I apologize for not having anything original at the moment—all of my creative output has been poured into workshop assignments and short stories (current project: ten pages of a girl who finds herself trapped in a Rilke poem, and her companion is a marble bust of Beatrice). Nevertheless, I still want to write about Kazuo Ishiguro and his Nobel Prize—I couldn’t believe the news, it was too surreal. As a disclaimer, I’ve only read two of his novels, but they left such oceanic impressions that I can’t not talk about them.
(Also a disclaimer: I read these books long enough ago that I remember very little in terms of plot details and specific literary observations. For the more eloquent and cohesive book reviews, check out the New York Times, etc).
The first was Never Let Me Go—one of his dabbles in genre-writing, alongside The Buried Giant, yet it retains his haunting prose and Austen-esque pacing. (The film adaptation is just as disquieting). While Never Let Me Go upholds Ishiguro’s signature themes of memory and looking at life through various temporal lenses, it houses a plethora of its own starkly gorgeous, albeit bleak, moments.
Take this quote, for instance:
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”
I read that passage when I was fourteen years old. Can you imagine? It was a revelation that I never expected to understand, being naive and young and too full of dreams to know any better. Yet, I understood. I was heartbroken. The cold austerity mingled with honest affection. The awful acceptance of an end. It was the last thing I wanted to ponder in my youth: I wanted nothing to do with temporality. I had no business knowing that, one day, life would cease, and everything held dear to me would be nothing but an accumulation of things that were not enough.
Isn’t it what that last sentence implicates? “But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.” In my rational mind, I would say that immortality is more terrifying than death. But imagine these two kids, Kathy and Tommy, coming to the realization that love can only arrive at certain points in one’s life. For them, it was too late. Then, imagine them wanting time so desperately while knowing their inevitable fates.
God! Imagine the horror and beauty of being in love like that!
It was such a philosophical blow to my mind that, for a brief while, I feared the immense responsibility of life—that unending process of knowing that nothing gold stays, and the rivers dry up, and hands fall limp out of embraces, and night falls, yet enduring out of faith for the promise of something better.
The ethics and morals of the book were eye-opening as well. It was one of the staples that expanded my “soft sci-fi” appetite (think Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, etc.). But it also probed deeper questions, such as, why do we fear and ostracize people with illness? Can it be justified to alienate others with “inferior” genetics? Is it better to grow up sheltered or exposed to truth? Why do we betray those closest to us?
Oh, and that ending. Jesus, that ending. Spoilers, of course, but Kathy standing in that field, crying, looking at that strange rubbish. The one and only moment in the entire novel where she has an inkling of the feeling that she deserves more. The one moment where she briefly understands the value of her own existence.
Several years later, the second book was An Artist of the Floating World—I read this with two friends, each of us sharing the same copy, making annotations, and mailing it to one another in succession. (The result is that I have a copy of the book filled with three distinct voices in conversation with each other and the text. It’s one of my most cherished objects).
This book was less affecting, and I can’t say that it held a great deal of emotional resonance for me. But it did prompt my interest in the concept of “the artist”—the isolation, the ephemeral “floating world” that artists inhabit as the “real” world around them changes. I remember noting that Ono was an unreliable narrator, but also feeling sympathetic to his petty struggles. There was allure to that floating world. I could see it reflected in my own experiences: staying at the music school late into the night, having dinner with my teachers, blissfully oblivious to the obligations and concerns of practical life. Continuously in search of both the “intoxicating present” and “hazy aftermath” of artistic endeavors.
The topics of the novel are broader than I let on; there are attempts to decipher cultural and familial traditions in pre/post WWII Japan, the issue of arranged marriages, and the way societal perceptions of art can shift rapidly. Ishiguro offers a great deal of attention to the renewal of generations—the shedding of the old and the change of the new. But it’s mainly the floating world concept that returns to me from time to time. Artist of the Floating World. A potent explanation and accusation if I ever heard one.
I’m thinking of The Unconsoled as my next Ishiguro book. I’ve heard polarizing reviews about it, so I’m eager to find out where I’ll fall on the spectrum. But from what I’ve read of its synopsis—world-renowned concert pianist, anxious dreams, stream-of-consciousness, the cult of art—it’ll be right up my alley.