Having loved all his other novels, I finally got around to reading Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and boy, was it strange and wonderful. I'd heard a vast...moreHaving loved all his other novels, I finally got around to reading Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and boy, was it strange and wonderful. I'd heard a vast array of opinions about this book, from "It is one of my top ten novels of all time" to "I loved it in a tense, uncomfortable way" to "it was an unmitigated train wreck." It's always intriguing to me when a book attracts such a wide variety of reactions, so I was looking forward to The Unconsoled for that reason. It also just so happens that I read Ishiguro in what you might call "increasing order of weirdness," and I had heard that this is indeed his weirdest book. There is something deeply satisfying about continuing my trajectory in this way, although at this point I doubt it's sustainable any longer - it would be quite a challenge to write a stranger book than this one.
Of course, many of its strange qualities have been explored before. The surreality, the language of dreams and nightmares in which the protagonist tries in vain to accomplish simple tasks, the sudden and confusing shifts in setting and perspective, the garbled rationale and bizarre priorities of the natives in a strangely familiar city: all of these elements have been combined and recombined to create the "Kafkaesque" genre. That said, this book does all of these things in a way that seems more tense and fluid than many other dreamlike stories I've read. Ishiguro really captures the shifting sands of perception that mark a dreamlike consciousness. At the same time, he manages to maintain cohesion within the narrative - just barely, at times, but he manages it. Sometimes the balance between the surreality and the sense of coherent character and voice, feels like a virtuosic juggling act that the performer is just barely pulling off; the audience is poised at the edge of their seats, transfixed at the intricate patterns traced by the juggled objects, and simultaneously nervous that they will, at any moment, come crashing down on the performer's head.
Appropriately, then, the main character of The Unconsoled IS a performer: Ryder, a famous English pianist revisiting a city which may or may not already be familiar to him, where he is supposed to give a performance which may or may not be very important in a variety of ways. One of the things I loved about this novel was the unique way that relationships slid in and out of focus; a few pages after seeking out the daughter of an acquaintance in a café, Ryder will gradually "remember" more and more details about her. Although it is at first implied that they have just met, they are soon having conversations that suggest a long history of mutual resentments and shared hopes, attacking and reassuring each other in a manner reminiscent of a (dysfunctional) long-term relationship. Ryder's own emotions and thought processes regarding the happiness and mental health of the woman's son, Boris, achieve a level of intensity more appropriate to a stepfather than a chance acquaintance, and Boris' own reactions to Ryder indicate a deep desire for approval reminiscent of a neglected child. At the same time, the closeness of Ryder's relationships with mother and child is never explicitly stated, and seems to wax and wane unpredictably throughout the novel.
In a similar vein, the life stories of different characters start to mirror and imitate one another in eerie and intriguing ways. Having been drawn into a conversation with the hotel porter, Gustav, about how Gustav has fallen into the habit of never speaking directly to his daughter, Ryder gradually adopts the same practice toward Boris, his sometime-son. Witnessing the fraught relationship between the hotel manager Hoffman and his son Stephan either suggests to or reminds Ryder of his own nebulous connection with his parents, who may or may not be arriving in the unnamed city to hear him play the piano for the first time in many years. The reader is never sure the extent to which the conversations and stories going on around Ryder create his perceived world, the extent to which he is extrapolating his own story outward onto those around him, and the extent to which a more complex dynamic is at work. The primal fears involved in many of these interactions (rejection by parents, arriving unprepared for important performances, the sudden realization that one's actions have been wildly inappropriate) add another level to the question of what Ryder is "half-creating" and what he perceives; there is a sense that we may be caught in an uncontrollable spiral, continually creating the worlds we dread through the very act of dreading them.
This sense of inappropriate behavior is a constant throughout The Unconsoled, and it runs the gamut from exhilarating to horrifying to surprisingly unexceptional. Nobody seems to notice, for example, when Ryder shows up to a fancy dress event in his dressing gown and slippers, and Ryder himself is strangely nonreactive when a journalist and photographer who are interviewing him commence talking about him as if her weren't present, planning how they will flatter and distract him into making unwise publicity decisions. On the other hand, he is horrified when the mourners at a funeral stop their sobbing to flock around him and deluge him with manic adulation, searching their pockets for refreshments to offer him and castigating themselves for having only a small piece of cellophane-wrapped cake. In one of my favorite scenes in the novel, Ryder and his wife-or-maybe-just-casual-acquaintance Sophie attend a late-night showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey - an alternate-universe version of the film involving interstellar gunfights between Yul Brenner and Clint Eastwood, who star as the astronauts who must dismantle HAL. The atmosphere in the theater is depicted as almost carnivalesque, with people laughing, talking, playing cards in the aisles, and, most bizarrely, rolling onto their backs with their legs in the air, shrieking with mirth, whenever anyone needs to inch by their seats. This is the flip-side to the terrifying or disconcerting abandonment of logical behavior in other sections - a giddy, liberating feeling which pervades the theater and lets the locals, as the hotel manager puts it, "unwind."
But the strangest narrative quirk of The Unconsoled is the way in which Ryder occasionally takes casual notice of a long, complicated back-story just by looking at a person, in the same way that he might notice a runny nose or a lipstick smudge. The first time this happens, as Gustav is showing him around his hotel room, I found the trick strangely disorienting, and actually doubled back to see whether I had missed a small phrase such as "I found out later" or "he would go on to tell me." But as I went on with the novel and similar incidents followed, it struck me as a very clever way to play with narrative. Readers are already familiar, after all, with narrators who notice small physical details about people they're observing, and even make assumptions or draw conclusions based on those observations. The next (il)logical step, in a novel of surreal perceptions taken to grotesque heights, is the ability to simply perceive another person's thoughts, feelings, past or present actions simply by looking at or thinking about them. So, for example, Ryder can take casual notice of Gustav's preoccupied air in the hotel room, and also casually notice that the porter is worried about his daughter, who has been handing off her son on certain days so that she can do errands, and then (Gustav has reason to believe) not doing the errands after all. Similarly, he can be waiting in the car with Boris while Stephan Hoffman runs an errand at a woman's apartment, and tell us how he watches Stephan climb the stairs and ring the bell, then recount his conversation with the woman as he enters the apartment and follows her down the hall, recounting the interior design as well as the conversation. Then, in case the reader is thinking that Ryder must have followed Stephen into the apartment after all, he writes that his attention was recalled by a noise made by Boris, and goes on to interact with the boy within the confines of the car. The liquidity of perception here is masterfully done, and once I cottoned on to this unique little trick, I quite enjoyed the experience of having the narrative stretch and balloon in unexpected and sometimes humorous directions.
Just as Ryder describes audiences reacting to the ultra-modern musical pieces performed in the novel, I loved The Unconsoled on a purely aesthetic basis. I'm not sure what lasting messages or morals I'll take away from it, beyond a sense of the universality of human fears and fallibility, but the tense, intriguing mood and skewed, shadowy universe it created are still tangible to me days after closing the covers. (less)
I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but si...moreI'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.
ANYway, Hughes's prose is crisp and readable, and he has a fantastic story to tell. The Fatal Shore is not a novel, but it consistently evokes times, places and situations that make me want to read (or even write!) fiction set in early colonial Australia. He has a fine eye for detail, and uses primary sources to great advantage. I find that biography and history sometimes struggle with the constant transition between covering broad trends and including enough specific detail to keep things interesting, but Hughes has the technique down. Witness his description of the arrival in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) of the mediocre early Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey:
"The two men hated one another on sight. Davey thought Macquerie a Scottish prig; and Macquerie considered his new lieutenant-governor a wastrel and a drunk, who manifested 'an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners.' "So he did. Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat. He then took off his coat, remarking that the place was as hot as Hades, and marched uphill to Government House in his shirtsleeves. Nicknamed 'Mad Tom' by the settlers, he would later make it his custom to broach a keg of rum outside Government House on royal birthdays and ladle it out to the passerby."
As well as enjoying the hilarious image of port being emptied over Davey's wife's hat, I love how this short passage communicates vividly and succinctly so much about the dueling characters of the two colonial administrators. Also, "low buffoonery"? Definitely going in my arsenal of excellent old-timey put-downs.
Hughes's talent for choosing just the right detail to resonate and amaze is spot-on. Describing the widespread myth among early Irish convicts in Australia that there existed an overland route to China, and the tragic escape attempts that resulted, he notes that "Since none of them had a compass (and few possessed any idea of how to use it even if they had had one), they went out armed with a magical facsimile consisting of a circle crudely sketched on paper or bark with the cardinal points but no needle." What could more forcibly communicate the pathetic desperation of these people, uprooted from everything familiar and dumped into a foreign and hostile environment?
Likewise, when Hughes is describing what passed for "education" at the boys' jail at Point Puer in Van Diemen's Land, where children were put through perfunctory scholastic and religious paces after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day of hard labor, he relates that "a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that 'the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.'" The image of the exhausted, damp and caterwauling boys, often transported for trifles like "stealing two pairs of stockings," is both chilling and touching. Also chilling is this passage about the children of soldiers and free settlers, who
"played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendents would play bushrangers. 'I have observed children playing,' wrote one colonial observer in 1850, 'at the Botany Bay game of Courts and Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly passed on those who were doomed to be 'damned,' and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of: - the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought."
Although I'm not one to idealize the innocence of children, this paragraph certainly gives a clear view of the dark side of culture-formation.
And there is plenty of dark stuff in The Fatal Shore, from sadistic prison wardens to snobbish would-be-aristocrats, to prisoners whose flesh was crawling with maggots while they were still alive. Yes, there's even a vivid first-person account of cannibalism. The most difficult chapters for me to read, though, were those dealing with the plight of women and Aborigines, and with the role of homosexuality in the colony.
This book comes right on the heels, for me, of James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, and there were some depressing similarities between the two histories, despite an entire hemisphere's separation. The insane sense of entitlement felt and exercised by the European colonists; the gradual (or not-so-gradual) descent into a cycle of violence; the issuance of self-righteous tracts setting down legal boundaries, which the native people are unable to read as they are available solely in English: it all rings unpleasantly familiar in the ears of a United States citizen.
Perhaps the most confusing and circular part of European/Native relations in both America and Australia, is Europeans' fixation on a settled, capitalist existence as the only kind of life they were willing to acknowledge as legitimate. On both continents, the colonists assumed that nomadic peoples were "wasting" the land, that their movable lifestyle obliterated any claim they may have had to it - a tragedy of epic proportions, considering that connection to the land was usually much more integral to the native peoples' sense of self than it ever was to Europeans. Equally galling to the European interlopers was the lack of a fiat money system among native peoples, which the Europeans, tellingly, took as a sign of godlessness and dissipation. This is especially ironic in Australia, which was being settled in the first place because England had come to so fetishize Property that people were sentenced to death for offenses like "poaching a rabbit," "stealing a length of ribbon," or "cutting down an ornamental shrub." As a newborn infant could have predicted, this led to SO MANY death sentences that most of them had to be commuted, hence the waves of convicts and their attendant administrators, eager to convert the natives to their own property-loving way of life. In Tasmania, as in the American south-east, native people were herded into what were essentially concentration camps, where "they were shown how to buy and sell things, so that they might acquire a reverence for property." Awesome idea, guys! And those were the progressive settlers; most just wanted to kill as many natives as possible.
The chapters on treatment of women was also horrifying. Much of it, such as the passage describing how the new female convicts were sold at the country store, were grotesque parodies of still-familiar attitudes:
"The same woman might be sold several times during her Norfolk Island sentence, with Potter 'in most cases reselling them for a gallon or two of rum until they were in such a Condition as to be of little or no further use.' The sales would be held in an old store where the women had to strip naked and 'race around the room' while Potter kept up a running commentary on their 'respective values.'"
Female convicts were essentially the slaves of slaves, but the most infuriating part from an intellectual perspective is that they were looked down on as "prostitutes" as a result. Even female convicts who were never sold and re-sold on Norfolk Island, even those who had long-term, loving relationships, were viewed as whores by the self-styled "respectable" colonists:
As the historian Michael Sturma points out, the idea that the convicts shared the same ideas about sexual behavior as their superiors is very dubious: 'Working-class mores [in England] differed markedly from those of upper and middle classes...[A]mong the British working-class, cohabitation was prevalent. It is highly unlikely that working-class men, and in particular male convicts, considered the women convicts to be in some way sexually immoral...The stereotype of women convicts as prostitutes emerged from...an ignorance of working-class habits.'"
Huh, how eerily familiar. It's disturbing how difficult it is to perceive, let alone acknowledge, value systems that differ from our own. It's also interesting - and problematic - to me, how few modern people know about the widespread acceptance of cohabitation among the Victorian working classes. The Victorian era is so often seen as the epitome of prudishness and ramrod respectability, wherein premarital sex is the Ultimate Evil that can befall a virtuous young woman, and while there was certainly truth to the stereotype, it's also important to remember that there were other realities as well.
If the way that misogyny played out in early Australia was tiresomely predictable, the role of homosexuality was much more complex, and tricky for a modern young lefty like myself to digest. [More on my blog.](less)
This book was clear, well-written, and utterly horrifying. I think it's information all Americans should have, and are unlikely to be taught in public...moreThis book was clear, well-written, and utterly horrifying. I think it's information all Americans should have, and are unlikely to be taught in public school. Made me realize a number of things, including how uneven "traditional" education is, even about distributing MISinformation about the story of American Indians. I never knew, for example, what a galvanizing and controversial time the New Deal in the 1930's was for many tribes, nor had I heard about the fish-ins in the 1960's, which took place right in my back yard.
I didn't consider myself a wide-eyed innocent about the relationship between white folks and Native Americans, but this book was truly shocking to me, and also fascinating and seemingly well-balanced. I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it will leave you flabbergasted that we still encourage gradeschool children to dress up like Pilgrims.(less)
A good biography of a fascinating person. Albertson does a good job of giving a rounded picture of Bessie Smith, although most of the interest and vit...moreA good biography of a fascinating person. Albertson does a good job of giving a rounded picture of Bessie Smith, although most of the interest and vitality comes from the verbatim memories of Ruby Walker, Smith's niece by marriage, who toured extensively with her in the 1920's and 30's. Albertson readily admits that without Ruby there wouldn't be a book, and her words definitely communicate much about Bessie that would otherwise be lost: her rollicking sense of humor, her mood throughout different eras, and what it was like to just hang out with her. Her famous temper probably would have come through, but maybe not how quick she often was to forgive and forget. Albertson's prose seems slightly dated (originally published in 1971, it seems to belong somewhat to an older, less engaging school of nonfiction writing). But it gives good structure and some commentary to the anecdotes related by Ruby and his other sources, some of which are amazing: the account of Smith cussing out Ku Klux Klan members who were trying to sabotage her performance tent, and creating such a formidable spectacle that the men slunk off into the night, was what turned me on to Albertson's book to begin with. There's lots more where that came from, but Smith is never painted as infallible or flawless. All in all, an enjoyable and educational read!(less)
This book is amazingly hilarious and silly. It was the English Gothic Novel to begin all English gothic novels (published 1794), and it literally incl...moreThis book is amazingly hilarious and silly. It was the English Gothic Novel to begin all English gothic novels (published 1794), and it literally includes every single gothic convention I know of. You could make a drinking game out of spotting them, but you'd have to limit yourself to about five pages a day or you'd be under the table. Thoroughly enjoyable plane reading, and also fascinating from a literary history point of view. (less)
George Eliot! What a hot tamale. I thought this biography was slightly superficial at times, but at others very insightful. And what fascinating mater...moreGeorge Eliot! What a hot tamale. I thought this biography was slightly superficial at times, but at others very insightful. And what fascinating material! Overall I quite liked it.(less)
I included this book in my Biography Project (reading lots of biographies in 2008) because I was wondering what it would be like to write a biography...moreI included this book in my Biography Project (reading lots of biographies in 2008) because I was wondering what it would be like to write a biography of a person who a)lived so long ago, and b)has come be so freighted in many peoples' minds. The answer, as it turns out, is that you can't really say anything for sure, and there has to be pages and pages of disclaimers for even the smallest assertion of fact. Which got a little tiresome, I must admit.
The book was pretty fascinating, though, for the social context of first-century Palestine, and the textual contrasts among the different canonical and non-canonical Gospels. Especially for a non-Christian like me, a useful background book.(less)
I went back and forth on this book. It was a gift from my very dear friend Leah, and follows on many very interesting conversations we've had about lo...moreI went back and forth on this book. It was a gift from my very dear friend Leah, and follows on many very interesting conversations we've had about love and partnership. As a person in a committed, long-term relationship who nonetheless has severe misgivings about the institution of marriage, I seem like a natural fit for this book, and to some extent that's true. I thought a few of the essays were brilliant, quite a few intriguing or insightful. Reading too many of them in a row, though, made me a little bit frustrated at the collective self-indulgence of a particular branch of third-wave feminism, a branch that seems to spend more time analyzing the feminism or lack thereof in individual decisions, rather than placing those decisions within the frame of a larger context. And the short-essay form, repeated over and over, dictated a slightly sitcom-esque cycle of problem and resolution. I would have liked a few more of these essays to end without resolution, or with some story arc other than "I used to have Problem/Trait/Opinion X; then I had experience Y and now I've come to realize Z." Or, at the very least, one or two longer essays would have enabled authors to delve into a greater level of social or relational complexity. Nonetheless, it was thought-provoking and readable. If you have to choose between this book and a nice chat with my friend Leah, though, I would definitely recommend the latter.(less)
I had an odd relationship with this novel. I didn't like any of the characters very much, yet the plot was constructed in such a clever and intriguing...moreI had an odd relationship with this novel. I didn't like any of the characters very much, yet the plot was constructed in such a clever and intriguing way that I was pulled onward. I am a sucker for the lure of a long-forgotten family secret.
People seem to find this book funny ("Hilarious!" claimed the quips & quotes on the back), but I thought it was incredibly sad, countries and families repeating cycles of dysfunction with alarming regularity. I suppose the final pages offered a shred of hope, but by that point I'd pretty much written all the characters off as bad jobs. (less)