Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 221 pp., $25.00
Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer unlike any other. This may seem a truism—what writer, after all, is not unlike others?—but Ishiguro’s fiction is, in fact, very strange indeed. His celebrated gift lies in illuminating the hidden emotional complexities beneath a mundane surface—something canonically accomplished in The Remains of the Day, and again, more menacingly, in his last extraordinary novel, Never Let Me Go. But he is also the author of two deeply mysterious books, The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, in which reality itself is called into question, and the fiction’s only firm ground is Ishiguro’s unerringly calm, even placid, prose. Perhaps what is strangest about Ishiguro’s work is precisely that: the marriage of a narrative style of almost thrilling banality and a surreal, often dark imagination.
Reading Never Let Me Go —a novel set in a dystopian alternative reality, in which a race of clones is raised alongside ordinary humans purely for the purposes of organ donation—was, for this reader, a form of literary education. The narrative, told from the point of view of a young woman named Kathy, describes in meticulous, unironic detail incidents of such petty tedium (the loss of a pencil case, the search for a cassette tape) that the novel seems at times like a spoof, poking fun at the notion of fiction itself; and yet the cumulative effect of Kathy’s account is devastating, a bleak allegory of contemporary existence and of the trajectory of life. In spite of its superficial dullness, Never Let Me Go gains power in retrospect, and achieves a haunting half-life that endures long after the last page. Camus-like in its unshakable effects, the novel proves, as it were, eponymous. (In this regard, Ishiguro is perhaps supreme among living writers as a bad example for would-be novelists: his accomplishments are so unlikely, so dependent upon the specifics of his talent and sensibility, that he is inimitable. Weaker copies of his fictions would be, quite simply, intolerable.)
The stories in Ishiguro’s new collection—his first book of short fiction—are at once less and more peculiar than what has come before. While they, like Never Let Me Go, stand as commentary on our contemporary foibles, they create no enduring echoes comparable to those of their predecessor. They are lighter than most of Ishiguro’s work, comical even; although their comedy is inevitably part of their strangeness. Even the book’s subtitle is odd: “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall.” Strictly speaking, each piece is engaged with music—four are narrated by musicians, the fifth by a lover of music—and almost all unfold, at least in part, at the end of day.
But “nightfall” in this context is a more nuanced allusion: these are stories about the fate of dreams and illusions in the morass of mid-life, and the “nightfall” is a darkening of possibility—of love, of success, of happiness. Similarly, “music” too strains against its literal interpretation—by which …