Review: Nocturnes

April 23, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Nocturnes

I had to read The Remains of the Day for a British literature class, and it was absolutely wonderful. Since then, I’ve come across a couple more of Ishiguro’s works, and I have to say, I’m half-convinced they weren’t even written by the same person. The Nocturnes (“Five Stories of Music and Nightfall”) are perfectly adequate short stories, like the ones you might read in a middle school English book with “The Highwayman” and “Lather and Nothing Else” in it, but they’re a little dull and the writing is not strikingly good. The most obvious flaw in all of them is the continuing theme of the bland narrator. All of them are written in the first person, and the narrator is the same person in each (not intentionally). Although Ishiguro gives him different names, he is always the same sensible, average man, moderately perceptive and intelligent, but not very, with an almost impeccable blandness of voice and a slight tendency to excuse his memory and his actions in sentences like, “I’m not sure quite how it happened, but I started talking to her every day,” or “It must have touched a nerve, because I found myself suddenly getting angry.” The idea, apparently, is that he should talk and act and think like a regular guy, the Joe Six-Pack of literature, and the focus should be on the story and the way he plays into it, but it has the unfortunate effect of making him appear a little slow, as well as completely without personality. Saying that because Steve is ugly and plays the sax and Ray grew up in a communist country and plays guitar they are completely different characters is only superficially true, if they share the same underlying flavorlessness. The gods of English class have gone on and on about how your characters need to have such distinctive voices that the reader can tell who’s talking even if you don’t tell them outright, and I’ve taken to rolling my eyes at that precept, but…man, sometimes you really do need a strong voice, especially if you’re going to set up five narrators one right after the other, like dominoes. And if one touches the next too closely, they’ll all fall.

And maybe because these stories share the themes of music and nightfall (I wonder if he wrote them together or collected them later), they share other things as well. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just read the same story four times in a row, just with the names of the narrators and their instruments switched out. That’s not really fair, because in fact the plots are creative, some of the side characters are well-done and interesting, and some of the narrators aren’t even musicians. But it’s a continuation of the same tired ideas: people who don’t listen to you, people who think you don’t understand the situation, famous people and people who have come close and what they think about fame, and the nervous agony of the up-and-comer. None of these are bad, it’s just that they run through every story, making it even harder to distinguish between them. The only exception is the last story, “Cellists;” although it runs very much in the same vein(s), I think it’s the best, and if it stood alone, it would be quite good, maybe largely because the narrator plays a small role in it.

The writing is solid, but mostly as bland as the narrators who speak it. It’s clearly written by a good author, but—maybe it’s a function of the narrators he created—too conversational. Technically conversational, that is; I’m not objecting to the tone, but the execution. He uses too many generic fillers, with no character. It’s pretty soulless, when you come right down to it, even though it’s perfectly fine writing from a certain point of view. It just gives you no window into the narrator’s thoughts, although, again, this might be because of the narrator and not the fault of the writing. Wikipedia says all five narrators are unreliable, but I don’t think that’s right—they’re not even that interesting. They don’t think or misinterpret or anything, they just report what’s going on, making a half-assed attempt to prove they’re a person, like the replicants in Blade Runner. Never did I have the impression that things were actually different from how the character said they were, except one time I didn’t get the impression the narrator was unhappy interacting with another character until he said outright that he was going crazy. But that is the fault of the writing, and is not the same thing as an unreliable narrator.

Finally, I object to the structure of the stories—mostly the endings. The endings are all rather abrupt and feel incomplete. I understand that this style of ending exists; it ends in medias res, with the final outcome uncertain or unexplained, and I think the reason it doesn’t work very well in these cases is because of the writing. It’s equivalent to the difference between a Sousa march that is cut off before its melodic arc has finished and a Debussy piece that suddenly winds down and drifts away. (This is not about Sousa. Stay off my back, Sousa fans.) When you have something driven by melody (or plot, in this case, because the characters aren’t very good), it isn’t natural to expect it to be over until it has completed its lifetime, which is pretty easily sensed even by people who don’t like or understand music (or literature). A Debussy piece, on the other hand, is driven by atmosphere and character, and what melody there is is secondary to the evocative nature of the piece. When it ends, even suddenly, it doesn’t feel abrupt or unfinished, because by its very nature it isn’t predictable. I generalize, obviously, and I’m not trying to put atmosphere above melody, necessarily. But I think the kinds of endings that these stories have are better suited to the kind of writing that is emphatically absent. If Ishiguro wrote the stories with more character, more atmosphere, more style, he could use the endings he clearly wants them to have, but as it is, they are simply too abrupt for my taste. Very disappointing, in the end. I offer for your enjoyment (or whatever) the beginning of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which begins like a textbook short story, very good, very well done, yet at the same time…well, too textbook. But maybe you have to read the whole thing to get that feel. Or maybe it’s just me.

EXCERPT: “Come Rain or Come Shine”

Like me, Emily loved old American popular songs. She’d go more for the up-tempo numbers, like Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” while I’d lean towards the bitter-sweet ballads—”Here’s That Rainy Day” or “It Never Entered My Mind.” But there was a big overlap, and anyway, back then, on a university campus in the south of England, it was a near-miracle to find anyone else who shared such passions. Today, a young person’s likely to listen to any sort of music. My nephew, who starts university this autumn, is going through his Argentinian tango phase. He also liked Edith Piaf as well as any number of the latest indie bands. But in our day tastes weren’t nearly so diverse. My fellow students fell into two broad camps: the hippie types with their long hair and flowing garments who liked “progressive rock,” and the neat, tweedy ones who considered anything other than classical music a horrible din. Occasionally you’d bump into someone who professed to be into jazz, but this would always turn out to be of the so-called crossover kind—endless improvisations with no respect for the beautifully crafted songs used as their starting points.

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