Monday, 3 January 2011

Inspiring Ishiguro

The title of this post comes from those horrid ice-breaker games that teachers always seem to play at the beginning of a new class - pick an adjective that describes you and alliterates with your name. I am always screwed when this comes up, as I have a firm belief that there is literally NO adjective in the world that accurately describes me, which also alliterates with my name. Risque Rachel? Ravishing? Rancid? Ridiculous? Perhaps. Any better suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I usually plump for the unadventurous - but accurate - description of 'Red Rachel', which probably gives everyone in the class the inaccurate impression that I don't know adjectives over one syllable, and that I don't have any personality traits other than my hair.

(The best one I've ever heard, by the way, was a chap who introduced himself to his first Psychology class as 'Misanthropic Michael'. I mean, you've got to have balls to do that.)

So I've decided to deal my first author the same treatment, and found there to be quite a fitting word for Kazuo Ishiguro. The book I've read recently is Never Let Me Go, although I must touch briefly on his latest collection of short stories Nocturnes.

This was a book that I accidentally gave away to a man I had nothing in common with. I don't often go on 'dates' - I am pretty bad at the whole social interaction thing at the best of times, let alone with complete strangers who want to take your clothes off. But on this occassion, a tall, dark, handsome man had walked into the bookshop, brave as butter, and asked me out there and then. My boss was right next to me, so I thought it might be rude to say no. Besides, he was very good-looking.

So I did it. I went on a date with a real, live man, and tried to do all the normal things people do. I asked him about his family and job. He had a pretty interesting family, as it happens (but the way he spoke about his crazy, creative sister made me want to date her), and his job, although not what I would like to do, was pretty impressive. I say that, but I've completely forgotten what it was it now. Anyway, I also asked about literature, music and the arts, as you do. This was where we had the problem.

The first clue was when he hadn't heard of Modigliani, Toulouse-Lautrec or Mondrian. He thought they were writers, which I can forgive. But when I asked him what his favourite album was he came out with 'Sailing to Philadelphia' by Mark Knopfler. "You know, as in Dire Straits," he said. Dire straits indeed, I thought. Then I asked him what books he liked to read, and that's when he said, "In my opinion, not enough books have pictures."

That's when I knew. Conincidentally, that's also about the same time I started drinking my wine a little faster.

Anyway, I had just finished Nocturnes, it was still in my bag, and I hate to see a grown man with absolutely no knowledge of contemporary literature. So I gave it to him, carefully describing the pictures that Ishiguro paints with words, and how a collection of short stories is surprisingly easy to read. It was a beautiful collection, I thought: slow-paced, meditative but full of emotional reverberation. I love it when a writer weaves a theme into their collections, and music and nightfall are themes so well matched to the descriptive style of Ishiguro's writing it felt like the most natural choice in the world. It wasn't ground-breaking, I said, and certainly not his best work, but it's worth reading as an introduction to his style.

I'd lost him, by this point, and it was he who was drinking his wine a little faster.

But the book was taken, obviously understood as a non-returnable deposit on our relationship, a bit like when  an estate agent charges you for miscellaneous admin fees. And so I never saw him again, and that was the last time I saw my own copy of Ishiguro.

I'd learnt my lesson. This time I borrowed Never Let Me Go from the library, so I couldn't accidentally give it away. I gulped it down in two days - a sign of the exceptional writing, and also how convincing his alternative future is. Quite simply, I got lost in it. Everything, from the setting to the characters, is so utterly possible that you are left struggling with the dilemmas in the novel as if they were your own.

I will try not to be vague, but I want to establish that I read this novel without knowing anything about it, and without even reading the blurb, and so I pieced together the full horror of the ending along with the main character, Kathy. I think you should read it this way, too. I didn't want to know what the true purpose of her life was - and neither did she - and the subtle revelation of truth is just enough to give you an unsteady glimpse into the future. I liked this blind way of reading - others might not. I know many people who prefer to have an obvious subtext, but I thrive on ambiguity. There are several digressions, too, (much like my own writing), which I have no problem with, but others might find a little frustrating. If it helps, I can assure you that each thread is picked up, even when you think it's lost.

If there's one thing you absolutely cannot fault, it's the strength of the voice. It's written with confidence and consistency, with those little nuances of Ishiguro's writing that make it unique. The poetic description, for example, but also the observation of human behaviour. Kathy observes people in a very close way, always trying to second-guess their motives and emotions. As a writer, I find that fascinating. I kept stopping to reflect on what I had learnt, particularly with the group dynamics of children. The picked-on boy who flies into a violent rage ends up dating his tormentor - that fundamental childhood truth that bullies secretely desire their victims.

This close observation continues into Kathy's adult life, and you realise what an intelligent, astute person she is. Far too intelligent and astute for what will eventually become of her.

I want you to read this book. It is uncomfortable, but rewarding. I don't trust myself to say anymore without giving the game away, but I will say this: I urge you to read it before you watch the film. I was excited to hear about the adaptation at first - it is written almost like a screenplay already, in places - until I learnt that the spade-faced Keira Knightley would be featured. Slightly more relieved was I to hear that she would play Ruth, the overbearing and often cruel friend that completes a love triangle between Kathy and Tommy. When I realised this, I softened a little. To play Kathy would require a delicate execution, and an ability to express a range of human emotion. But Ruth is cold, popular and powerful. On reflection, I think she might be a rather good choice for the role.

I will, of course, give the film a fair trial once I see it. I am always touchy about film adaptations, because I relish the opportunity to paint my own character from a novel. That, of course, is the beauty of books. The world exists as completely seperate and original place in every person's mind; a novel is a chance for your imagination to mingle with that of the writer. Anyway, I'm getting sentimental and tired. My very first Book Before Midnight has over-run slightly, although it stands to reason: today has been full of running late.

If you have read the book, please share your thoughts with me; if you have any questions that have remained unanswered by my admittedly rather abstract first review, I encourage you to ask them. 'Inspired' is a word that pops up in several mainstream reviews of Ishiguro's work - I thought it might be fitting to change it to 'inspring', for me, because he undoubtably made me want to write again, and sparked me to recommend this book to many people (none of whom I have dated). It now sits pride of place on the paperback fiction table at work, and will in fact be covered by a future Reading Group later this year, if anyone is interested.

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