Thoughts on ‘The Unconsoled’

After a nightmare, one of the most maddening moments comes when trying to pinpoint the terrifying aspects. The fact that you couldn’t run from one place to another, to use a common dream situation, seems minor when set against how much it makes your heart hammer.  It’s the heightened reality of things that aren’t or should never be real that lends the fear.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, this eeriness comes in the distortion of recognizable things, rendering innocuous moments sickening. Not because the moments themselves have much in the way of horror. But because those things simply can’t be real- and yet within the story, they’re as inexorable as anything in the real world.

I went into this book completely blind; I purchased it last year and had it on the bookshelf for months. That interval was enough for me to completely forget everything about the blurb and the first chapter (my usual standard for books whose authors I don’t know at all), so when I picked up the book, I had no idea what I was getting into. To say it is unusual doesn’t do it justice; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

The prose is presented in the same manner as that of stories where you can take every word literally. But doing that with The Unconsoled is to plunge into logical contradictions comparable to those in Wonderland. The narrator, a well-known musician named Mr. Ryder, is confided in at the drop of a hat by complete strangers, and he can seemingly comprehend their thoughts and the situations and the circumstances that have led them to speak to him. When he goes through the town where he’s scheduled to give a recital, he goes by torturous routes that take hours and yet somehow deposit him within a minute of where he started. Time slows to an abominable crawl at points where he should have been late to numerous events. Multiple people mention Ryder has been brought in to resolve some sort of crisis, but though I got a very clear impression of a community in turmoil and flailing for an identity they’ve lost, I never got a grasp on anything more specific – let alone anything that a concert might resolve.  Yet despite the vagaries and utter incomprehensibility of many aspects of this book, there were several beautiful moments, and I always felt that there was a purpose to the madness. But I still can’t decide with any great confidence what that purpose was.

Though I can’t argue strongly for any one interpretation of the events in this bizarre book, one aspect that consistently stood out was the number of times Ryder is called upon to take a stand, to speak up, to do a kindness, to keep a promise- and fails. I think everyone can name points in their life where they’ve done something humiliating, said or done the wrong thing, or been lacking in some way. In my experience, at least, those moments take on a peculiar clarity. They stand out so razor-sharp in my recollection that it seems I should be able to reach back into them and alter them, and I got the same impression of vividness in each of Ryder’s blunders. Which is not to say that he dwelt upon them as such in the narrative – if anything, it’s a key characteristic of his that he’s oblivious to how many people he’s hurting by his failures. But those moments of downfall are remarkably lucid, especially compared to some other parts of the book.

The general tenor of conversation about regret seems to focus on what might have changed if a decision had been done differently, but I think in this story Ishiguro captured something about many regrets that isn’t spoken of. It’s not that anything major would necessarily have changed in Ryder’s life if he had been able to do the right thing. Rather, the fact that he doesn’t make the right choice highlights failure in him as a person to be better than he is. The regrets are highlights not of what might have changed, but rather of how nothing will change until Ryder becomes more virtuous. In other words, the moments of regret aren’t really about those moments, but rather the person who made the choice in those times – and how until that person makes a true change in their character, those shameful failures will pile up no matter the situation.

I’m not sure whether I would recommend the book, or whether I’ll even pick it up again. But I’m really glad to have read it and to have grappled in a small way with what it might mean.

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