I went into The Unconsoled having read The Remains of the Day a number of years ago and enjoying it immensely. I obviously wasn't the only one who enjoyed it, as it won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Having read that book, I was prepared for the extremely dry, unsentimental style that is uniquely Ishiguro's. His prose verges on the pedantic, yet it is kept alive by humor and originality, by a certain silliness that pervades his work. The book, as well as the film Never Let Me Go of a couple years ago (made from his book of the same name), also attuned me to his thematic concerns: the way that polite gentility, especially of the British sort, can hide sadness and even horror, even from oneself; the feeling of being lost in a culture obsessed with such gentility; and attention to the subtleties of the class system. In Remains, with its aging butler struggling to understand the decline of the ritualized formalities that he has lived by his whole life, these ideas are used to comic effect, and one only very slowly realizes the serious issues and serious emotions being conveyed. In Never Let Me Go, the comedy is mostly gone, changed into absurdity but conveying much the same feelings, this time through a class of people raised entirely to be organ-donors, who barely realize the horror of their own lives because they stick so closely to the rules that have been laid out for them. All of this, I imagine, has roots somewhere in Ishiguro's confusion at an England that he wasn't born into and that he finds at the same time funny, sad and weird.
So, I was prepared for The Unconsoled, and I was even ready to like it a ton, especially since it promised to be about a musician. But there's no other way to say this: I hated this book.
Go ahead, tell me I simply don't appreciate surrealism. Maybe I don't. Tell me I just didn't understand it. That's entirely true. The book made no sense to me. It story circles around a pianist named Ryder sent into a strange European town, where strangers ask him to intervene in their personal lives, where he gets hints that the future of the town depends on his concert, where he learns that his parents are also on their way, where for some reason he meets friends from his youth who are not the least bit suprised to run into him.
The novel is recognizably Ishiguro. There is the protagonist somewhat at odds with his surroundings, the hints that many of the characters have deep problems that they are afraid to admit to. There are suggestions of interesting ideas -- the way that memory affects perception, the strange ways that high culture can become a part of one's personal life. And there are moments of light humor -- the hotel porters, for instance, are united in an effort to raise themselves in the public's estimation. In the end, though, nothing is worked out quite enough to be interesting. Ryder's interactions with people who can't see anything strange about their town are sometimes, or his discussions of his own life, which he can barely remember, are almost funny, almost touching, almost philosophically and psychologically insightful, but in the end, after over 500 pages with nothing to give a reader his bearings, they are simply exhausting.
This book felt very much like a man telling a joke for hours, pretending to be building up to a punchline that he has no intention of getting to. One goes on, partly because he has already heard so much, partly because there is a chance, just a small chance, that his intuitions are wrong, that maybe this will be the best joke he's ever heard. But not so with this book, whose title gains a whole new significance when it is finally put down in disappointment.