I have included the subtitle of this book in the headline above because I think it is particularly important. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book consists of five stories in a short story cycle — the music part of the subtitle is obvious in each story, the nightfall portion perhaps less so. Without in any way overlooking the broader themes of the book, this review will concentrate on that “nightfall” portion.
There comes a point when you can more or less count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, hmm, God, there’s only four left, and so you start,” he laughs, “well – it’s a bit alarming. So I thought I’d better adopt a less leisurely attitude.”
The nocturnes and music part of the title and subtitle serve as a consistent framing device in the story cycle — each of the five stories features music or a musician and explores that relationship with the subject. The “nightfall” part is more carefully developed, reflecting on Ishiguro’s quote. As we come to the end of middle age, we start to experience the challenge of making large decisions that, at a younger age, represented a chance to broaden our experience. Now, as nightfall approaches, they represent one of the decreasing number of chances that we will have (only four books left!) to define what it is we will finally be — and increasingly that represents making our world smaller, not bigger.
It is perhaps best expressed directly in the first story of the book, Crooner. An itinerant guitarist in Venice has been retained by a once famous American singer, Tony Gardner, to help serenade his wife from a gondola that will lurk below their suite in a canal. It is only as this Romeo and Juliet moment unfolds that the narrator discovers it is a farewell, not a love concert. Tony Gardner explains:
Fact is, I’m no longer the major name I once was. Protest all you like, but where we come from there’s no getting around that. I’m no longer a major name. Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say, no, I’m not finished yet. In other words, my friend, I could make a comeback. Plenty have from my position and worse. But a comeback’s no easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones.
One of the hard changes that Tony is willing to make, in this chance for a last, life-changing decision, is dumping his wife of many years, Lindy, and looking for a younger model. Turns out that that was the reason for the concert.
I will admit to a personal fondness for Ishiguro’s writing style and the way that he frames his plots. His language is cool and straightforward — the world that he describes is normal for about 90 per cent of the time, and totally abnormal for the other 10. That is a formula that works very well in the short story cycle that this book represents.
While the “nightfall” moment is present in each story, it never involves the narrator. In each story, that is a younger individual who is witness to what is going on. In Crooner, he is a guitarist, in Come Rain or Come Shine he is an old university friend of a couple who are having trouble remembering what they have in common.
This story in some ways marches to a different drum than the others in the book as it is more about the hapless narrator (who ends up pretending he is a dog, messing up a tony London apartment — but you’ll have to read the actual story to get to that). Even here, however, his behavior is influenced by the nightfall moment that his hosts are going through.
The serenaded woman in Crooner reappears later on in Nocturne (I won’t call it the title story — there is a difference between “nocturne” and “nocturnes”), now divorced from Tony and in the process of recovering from her third plastic surgery before going out to find her next husband. The narrator in this story is a middle-aged saxaphonist whose own surgery has been financed by his wife’s new lover, based on her premise that his lack of success relates to his looks, not his musical ability. It is quite a touching story as the two head-bandaged figures wander around the Beverly Hills hotel where they are recovering.
If you are of the right age (and I am) or willing to contemplate arriving there, this collection has some intriguing messages — how do we cope with arriving at the point of making a major decision, when we know that there are not that many left? And how, after a lifetime of making decisions that were supposed to make our world bigger, do we start making decisions about making it smaller? Ishiguro’s style — that perception of distance perhaps best realized in The Remains of the Day — is very well-suited to posing these questions. He doesn’t really answer them, but he does explore the consequences.
I do view this book as an exploration of the author’s depth, rather than width. It doesn’t have the scope of The Unconsoled; the plot of Never Let Me Go or the retrospective angst of The Remains of the Day. What it does have, to quote the author, is a “less leisurely attitude” — a contemplation of what it is like, or will be like, to make some of those difficult decisions that are bound to arise later in life. As is true of Ishiguro’s other work, his central characters sometimes make a mess of those decisions — that is part of what makes this intriguing book so valuable.
I certainly look forward to his next major novel. I am equally glad he explored this side road along the way.