In a minute I’ll go and sit by the pool (a first for me this summer) and do a bit of reading. But before I do, I wanted to talk about reading ruts. For the past month I’ve had the hardest time reading much of anything. I’ve started a couple new books but abandoned them after the first couple of chapters. The reason for this pattern, I realize, is because I’m two-thirds of the way through a book that I can neither find the strength to finish or stop thinking about. I would love to do either of those two things. The book is The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro and it is the most difficult book I have ever read.
You all know by now that two institutions I have the greatest respect for are Kazuo Ishiguro and Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Put the two together and you would think you’d have the formula for reading nirvana. When I saw The Unconsoled on the staff picks shelf in Mr B’s, selected by one of the people I trust the most for recommendations, I thought the stars had aligned just so. I had read some superlative reviews of the book in the past and felt sure I’d get as much out of it as I had Ishiguro’s other novels, possibly more. Today I re-read one of those reviews. Knowing what I know now, I see that the author had been trying to warn me. I, with my rose colored glasses, had read only the positive phrases: “I haven’t stopped thinking about it since;” “equal parts Kafka and Chaplain;” “magnificent;” “I’m still waiting for Ishiguro to write something as impressive as The Unconsoled.”
What I had overlooked in that review were the cautionary words: “The Unconsoled is as frustrating as it is memorable;” “a giant mess of a book;” “a magnificent failure.” The reviewer makes it clear that, in his opinion, The Unconsoled is Ishiguro’s most impressive book. But dependent on that superlative was his belief that all Ish’s other novels are “circumscribed, disappointingly minor works.” Whoa, now! That’s Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day he’s talking about. Two books I thought were brilliant. I should have known then to approach with caution.
So why did I think I’d appreciate The Unconsoled?
Because I like a challenge? And because my favorite staff person at Mr. B’s praised it to the moon. And because she wasn’t the only one. Pretty much every review I’ve read of the book intrigued me with contradictory statements: messy – brilliant, convoluted – genius, confused – complex. Who wouldn’t want to read such a bipolar book? It’s a challenge. Read it for yourself and see where you fall in the argument.
And where I fall is exactly where everyone else seems to fall. Between frustration and fascination. The story is about a world class pianist who is constantly being thwarted by life’s interruptions. These interruptions prevent him at every turn from being a good husband, father, guest and artist. It’s unclear whether he suffers from some memory impairment or some psychological baggage that prevents him from keeping his schedule straight, but what is clear is how he constantly self-sabotages and then has to backtrack, resolving each time to be better at managing his own life and affairs. Rather than ask for help or verbalize his confusion in a situation (which is our confusion, too, as Ryder is our narrator), he just bumbles along until things get frustrating enough and he is able to escape. Each escape has the exact feel of waking up from an anxiety dream. They’re sudden, surreal and oh so frustrating. I don’t use the word “surreal” lightly. It is dreamlike the way characters appear and disappear seemingly out of thin air, and the way Ryder (our protagonist) travels long distances across the city by car or tram only to walk through an inconspicuous side door and, illogically, be back at the hotel where he began his journey.
Then there’s the lack of backstory. Little explanation is given about Ryder’s past, why he is the way he is, how these people know him, and what his work in the city is. When backstory is given, it’s delivered by unreliable characters from Ryder’s past, or from strangers who have read about Ryder. As our narrator, Ryder is the most unreliable of them all.
And that, I think, is the key to why I allow this book to hang over my head. It’s the question of the unreliable narrator that I come back to again and again. Why my fascination with unreliable narrators? Maybe it’s the fact that, as the reader, you’re always guessing, never trusting, which adds an extra level to the reading experience. Maybe it reflects my generations distrust of authority, in this case, the author’s and the person narrating the story. Maybe it speaks to something in our human nature, our own unreliability, and attempts to explain the often bizarre ways we behave toward one another, or the unexplainable things that happen to us. Maybe I see myself in Ryder and it frustrates me, because hidden inside Ryder’s befuddled mind are clues to how my own works.
Whatever has me captured, my Mr B’s staff person had it right when she called it a “chewy book.” There is a lot to digest in The Unconsoled. The only problem is, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
So I’d love to know: what’s been the most difficult book you’ve ever read? Do you have a hard time abandoning books you’ve not finished, or do you have to finish everything you start?