Kazuo Ishiguro is ruining me as a writer. He precisely balances the need for tension to drive the story line, on the one hand, with a slow reveal of plot through an unreliable narrator, on the other. It’s difficult to pull off, but he does it magnificently. The trouble is, I like it so much I try to emulate it, but (a) I can’t do it like he does; and (b) it helps to have a writing pedigree (Ishiguro recently won the Nobel) when you’re asking the reader to stay with you for this sort of adventure.
By unreliable narrator, I mean a narrator who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him, or doesn’t get the full import. The idea, with this kind of narrator, is that the character’s narration tells you what’s going on, but the character himself doesn’t fully get it. The reader understands things the character doesn’t. In Ishiguro’s case, the narrators are unreliable not because they’re lacking access to important facts, or because they’re crazy, but rather because they are emotionally self-deceptive. They’re self-deceptive in ordinary ways. We can all see a little bit of ourselves in the character.
By “slow reveal,” I mean the steady trickle charge of observations slipped out by the narrator which causes the plot arc to advance little by little. In most of Ishiguro’s books, you’re very far into it before you get to pivotal facts in the storyline, yet he masterfully maintains the tension. You’re picking up breadcrumbs of story at the same time you’re going deep into the very compelling character who is doing the narration.
In An Artist of the Floating World, a Japanese poster propogandist is in denial about his role in the war and the significance of his life’s work. You can trace the self-deception in how he comments on an acquaintance who is a real artist.
In Remains of the Day, the repressed butler is similarly concerned about the value of his life’s work upon the demise of his profession following the war. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but you the reader can see what’s really happening to him, and why he feels the way he does. His profession is becoming extinct but he’s given his all to it. He spends much of the book talking of professionalism and dignity and so-on, unable to ask himself square on whether his work was really worthwhile. Add to that a frustrated love-story. In his new post-war world, he goes on, unintentionally humorously, about learning to “banter,” always phrasing it in terms of adapting to “professional” demands. He thinks that by practice, he can perfect his bantering skills.
There’s something else going on in Remains of the Day, and I think it’s a major theme in all of Ishiguro’s work: the way in which we carry on doing the things we think are required of us, unable to re-envision ourselves off the path our past seems to have determined for us. These characters have no ability to look up at what’s going on around them, and make radical changes in their lives that might bring them happiness.
This is a key element in Never Let Me Go, which has been in my top five books of all time, since I read it. Actually I’ve read it twice, but even before that, I heard it, in an audio-book. It was deeply moving. I remember to this day, more than ten years on, the parking lot I was sitting in, listening to the last words, not wanting to turn the car off until they came. With an audio book you can’t necessarily tell that you’re close to the end, but with Never Let Me Go, I could. After all the horrifying revelations of the book set alongside the ordinary ups and downs of the unfulfilled love life of the narrator, you realize that the real story here is that she goes on, unquestioningly, “to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.”
So thanks a lot, Ishiguro. I just re-read Remains of the Day but now I’ll have to wash that down with a few novels from less talented writers, so I can stop trying to imitate your inimitable style.