Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: The minor fourth, the major lift

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Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest outing in fiction, a collection of loosely connected short stories that revolve around similar themes: the breaking of a relationship, the art of constructing music, and musicians unable to fit in the world they’re currently in. A sense of motion and lingual accent pervades the text in subtle ways, which makes the book feel very cosmopolitan even when the setting is the Malvern Hills.

It seems, however, that the book is mistitled and misleading: there really isn’t anything nocturnal about it; it doesn’t have the dreamy qualities of Never Let Me Go or even When We Were Orphans, where Ishiguro focuses on narrator’s threshold perceptions of reality. It reads more like a flat fugue that unfortunately can’t lift itself on its own themes. It’s as if each tale is afraid of becoming too bare, too humorous, too sorrowful to allow us really to care about the characters (who are a bit tinny and one-dimensional) and their plights.
‘Crooner’ reminded me of a This American Life programme, where David Berkeley describes a similar event: where he was invited to sing for a couple about to break up, which is indeed what happens in this tale, set amidst the canals of Venice. ‘Nocturne’ is a story which re-uses one of the characters in ‘Crooner’; the protagonists here are plastic surgery patients who are unable to see one another’s faces, who sneak around a hotel and get into mischief. It quite possibly may be the funniest piece of writing this author has ever bestowed on us.
The star stories though are ‘Malvern Hills’ and ‘Cellists’, and it’s difficult to think which shines more. I think these stand out because they are as close to music and music theory as Ishiguro can possibly get. In ‘Malvern Hills’, adult musicians help a budding one as he plays his music – like Elgar – on the hills of Malvern. ‘Cellists’ has a former cellist comment and critique an amateur into professionalism, but has a wonderful and fantastic trick ending that makes you appreciate the critiques even more than before.
Even though no tale here ends cheerfully, there is a sense of optimism that pervades the collection:
“Never be discouraged. He would say, of course, you must go to London and try to form your band. Of course you will be successful. That is what Tilo would say to you. Because that is his way.”
   “And what would you say?”
   “I would like to say the same. Because you are young and talented. But I am not so certain. As it is, life will bring you enough disappointments. If on top, you should have such dreams as this. . . . But I should not say these things. I am not a good example to you. Besides, I can see you are much more like Tilo. If disappointments do come, you will carry on still. You will say, just as he does, I am so lucky.”
At the very least, this is an interesting but somewhat barely cooked collection of stories of music, something that perhaps a budding artist would produce rather than an established novelist. But the slight experimentation in the shorter form, in the epiphany, is perhaps worth the read.

2 comments:

Kari said…

Your phrase of description that says "collection of stories of music" briefly reminded me of the horrid Accordion Crimes we had upon entering NYU. Ick. I'm sure that's just negative association on my part.

I'm trying to get into short stories a bit more. I'll have to keep this in mind.

Salvatore said…

Eh, this one's ok. Actually maybe it's best to read this before plunging into other Ishiguro, because then it's uphill all the way.