The Unconsoled | Critical Review by Brooke Allen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Unconsoled.
This section contains 905 words
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Critical Review by Brooke Allen

SOURCE: Brooke Allen, "Leaving Behind Daydreams for Nightmares," in The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 1995, p. 12.

In the following review of The Unconsoled, Allen argues that while Ishiguro has chosen a new writing style, his subject matter remains the same.

Six years ago, at the age of 35, Kazuo Ishiguro came to international attention as the author of The Remains of the Day, an elegant novel that won the 1989 Booker Prize and was made into a film by Merchant and Ivory. In The Remains of the Day Mr. Ishiguro trod territory that he had already explored in his first two novels. A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). The narrator was once again an elderly person—in this case an English butler—looking back upon a life of meaningless ritual, missed opportunities, failed love. It established Mr. Ishiguro as a realistic artist, who wrote traditional stories in a formal, rather anachronistic style. Some even compared him to Henry James.

Mr. Ishiguro later admitted that he wanted to write something less realistic in form. The result is The Unconsoled, a departure for Mr. Ishiguro and an unusual, striking piece of work.

Imagine an alternate world in which life is not a dream but in which the dream is your life—in other words, where you must live your life by the inexplicable logic and ever changing rules imposed by the dream itself. This is the fate of Ryder, the dreamer and the novel's narrator.

The middle-aged Ryder, an English-man, is a world-famous pianist. He finds himself at a hotel in a small and obscure city somewhere in Central Europe and is greeted by the manager, Mr. Hoffman; on Thursday night, it transpires, Ryder will be giving an important concert, and in the two intervening days he has numerous engagements and duties to fulfill. Ryder has no idea what these duties are, nor does he know what pieces he is supposed to play in the concert. With misplaced diffidence, however, he refrains from asking his hosts to elucidate matters.

Thus he sets out on a lengthy misadventure in an aura, peculiar to anxiety dreams of extreme disorientation. Ryder is always lost, always desperately trying to get from one location to some vital appointment for which he is horribly late. And as he struggles to meet his myriad obligations, he finds himself constantly impeded by people in desperate need of succor that only he can give.

All the frustrations so characteristic of anxiety dreams are placed in Ryder's path. He addresses a formal gathering with his genitalia exposed, trying to identify himself, he is unable to articulate his own name and can only strain and grunt; an unbreachable brick wall separates him, just before curtain time, from the concert hall; he is borne away on a tram by bossy journalists, having left a small child alone in a cafe.

Mr. Ishiguro is skillful at evoking the claustrophobia and chaos of a dream; more important, he puts across, with great force, the very real emotional urgency that infuses such dreams. The comic potential in Ryder's travails is always there, but it is overshadowed by his obvious fear, his sense of personal inadequacy in the face of overwhelming responsibilities, his foolish attention to minor duties at the expense of the people who should be most important to him.

For as the tale progresses Mr. Ishiguro artfully points to the fact that alongside the dream-story of Ryder's European sojourn exists another story, Ryder's real story. While Ryder grapples with the complications of his schedule, Sophie and Boris, incidental characters—the daughter and grandson of the hotel porter—impinge on Ryder's attention until it slowly be comes evident that they are not wholly un familiar to him, that they are, in fact, his wife and child. Various friends from Ryder's English childhood appear in odd places, recalling seminal emotional episodes of his early life. A gifted young pianist who is crushed by his egotistical parents might just be a version of Ryder as a youth. And as Ryder takes out his rage toward his parents on Sophie and little Boris, he repeats the cycle of familial sickness that has blighted his own life.

It would seem, then, that Ryder is not so very different from Stevens the butler, another antihero whose obsession with petty duties has kept him from attending to his major one, his duty toward his own heart. Yet The Unconsoled, while unlikely to be such a crowd-pleaser as The Remains of the Day, is the better novel. The Remains of the Day was a meticulous piece of work, but in it Mr. Ishiguro told us nothing that had not been told better by predecessors like E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood. The Briton's familiar catalogue of faults—his fear of emotion, his slavish love of form and tradition—were faithfully rehearsed.

The Unconsoled is more universal. Its melding of conscious and subconscious is effective, and the novel is entirely fresh, with no old-fashioned surrealism or Freudian cliché. No doubt some readers will liken it to Kafka, or to Lewis Carroll, but it is not a derivative book. Nor is it heavily stylized. "The kind of book I find very tedious is the kind of book whose raison d'être is to say something about literary form," Mr. Ishiguro has stated. While The Unconsoled might seem more "experimental" than his earlier works, Mr. Ishiguro's subject continues to be, as it has always been, character and emotion.

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This section contains 905 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Brooke Allen
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