Hearing on The Writer’s Almanac that his birthday was this week reminded me of Ishiguro and his latest book which I read a few months ago. Ishiguro is always taking on new challenges. I’ve been a fan for a long time, enjoying the deeply felt precision of An Artist of the Floating World and A Pale View of Hills and the startling rightness of The Remains of the Day. I struggled with The Unconsoled because the narrative seemed to follow the logic of dreams where you might walk through a door to a cafe in Munich and find yourself in a mall in Tokyo or a boardroom in L.A. I finally gave up trying to puzzle out the dream logic and just let the scenes wash over me: certainly a different way for me to experience a novel.
With Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro returns to linear narrative (yes, I know there’s another book in the middle that I haven’t read yet—gotta save something for the drought days). I found the book easy to read; the challenge came when I tried to figure out what I thought about the subject matter, even what I felt about it. I had thought I was pretty clear before I started the book, but have ended up having to reconsider. I’m so afraid of giving anything away that I don’t want to give any details about this story, just urge everyone to read it and talk to your friends about it. Believe me, you will have a lot to talk about.
As a writer, I was curious about the way Ishiguro handled the withholding of information to create suspense. There are lots of techniques, such as the one I call “the Chinatown” after the film (“‘We used to work together. In Chinatown.'”). Stephen Greenblatt calls it “the creation of a strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World. Ian Rankin—one of my favorite authors—uses this one effectively. There will just be an off-hand reference to an incident or a person early on, and I’ll think ‘Okay, there will be an explanation in the next page or two’. There isn’t, so I read a couple more pages. Eventually, I forget what it was I wanted to know, only that there was something . . . The missing information sets up a dissonance, something I’m barely aware of, like a burr under my mind saying ‘Read on! Read on!’ Then at the end of the book, there’s a profound sense of relief when the half-forgotten question is finally answered and the dissonance resolved.
What Ishiguro does here is much more subtle. He uses normal, familiar words, words that I only gradually realised were somehow off. Thus began the dissonance, ever so slightly at first, but growing. My interest didn’t even end with the book’s resolution. Months later, I find myself thinking about it and finding new insights—sometimes surprising ones—into what I believe and the consequences of my beliefs. Just what I want from a book.