Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Nocturnes" fails to live up to implications of title

The word or category “nocturnes” evokes a particular sobriety. It transmits a dreamy but serious and often mournful atmosphere. The tones struck in a nocturne are haunting if not eerie. Even when the sound stops the mood lingers. One puts on an album of nocturnes for a meditative, gray afternoon or in the wake of desire. None of the stories in Kazui Ishiguro’s Nocturnes strike these chords and the title of the collection is unfitting. The narrators fly through their tales at an andante pace, rather than with the mix of caution and tumult that should be found in such meditative pieces of music
Although there is a jumble of narrators in Ishiguro's short stories, the variety of tone is indistinct. Each protagonist is male, each a musician or an aficionado, no one at the top of his field. Two play in St. Mark’s square in Venice, another in the rolling English hills, and a third is met in a Beverly Hills hotel where he is recovering from plastic surgery. All these characters share a plaintive tone. This exasperating quality is brought to the attention of a few of the protagonists, giving them another reason for self-righteous indignation. This evidence of Ishiguro’s understanding of his characters' whining does not alleviate the reader’s annoyance with their grating disenchantment.
I sailed through these stories of depression, friendship, and ending love. This rapidity alone contradicts the principle of a nocturne, a piece of music that is created to be savored, not hurriedly consumed. My brief and hasty encounters with the Ishiguro's characters never convinced me to care about them. They are too thoughtless and too self-pitying; shells of rejection and disappointment. Their passion for music is the emotion that should sustain them, but it no longer triumphs because they have lost their ear for their passion.
Additionally, many of the author’s premises felt preposterous. In the title story, a middle-aged saxophone player is all too easily talked into the need for plastic surgery in order to advance his career. In another a grown, if somewhat misdirected, man impersonates a dog in order to create a faux scene of destruction in a friend’s apartment to throw the owners off a moment of his own indiscretion. I didn’t buy these events and felt almost bitter to be asked to swallow the conceits upon which the stories were founded.
It is impossible to know if these are tales of deserving geniuses, or the gripes of decent musicians in a cutthroat business because everyone of Ishiguro’s narrators speaks in the first person. This narrow vision creates a slanted opinion and prevents the reader from hearing the music objectively. Whenever a secondary character bestows a compliment on the protagonist’s talent, it is always a remark complicated by another motive and does nothing to help the reader understand the plight of who is playing.
The secondary characters are often the real focus of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. Their stories were often more interesting or glaringly tragic than the protagonists but they, also, fail to engage one’s sympathies. Ishiguro's tales orchestrate passing connections with people, and through these new acquaintances shades of past relationships are revealed. Music is usually the longest relationship a character is involved in. Had the stories been developed more thoroughly in this vein they would have both caught my attention and bewitched me. Music has the same ability as glue, it is able to attach unlikely persons to one another in odd or momentarily comforting ways. This is a premise I can accept and respect; it is a wonderful and true notion. But my interest was stunted by the deprecating whine of the protagonists and the inconclusive worth of everyone else.

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