Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, that is not what you're going to find in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). Mr. Ryder, a world-famous pianist, arrives in a small, unnamed Western European city to give a concert, a concert he cannot remember planning. In long, run-on paragraphs, the surreal action of Ishiguro's book describes the days leading up to this concert on which numerous events seem to be planned, events Mr. Ryder cannot remember scheduling, listed on an agenda he never received. They not only involve the expectation that he will address local music groups, but that he will take opinions on long-standing arguments in town politics, advise family members on their relationships, listen to amateur musician's practice sessions, revive the reputation of the town drunk, a once great conductor, and perform surgery by the side of the road following an accident.
The book had its frustrating qualities. Its self-conscious surreal trappedness was sophomorically Kafkaesque. I found myself angry with the plot inconsistencies, the endless dialogue of fawning hotel employees and the inexplicable relationships he was dragged into. For example, the hotel porter enlists Mr. Ryder, to speak to his daughter Sophie (with whom the porter has not been on speaking terms for years) regarding a decision she must make about where to live. It seemed from the way Sophie interacted with the pianist, that they must have had a relationship - a relationship he cannot remember having prior to arriving in the unnamed city. Anything may be expected of him, and nothing makes sense, not the relationships, not the physics of structures, nor the architecture of the city. Discussions in elevators can last half-an-hour. A bus ride can take Mr. Ryder an hour away from the city and yet, if he goes through a door in the roadside cafe where he has stopped to address a group, he is back in the lobby of his hotel in the city center. But after about 75 pages, two things became apparent to me that changed my reading experience, one was formal and the second thematic. On the level of form, Ishiguro captured the sensation of being in a dream with great skill. A dream is a place where you say 'yes' to all inconsistencies. He took this to an extreme I had a hard time accepting, but the book became easier to read when I did. This tied in to what I read as the book's theme: celebrity. This combination finally won me over to the flow of the book, its humor, and the sense inherent in its absurdity.
The writing of The Unconsoled followed the huge success of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day which won the Man Booker Prize in 1989, was adapted for the screen by Merchant-Ivory, and made many top literary lists. It shot Ishiguro from an unknown writer to a literary super-star. What I was struck by most in The Unconsoled is how Mr. Ryder, as a celebrity artist, seemed to be everyone's property but his own. The characters imagined relationships with him that were entirely one-sided, and yet they believed them to be true. They believed that his talent meant he was kind or unkind, smart or stupid, that he could fix their relationships with their spouses, their children, their exes, that he could settle political disputes, or restore fallen reputations. None of this has anything to do with playing the piano, it makes no sense, and yet it is the reality of how the public treats celebrities. I was struck in looking at Ishiguro's bio, although this may now be my projection upon his celebrity, that he was born in Nagasaki. He went from inhabiting a thoroughly decimated city in early childhood, to an ordinary English education, writing a few early novels of no particular distinction, and then was suddenly shot to stardom with a single book.
Writing a great book did not suddenly make him an indisputedly great writer or an authority on anything at all. The Unconsoled was his next book and was not particularly well received, but powers unconnected to his skills became attributed to him on the basis of his renown. He was Ryder, I thought as I read, and must have inhabited a similarly surreal world. Travelling from city to city until he didn't know who he was, being asked absurd questions, being asked to write endearments on fly leaves of his books to people he did not know. From that perspective, the narrative became quite funny. Ishiguro also accomplished tremendous suspense in the last 150 pages when, even as the concert was imminent, Ryder still sat in a tavern watching hotel porters perform a strange dance ritual or observed a pre-concert from a narrow viewing window high atop the concert hall ceiling - when, I thought, will he ever have time to put on his tuxedo? One has to make a commitment to The Unconsoled to get to this point, but since I read it for my book club, I persisted. I found the way the dream-form married with the absurdity of celebrity effective, the ludicrousness of the moment-to-moent action became entertaining, and occasionally even rewarding.