Life among the Unconsoled

I know just how you feel, Ryder.

I know just how you feel, Ryder.

My favorite book, judging by the fact that I’ve now read it twice and I’m contemplating a third go-round, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.  Most readers know him from his shorter, more accessible works like Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  Both are excellent, particularly Remains, which spawned a sensitive, understated movie role for Anthony Hopkins.  That book contained a great deal of depth that didn’t make it onscreen, but of course that’s nothing new in cinematic adaptations of literary works.

Still, neither book prepared me for The Unconsoled, which clocks in at a bit over 500 pages.  So what’s it about?  Here is a short teaser that captures the ‘what’ but certainly not the ‘why’:

“Ryder, a renowned pianist, arrives in a Central European city he cannot identify for a concert he cannot remember agreeing to give. But then as he traverses a landscape by turns eerie and comical – and always strangely malleable, as a dream might be – he comes steadily to realise he is facing the most crucial performance of his life. Ishiguro’s extraordinary study of a man whose life has accelerated beyond his control was met on publication by consternation, vilification – and the highest praise.”  –goodreads.com

All well and good, but what’s it really about?  To dwell too much on outcomes is to miss the point of Ishiguro’s delicate dreamscape.  Ryder goes down the rabbit hole, all right, but it’s a place familiar to many musicians–filled with well-meaning but indifferent audiences, disorienting travel schedules, stage fright, unreconciled personal relationships, competing agendas of his ‘handlers’, professional self-doubt, and misunderstandings of the nature of art and performance.

I’m not sure how much of this Ishiguro intended to speak directly to musicians.  Ryder’s character could have been written as a poet or author and had much the same experience, and this distancing of the possible autobiographical may have been deliberate on Ishiguro’s part.  Still, it certainly resonates with anyone who has ever walked onto a darkened stage in a roomful of strangers and been expected to win them over.

I was reminded of this book yesterday by a performance for a friend who was retiring from teaching public school.  She has been a big supporter of the AJW, so we brought in a trio to play at the conclusion of a ceremony held at the school in her honor.  As might be expected, there was a large group of people there with different backgrounds:  administrators, colleagues, kids, community relations people, jazz musicians.  It was a lovely ceremony, and we were proud to be part of it.

But because it started late and folks all had to take their turn, we didn’t start playing until about 6:45 p.m.  This on top of a full day of teaching for many of those in attendance.  So we played a few tunes, people were milling and enjoying it…and then they started picking up chairs and getting the hell out of Dodge.

Now believe me, I understand why people are ready to get home, knowing they have to be back by 7:00 a.m. the next day.  But it did make me flash on the ending of The Unconsoled.  Which I won’t spoil for you, other than to say: it gives new depth to the word ‘anticlimactic’.

In any event, this is not the sort of book you read to find out what happens at the end, even though there is a sort of grim propulsion to get there.  I’m not sure how the ending would be interpreted by anyone who doesn’t make a living as a performer.  Judging by the book’s lackluster reception, I’m guessing it pissed them off.

But to me, the ending was perfect.  And along the way, we are treated to many wonderfully surreal moments as everyone Ryder meets seems to want to drag him off course and into their own dramas.  Everyone is convinced his presence will have a profound effect on their personal agendas.  Everyone is disappointed, to say the least.

So now that the summer is here, consider giving it a go.  You may love it.  And if you don’t…well

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