Thursday, October 29, 2009

Night Music for Robots

If it rains, it pours, or so they say.  For some reason, it seems to me that I tend to happen upon good books in twos or threes or fours, then, like an unlucky bowler or a gambler too long at the slots, exhaust my streak and find myself without a new text for days or weeks following.  So far I'm two for two in my current book binge: I just read Nocturnes, the new story collection by Kazuo Ishiguro, and am now deep inside the wondrous labyrinth of Lethem's Chronic City, which, if it keeps up its current pace, might actually top my personal list for best characters of all time.  But I'll talk more about that in another post. 

For the time being, I'd like to reflect a bit on Nocturnes, a book that I greatly enjoyed, but that somehow seemed to evaporate even as I was reading it, a diffuse cloud of disappearing ink.  Don't get me wrong: I am not one of those asshats who thinks story collections are "minor," that the most substantial work of a writer can always be found in his longest pieces.  I am a huge fan of Steven Millhauser's short stories and novellas, for example, and the fact that James Thurber at times professed to feeling inferior to his novelist contemporaries seems to me his only regrettable joke. 

But Nocturnes has a quality of being dashed-off -- doodled, maybe, rather than finely drawn.  Perhaps it's partly Ishiguro's prose: he's always struck me as an author for whom the writing itself was the easy part, or at least the part to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.  I saw an interview with him once wherein he described how he painstakingly maps out each detail of the action and narrative before a "crash," in which he drafts the entire book in a matter of days or at most weeks.  And at times it shows, in forgettable sentences that start with impatiently blurted exposition ("Back home, back in the communist days...") or tie in lazy "why imply what you can state" emotional shorthand ("Maybe I did feel a little stab of pain").  But usually, this matters not at all.

More than any other contemporary writer, Ishiguro is an artist of plot, that much-maligned yet irresistable force that animates fictional characters as electricity does a movie Frankenstein.  Every book of his is driven by two near-hack conceits: our hero really really wants something that's difficult to obtain (external conflict), a quest made even more difficult by a terrible secret that he can't bear to confront (internal conflict).  Like a silent filmmaker with a penchant for tying leading ladies to the train tracks, Ishiguro plies these engines of suspense mercilessly (will he get the girl and what's he hiding?), till we're sick at heart and pissed at him (fess up you stupid shit, she almost loves you!) and still reading (thanks a lot, douchebag, now I'm crying on the bus).  The summaries sound grabby but, frankly, dumb: the clone really really wants to grow old with the other clone, but she won't admit they'll both die young from untimely organ harvesting.  The detective really really wants to run off with the socialite, but he won't admit he'll never track down his missing parents.  The butler really really wants to bang the housekeeper, but he won't admit his boss is a Nazi. 

Yet somehow these books are not just un-put-downable in the bestseller sense; they're genuinely affecting, deep, and weird.  Because Ishiguro is not just a plotter, a la Syd Field or James Patterson: he is an artist of plot.  He understands it so deeply he knows what he can distort, and these distortions, though minor when they're visible at all, tilt the floors and doorframes of his stately mansions into the askew dimensions of a funhouse.  His masterpiece, The Unconsoled, drove this technique to its limits.  Rather than complicating his fictiverse with multiple narrators, varied levels of prose complexity, experimental formatting (drawings, footnotes), jumbled chronology, pastiche/parody, or any of the other jangling tools in the
(post)modern novelist's bag of tricks, Ishiguro simply tweaked the laws of cause and effect a little more than usual.  Our hero still really really wanted something, namely, to play piano brilliantly at the concert and thus win (back?) the family he loved -- but the various external obstacles preventing him somehow seemed to be extensions of himself.  And there was clearly something he wasn't admitting, to the reader or to himself -- but that secret was, in the story's world, unsayable: the meaning, revealed upon waking, of the fictive dream.

The complexity of this work is only comprehensible qua novel, of course, because the complexity doesn't emerge at the level of the sentence, but from the rules of the world.  In this sense, Ishiguro is more truly reminiscent of sci-fi or fantasy writers (Tolkien, Asimov, Orson Scott Card) than many other more overt genre-benders*, who adopt the trappings of these genres to broaden their metaphorical reach (Andrew Sean Greer's Max Tivoli) or sharpen the bite of their satire (the Saunders of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline).  Though these books use, say, the downloading of memories or the idea of aging backwards lyrically, they don't use them as a controlling force behind the plot, a determining factor behind evey thought the characters have and every decision they are capable of making.  Ishiguro, on the other hand, wants to come up with a sort of Three Laws of Robotics even when setting out to write about a butler in a recognizable, historically grounded England.  His characters do not define their own roles in the plot; they are defined by those roles, constrained by them, incapable of imagining themselves or their lives outside of the system their author has set up. 

But back to Nocturnes.  Though these stories don't fail to alarm and delight (my favorite features plastic surgery and an ill-fated roast turkey), their length keeps them from revealing the accretionary power of Ishiguro's plotting.  These characters' fates are sad, or at least melancholy -- but we do not have time to dread them.  They do not bear down on us with the force of their inescapability.  Where his earlier novels may depict the woman tied to the track, the schedule of trains, the lowering of the guard rails, in these stories we glimpse only the freight cars rattling by.

*Of course, one could argue that Ishiguro has done his own bit of overt genre-bending, with his detective and clone novels respectively -- but in my opinion, the use of genre in these books still figures more into the construction of rules for the world than what that genre as an existant genre evokes.


Eric Taxier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Taxier said...

Could Ishiguro -- by which I mean your idea of Ishiguro -- write a great short story? The unsaid thing in this post, I think, is that great short fiction requires a certain stylistic finesse (the techniques or examples of which I'm really curious about) that longer fiction doesn't.

Chandler said...

OK, let me offer a debatable hypothesis: the basic unit of the novel is the chapter. The basic unit of the short story is the paragraph, or, in longer short stories, the section (separated by white space). In a novel, if a paragraph/section is a dud, it still does not necessarily negate the merit of the chapter, let alone the merit of the novel as a whole. But in a short story, the paragraph/section takes up a much larger proportion of the whole.

Right now, Ishiguro's approach seems best suited to macro-constructions -- of the novel or at very least of the chapter. His lyricism comes out in the arrangement of these larger blocks in relation to one another.

Visual example: A fortress made of large blocks of rough-hewn stone is beautiful, majestic, ambitious. A chunk of granite, alone in a Denny's parking lot, does not quite have the same effect.

I'm not saying Ishiguro couldn't write a great short story, or that the stories he writes suck (they're certainly much more elegant than the aforementioned block of stone). But I do think that right now, in Nocturnes, he's using his technique not to the greatest possible effect.