“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
What happens when a world-famous pianist, who comes to town to perform an important concert, is forced to come to terms with who he really is? Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled has the feel of a cross between Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges. Like each of these authors, he has created a work that defies categorization.
The Unconsoled is the story of Ryder, a man who has achieved international fame. It opens with the pianist checking into a hotel whereupon he encounters character after character in scene after stretched-out scene in a manner not unlike Alice’s encounters after dropping through the rabbit hole. By means of their behavior toward him, and his internal attitude and responses, we get to know Ryder’s character in ways that at times become both hilarious and excruciating.
As I noted in my recent blog post The Identity Question, about how our identity is not fixed but varies based on context, we get to know Ryder — among other things — as deferential, modest, self-centered, selfless, anxious, overbearing, over-confident, and sensitive.
As we walk with him through this three-day ordeal, the events serve to reveal his entire life, especially his strained relationships with parents, family and fame itself.
The manner in which the story is told is surreal. The critics panned it when it came out, but near 25 years later it is hailed as one of the great novels of the last part of the century.
Readers will be cognizant that the storyline is becoming increasingly muddled, time stretched, situations absurd. But is that not what life can be like for one who is on the road, traveling, mushing through time from scene to scene to scene through setting after setting? I can’t help but think here of the author himself perhaps, or of the Grateful Dead’s traveling road show that inspired Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. What is this kind of life really like?
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My guess is that if the critics didn’t like the book it’s because they may have tried to read just enough to pin it down, much like pinning a butterfly into a display case and labeling it. The book defies such easy categorization. If you strap yourself in and go along for the ride, you’ll experience all the drama of a roller coaster, emotional highs and lows, along with the tension of an overwound watchspring about to explode, a rope about to snap, or overstretched rubber bands. The tension mounts, is released a bit and mounts again.
What’s exhilarating is how deftly the author paints all these characters and the scenes within this bizarre adventure.
In the story you will meet, in this order initially, Ryder, the hotel manager Hoffman, the bellhop Gustav, Gustav’s daughter Sophie and her son Boris, a washed up conductor named Brodsky, the hotel manager’s son Stephan, and an assortment of incidental characters who serve as foils in various ways.
One of the striking features of the story, for me at least, had to do with the porters. The manner in which servants and porters appear so prominently in both this and his heartbreaking Remains of the Day is quite interesting. The contrast between classes in both these books — which brings to mind another powerful story, Vatel — makes me curious if this theme is a recurring one in other Ishiguro novels.
The deference of Gustav to the powerful or more important people he serves, is all the more so because it is a very different culture from what many of us were used to growing up. If you grew up black in the Jim Crow south, however, this deference to whites was an unwritten and harshly enforced code.
To a greater or lesser degree this same deference is ingrained and expected of busboys and bellhops in premier hotels, restaurants and country clubs to this day. I believe middle class Americans are surprised the elite still require this kind of stroking.
The story elements which cause much of the tension for readers are Ryder’s constantly striving to remember where he is supposed to be and missing appointments because he is continuously allowing himself to get “off task.” That is, when he is supposed to be here, he is asked to go take care of this other matter there, which leads to yet another diversion and another.
Why does he not assert himself? It becomes an unbelievably frustrating experience for both the reader and himself and he repeatedly gives in to the expectations of others. Is his self-importance and the significance of this concert real or imagined?
The hotel manager’s son Stephen is a developed character who resembles a young version of Ryder, exceptionally talented but unable to please his parents, somehow stifled by the context of his life. Ryder recognizes Stephen’s frustration and through the lens of experience strives to help him. This theme strikes me as an echo of a Borges story in which Borges sits on a park bench and discovers, through a warp in time, that he himself as a young man is seated at the other end of the bench. He avoids making eye contact but strives to help this younger Borges.
For the reader who accepts the absurd features of Ishiguro’s story, there will be many rewards. I saw myself in both of these characters, Ryder and Stephen. Perhaps you will find a little of yourself, too, in your own way.
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Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com