Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: December 2008

Review: The Unconsoled


The Unconsoled,” by Kazuo Ishiguro
8.5/10, a puzzling but lovely work of magical realism

As I may have mentioned, Ishiguro is probably my favorite contemporary writer (though as Rikoshi points out, I have not read enough David Mitchell, a deficiency I intend to remedy in 2009). Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are an amazing pair of books, and even When We Were Orphans, though not quite as good, was still head and shoulders above most other contemporary fiction. Ishiguro shares with Mitchell a gift for character voice, and both are expert at pulling the reader into the character’s experiences. Ishuguro in particular loves the device of the unreliable narrator, allowing his protagonist to present the reader with “facts” that the reader can only glean from other hints are perhaps not as rock-solid as the narrator might think.

The Unconsoled is more reminiscent of When We Were Orphans than of either of the other two books. The narrator, Mr. Ryder, is a celebrated pianist, arriving in an unnamed Central European city for a recital. It soon becomes clear that this visit is for more than just a recital: Ryder is expected to attend all manner of community functions, to weigh in on local affairs, and especially to witness the revival of a Mr. Brodsky, a former conductor who took to drink but is looking to the night of the recital to resurrect not only his career, but also his image in the town.

So far, so good. But within the first few pages, Mr. Ryder is confronted by his publicist, who assumes he has read his schedule, which in fact he has not. He meets a porter named Gustav, who takes such pride in his profession that he has organized the other porters in the other hotels in town, and they have set up a code for porters to follow. Gustav has a daughter and a grandson, and the daughter is having emotional problems, so he begs Mr. Ryder to do him the favor of talking to her. Ryder demurs, not wanting to be involved in family affairs, but Gustav implores him, and so he agrees, the first in many diversions from the schedule he has not read. When he meets Sophie, Gustav’s daughter, she greets him as though he is part of her family–which it turns out he is; Sophie is his wife, and Boris his son.

These sorts of revelations are parceled out to the reader throughout the book. The puzzling and intriguing thing is that they appear to be revealed to Ryder at the same time. “I suddenly recalled sitting in an apartment with Sophie while she prepared a meal,” he will think, and from there he accepts the familiarity of the situation. It is almost as if he arrives in the city a blank slate, prepared to accept whatever past the inhabitants choose to impose on him.

The world becomes dreamlike in other ways: time dilates, such that an urgent engagement might still be met after three or four diversions; a long car ride from the hotel through the city to a dining hall might end with a walk back through the dining hall to the hotel via a connecting corridor. Buildings connect, places are impossibly far or close, people turn up where they are meant to be without any prearrangement, and Ryder is forever recognizing people from his past.

The various subplots are too numerous to describe, but the main contrast is between the inhabitants of the town, who are all striving to do something, and Ryder himself, who sometimes renders an opinion, but in the end is revered by the townspeople for doing exactly nothing. Forever a spectator, an arbiter, he keeps himself forcibly at a distance from his own life even while lamenting that very distance. The book ends, as many of Ishiguro’s books do, with an analogy that keenly places Ryder’s dilemma (I won’t spoil it by outlining it here). We end with him planning his next visit, to Helsinki, leaving us wondering if he will land in Helsinki and find another family lamenting his frequent trips, another set of past acquaintances, another shadow of a life that is the only substitute he will allow himself.

Ryder has a weaker voice than the other Ishiguro protagonists I’ve read, but the story is no less compelling. Each of the townspeople has a beautifully crafted, often tragic personality, which they are given ample time to explore in monologues to Ryder (or, sometimes, monologues and memories that he somehow “hears” anyway). His eye for detail in description is marvelous, and all the dialogue is outstanding. Despite the puzzling magical realism of the book, I felt compelled to finish it, and actually felt satisfied with it when I was done.

I wouldn’t start with this book if you’re unfamiliar with his work–pick up The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go–but if you love his writing, this is definitely worthwhile. You may be confused, but you won’t be disappointed.

EDIT: I went looking for other people’s opinions after writing this, and found one reviewer who makes an interesting case for Ryder being a dementia sufferer. I prefer to look at it metaphorically, but this is an interesting take on it as well.

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Linkage!

The ever-gracious, always worth reading Lance Mannion has linked to “Common and Precious” in a roundup of writers who read his blog. Thanks! If you enjoy trenchant political insight, movie reviews, and photo-essays of New York and New England–heck, if you just enjoy good writing, head over his way. You’ll be a convert soon too.

So You Want To Go On A Book Tour?

Read this: http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=64473

Heck, my book tour was almost more successful, and I just walked .75 miles from my house for one evening. I will say that the Index is very funny, especially at the end.

(I’m also not sure whether to be amused or sad that he, a writer, twice uses “it’s” incorrectly.)

I confess I haven’t read much of Elizabeth Bear’s award-winning work, but I do enjoy her blog. And if you are a writer, or want to be a writer, or want other people to think you’re a writer, you need to read this. Seriously. Go. Do it now.

Murder? Not so fast

One of the popular cliches of graduate writing seminars is “murder your darlings.” This is the rule that guards against a writer becoming so emotionally attached to a scene that he or she keeps it in the manuscript even when it doesn’t belong. We’ve all done that, right? Written something that made us bounce in our chair, something that was so good that we had to keep it in the story, or change the story to make the scene fit? Well, that’s not good writing. All scenes should serve the purpose of the story, so if your amazing, wonderful scene doesn’t work, take it out.

That said, I’ve noticed that some people have taken this philosophy to extremes. To them, “murder your darlings” means that any piece of writing that you’re too emotionally attached to should be cut. I’m not sure why; maybe because they think they’ll never be able to judge it objectively. But I don’t agree with that.

The people who read and like your work like it because they share a good number of your sensibilities. If you absolutely love a scene, chances are they will too. So the last thing you want to do is make your work duller by cutting all the parts you really love. As I’ve written before, keep the scene in, rework it to fit the story if you can, and if it absolutely won’t fit, cut it.

But don’t murder it. Save it for later. You will write another story.

Comfort Reading

I’ve talked before about writing for your audience. We tend to think of our audience in terms of demographics: women, teenagers, intellectuals, history buffs, science fiction fans, office workers. But there’s a strong case to be made for thinking of your audience in terms of needs, in terms of situations.

It’s a short, powerful entry. Go read it.

Review: The White Jade Fox

The White Jade Fox, by Andre Norton
8/10 for Andre Norton fans, 7/10 for non-Andre Norton fans

I grew up on Andre Norton. I could probably reel off a dozen titles I read of hers off the top of my head: Year of the Unicorn (still one of my favorites), The Jargoon Pard, The Zero Stone, Uncharted Stars, The Plague Ship, Quag Keep, Fur Magic, Dragon Magic, Star Ka’at, Octagon Magic, and the two sequels to “Plague Ship” and “Star Ka’at.” Okay, I missed a couple titles–the point is, she was one of my two favorite SF authors growing up. So it seems odd, given my later preference for foxes, that I had never heard of this title before stumbling across it in a Seattle used bookstore.

It’s the early-1800s story of Saranna, arriving in Baltimore after her mother’s death to meet her brother, who through an odd quirk of marriage, is actually old enough to be her father–literally: his daughter Honora is more or less Saranna’s age, and is immediately set up as the opponent. Saranna soon finds herself at Tiensin, the estate of her grandfather(?), a ship’s captain obsessed with China. He brought back a number of artifacts from China and has willed them to his granddaughter by a different branch of the family, young Damaris.

Damaris knows all the secrets of the estate. She doesn’t trust Honora, but Saranna soon wins her confidence. As she uncovers the secrets surrounding the artifacts and the strange foxes that haunt the estate, she must fend off the unwelcome advances of the housekeeper’s brother and cope with Honora’s scheming. Fortunately, Damaris knows how to marshall the ancient secrets to help them both.

If you like Andre Norton, this is a terrific example of her work. She does do character and description well, and her specialty is this kind of world: all normal and usual, with just a little bit of magic (or an unexplained alien) to introduce problems. But the problems are always those of the characters; the magic just dresses them up well. Even if you can see where this book is headed (and you can), the ride is still enjoyable, and she (surprisingly) stops short of the stereotypical romance novel ending.

It’s a good read if you can find it; unlike some of her books which remain in print, like the Witch World books or the Magic books, this one’s only available used.