. Those readers who are attracted to the clean, elegant narrative lines of Remains may find The Unconsoled thwarting. As my friend Mary, who is in the midst of the book -- and loving it -- says: "I have to put my boots on first," before she picks up the book.The Unconsoled is a profound shift in his writing. He says that in his early writing life he was surprised by critics' and readers' remarks concerning his style."When I wrote my first two novels, I wasn't aware of style." he says. By the time he approached writing Remains, he was quite conscious of this so-called style. It's possible to interpret, then, Remains as a kind of exegesis -- or an exorcism -- of his writing style. Two passages stand out, both of which can interpreted as Ishiguro being self-reflective regarding his own style:While Stevens is musing on the English landscape, he says: "What is pertinent is the calmness of the beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout about it." This section is an apt description of Ishiguro's writing style as is Steven's maxim regarding his profession, extolling "the balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting." Replace "waiting" with "writing" and you have sense of Ishiguro's style.These and other passages point to the possibility that becoming more aware of his writing style has inspired Ishiguro to eclipse it. Certainly, he has moved ahead. The Unconsoled, while retaining a clear and crisp prose-style, nevertheless embarks upon wide-ranging objectives -- in other words, it gets "messier," more honest, more like life itself.Remains of the Day, then, is a kind of fulcrum, levering Ishiguro out of one epoch of writing and into the next. The next life, The Unconsoled, digs deep into the unconscious, illuminating the true and lasting majesty of dreams.I am altered by it and that's why, with a host of bookjacket blurb guys, I can call The Unconsoled a work of art. If you get this book for someone, say, for a Christmas present, keep that Pocket Jaws of Life handy. The Unconsoled is an intellectual feast, yet there's boatloads of pathos, fully-developed characters, deep pools of grief. Ishiguro has painted a universal portrait of the subjective dreamstate; sometimes it's a nightmare -- other times, you hope you never wake up.