NVDT Book Review

Nocturnes – Kazuo Ishiguro

Two and a half stars. The author is a Nobel winner and these shorts are damn close to a waste of time. Like being on a cross-country flight stuck in the seat next to the mad dude reciting his boring, banal, nobody understands my life situation in a dull monotone.

I read Nocturnes because it was a gimme from the publisher’s rep that my wife left lying on end tables around the house. I picked it up when it stopped moving as it was a heavily promoted “must read.” I don’t know who decides those things, but by reading it, I felt I was doing my literary due diligence. My reaction to finishing it was a resounding “Huh?” I showed it to my wife whose best professorial assessment was “When I finished it, I didn’t feel like I’d read anything.”

I tried, in vain, to find some inner artistry, some deeper meanings, some exotic form of construct and couldn’t. There is nothing in Nocturnes resembling nightfall or music. Save for music serving as a vocational commonality between characters in most of the stories, never as a metaphor or form of construct. No deeper than it played, it could have been any vocation.

In my eyes, Nocturnes appeared flawlessly vapid. A Superficial work about Superficial People, deliberately drawn without a hint of narrative passion. However, in all the reviews and criticisms I read, not one mentioned the thematic thread that slapped me in the face. Selfishness. Every character has their own variation of being under-or-completely unappreciated and the center of their own universe. Marital partners, guitarists, a saxophonist, a cellist and old “friends” all perceive themselves as imposed on, internally or externally, with some mostly indirect discussion/perception of what-is-success.

The flat style made suspending disbelief during the few moments of slapstick difficult. In fact, one scene reminded me of the same sort of one minor thing leads to a real mess in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim but here the pages (seriously) of activity feel forced and the protagonist’s perceived dilemma ultimately leads to nothing. They’re both British, and the humor was on the order of Fawlty Towers, however Nocturnes’ timing was off. I am not one to flip through pages of humor, forced or otherwise, but here I fanned forward a few times just to see how much more I had to endure to get back to a story.

Dialogue and narrative never popped. The style of the book, which I’ll call flaccid, was understatement taken to an extreme. Uber flat, correct, almost clip art construction. The only way I can explain it, and I hope this isn’t too farfetched –

In music, every note played by a human is nuanced. Timing and dynamics. These two things can be captured by technology. Such a capture gives one the ability to adjust a performance to spreadsheet grid “perfection.” What happens when all the timing is corrected to the nearest perfect timing grid and all the dynamics flattened to the same velocity? The music, now perfect and sterile, is no longer musical. That’s this book. To me. And I’m not alone, although I feared at first I might be. That’s sad as the author has a musical background and a Nobel prize for literature. But this ain’t how he got it.

Many, and I mean a LOT of critics, basted this book with more venom than I could mount towards it. I suppose the author’s rep and pre-sales for a letdown performance were grist for the WTF mill. I went into it knowing the author was a Nobel winner and was sorely disappointed. But then they tagged Bob Dylan, so who’s next? Paul Simon? Bruce Springsteen? Ice-T? Before I quote from the New York Times, I should note that the dust jacket claims the book to be a NYT Bestseller.

Excerpts from Christopher Hitchens in his October 1, 2009 NYT Review  – “I became dispirited as I noticed that Ishiguro almost never chose a formulation or phrase that could be called his own when a stock expression would do… But these five too-easy pieces are neither absorbingly serious nor engagingly frivolous: a real problem with a musical set, and a disaster, if only in a minor key, when it’s a question of prose.” You can read the entire in-depth review here.

The washed-out nature of this book, while harping on selfishness and them-using-me-using-them themes and having nothing to do with a genuine sense of place or music, begs the question of expectations of authenticity. Do we read all of a Nobel winner’s work expecting to be bowled over? Do we expect the title to have something to do with the structure? In this book, the only Nocturnes, or that time of day when daylight is slipping away, and the moon is rising, are only evidenced in several stories where the relationships are waning from sunny days through that time when everything is gray and colorless. Now, if that’s what Ishiguro was looking to convey, he made it. He could even now be laughing his ass off that only a few got it. But it turned off even those who went that way. Hitchens again – “Understatement is one thing, but in aiming for it, Ishiguro generally achieves the merely ordinary.”

Worth a ‘note’ – Hitchens also commented on a dialogue habit in these stories and I am, as a student of dialogue, obligated to quote him. I’ll go first. I have discovered there has to be a conversational trigger to get back story in. Even my most verbose characters need a trigger, some give and take. And I have been shamed in the past for backstory dumps. In Nocturnes there is no such warmup. An old crooner pulls up a chair to chat with a roaming pickup band guitarist in Venice and dumps his guts. A guy who hasn’t seen his “friend” in years dumps his guts. This (non-musical) motif repeats so often Hitchens writes – “As if in recompense for this banality, Ishiguro does like to afflict his characters with something like Tourette’s syndrome. Whether it’s Venice or Malvern, it is perfect strangers who are told, without any appreciable loss of time, that the long-standing marriage of the person who is doing all the talking is coming to an end.”

The takeaways -Trickle that backstory. Write like you mean it. Modulate intensity. Look for the word, not the first or easiest, particularly when using an adverb. There are many instances in this plodding book that resemble the lazy Indie where everyone’s action tag is to take lots of deep breaths. What we can learn here is damn near perfect sentence and paragraph structure, in the most boring and technical sense. Almost like AI. That someone needed to inject some peaks and valleys and personality into. That discussion is coming.


Published by

Phil Huston


16 thoughts on “NVDT Book Review”

  1. I’m often confronted with evidence that just because someone does something brilliant or awesome once doesn’t mean that’s their default performance level. It’s a high water mark a stunning amount of the time…but we can’t admit that! Doing so might be seen as a self-own. So we read the books by Nobel winners and see the movies by acclaimed directors, forgetting there’s a hell of a lot more Shyamalans out there than – you know I’m not teeing you up with a director I think is good for you to school me about. Ha. Ha. – but I’m sure you get my point.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The worst. And now all I can feel is the residue such an (un)amuse bouche would leave on my palate. As I sit here scowling at the sensation and mentally shaking my fist at you, I’m remembering experiences that have given my mind that same sensation. Strangely, they are almost all movie memories. Seems I can’t quit a movie I’m not into (it’s the popcorn!) but I can drop an unfinished book off at Powell’s with no guilt.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Movies, even before we could watch them in our underwear, are difficult to quit. I think it’s the fact that we don’t have to work for them. We just sit and let them do their thing. But “they” know their audiences, which explains lots of shit exploding and no plot. With “Nocturnes” I kept hoping, as it was well constructed, that getting interesting was only a page away. Unfortunately, a brick wall can be well constructed and, like this book, never get interesting.


  2. It would not normally have been on my reading list, and now thanks to your review, I can ignore it completely. Hitchens was a complex character, but once he relocated to the US he became a supporter of gun rights, an anti-abortionist, and moved his politics much too close to the Far Right for my liking.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Processes very unusual in a proclaimed atheist. I often wonder if the reality of mortality isn’t the alarm clock for many a quest of “faith.” As with most artists separating the person from the art is mandatory. As long as they leave their agendas at home (something becoming a lost art) and provide unsentimental and non-pc reviews that’s all I need. But, as I learned from Candi’s discussion of her father, the ideology game is often a funhouse mirror – a religious zealot and first class bigot, gun rights and anti-abortion (what, do they want to breed more targets for nutcases?). Crazy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I audio-booked The Buried Giant and found the writing complex and fairly engaging. The audio actors did a pretty good job of conveying the tone.
    The story is damn strange, no anchor in reality, kind of Arthurian in nature though. But I like strange so it worked OK.

    I tried to audio-book The Remains of the Day recently. Fuck me, what a utter waste of paper/bytes. I skipped forward, again and again, only to have the same droll recitation of a butler’s pathetic life, with zero intrigue or even action to entice me to keep listening. Maybe shit happens later, but I’m not gonna suffer through hours of droning mundane noise to get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Droning mundane” pretty much sums it up. He’s written some intriguing things. And he’s gotten away with some seriously vapid, boring, shit. The Dylan similarities raise their heads again.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I’m not. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t good. Mundane. There are plenty of short story writers going back a hundred and forty years that when you read a work, you feel rewarded in some way. You had fun, or felt sorrow, or learned something or enjoyed yourself. Here, I came away as if I’d read the back of a shampoo bottle or a train schedule. Lots or words strung together with little to no entertainment value. Others may disagree, but when you get a hack like me, a Ph.D. Rhetorician and a New York Times book critic all lined up with the same take, maybe there’s a problem.

      Liked by 2 people

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