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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

The waking dream

by Garrett Rowlan

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Unconsoled. London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

I did not know that Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled was a quintessential irreal novel when I first read it years ago, yet I now feel that the term, when applied to Ishiguro's book, was a moniker waiting to happen. Other classifications never felt quite right. Magic realism came close, though it weighed Ishiguro's book toward a corporal essence--a heaviness, even--that didn't match the book's deft touch. Surrealism was a better term, though it connotes qualities of randomness and anarchy that didn't fit the eerie precision of Ishiguro's work, its skilled balance of the real and unreal.

Or the real and the dream state. Reading The Unconsoled is like being inside a waking dream, and as such suggests Kafka as an antecedent. Yet there's a difference. Kafka's books resemble tracts of paranoia and absurdity, with a 19th Century feel to them. The Unconsoled, despite Ishiguro's quaint, almost formal literary style, is about the modern world, and is rendered in more vibrant tones than the gray palette that I associate with Kafka's writing.

The novel concerns a pianist, a Mr. Ryder, who arrives at an unidentified European town to play a concert, and in 500 pages recounts his activities on the days before he is to perform. Trying to fulfill personal engagements and professional obligations, Ryder makes the rounds. He goes from place to place, and while he is frequently pressed for time, the reader has the impression that he is almost sleeping, particularly with the distortions of time and place that the author skillfully inserts into the narrative.

Ryder lives in a world of temporal elasticity. He is always heading for an appointment and being waylaid by interruptions that take on a life of their own. For example, at one point he is following a car that is supposed to conduct him to an art gallery. He stops at a gas station, described as a structure resembling a spaceship (Ishiguro's fondness for strange architecture gives this book a particular panache), and spends a considerable time there. Yet when he resumes his drive he soon spots the car in the distance, as if it had been crawling all along. When he arrives at the gallery, he enters an adjoining car and hunkers there in reverie. When he emerges his delay is not noticed by those waiting for him.

Space has the same sense of elasticity. As in a Kafka novel, it seems at times to border on the infinite; at other instances, it doubles back upon itself. The Unconsoled is full of roads that seem to go on forever, and yet Ryder often steps through a hallway, door, or even a window and finds himself miles away from where he should be. Ryder's deadpan reaction to these events is part of the novel's sly humor.

Ishiguro's take on celebrity pulls the novel away from its Kafkaesque roots. The author, having won the Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, has an insight into the effects of today's publicity machine. While it is certainly better to exist under the spotlight of acclaim rather than within the dictates of Kafka's impersonal bureaucracy, still Ryder at times seems to exist with an alienating independence from his own "image." Two scenes exemplify this theme. In one, a photographer and a journalist talk disparagingly about Ryder while he is at their table, not even recognizing the object of their scorn. In a later episode, Ryder is brought by an old female friend to be "shown off" to two other women. They chat about him while not recognizing him sitting in a nearby chair. Celebrity distorts and confounds its possessor.

Ishiguro's novel has a shimmering, irreal quality, a juxtaposition of the everyday, even banal, with illusive, ludicrous, and even outrageous events that the simplicity of the book's language brings into high contrast. I don't think Ishiguro would disagree with this assessment. In the Winter, 2000 issue of the British journal Modern Painters, Ishiguro, in a conversation with painter Andrew Burgess--whose claustrophobic cityscapes bear a relation to the pictorial effects of The Unconsoled (as do the work of M.C. Escher and de Chirico)--says, "I think that using something quite familiar as a point from which the viewer or reader can take off, and then pushing into something more adventurous, is something I favour."

Similarly using the real to push off into the irreal is a useful technique, and as such Ishiguro's book is something to be studied and certainly enjoyed.

Garrett Rowlan is a writer living in Los Angeles. His most recent published work is an essay on Julio Cortazar in Margin.

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