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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Is Anyone Listening?

When I began this blog almost three years ago, I set out to write about particular features of stories I enjoyed, their narrational structures, themes, the way they developed plot and character. I did not want to do a sort of book report or review, “This book was very…good. The story was …interesting.” I’m making fun, but I wanted to write about books I’d already read once so I could focus on less obvious features and get away from a strictly emotional reaction. Thus, what particular thing makes a book “good” or “compelling” or however you want to express your enjoyment?

It’s easy (easier) to write about books in a simplistic manner. One can summarize the plot and describe the characters. One can make a judgement along the lines of, “I liked this book because it kept me guessing. It raised important issues. It made me think.”

Are we only lost in solipsism in that we like books that seem to confirm our own reality? Or can we allow ourselves to be challenged by something different? In either case, what are the features of a book that attract us?

What is it about The Unconsoled?

I suppose to me personally, the story is about a musician and music (as are many of Ishiguro’s books), and this is interesting because I was once a musician and enjoy music very much.

Oh, you old solipsist!

One of the distinctive features of The Unconsoled that has nothing to do with me (I hope) is its use of long passages of quoted speech. Characters are often introduced and then launch into these passages, barely taking a breath.

Gustav, the hotel porter is the first character to deliver one of these speeches. His initial effort weighs in at roughly seven hundred and fifty words, followed by a brief question from Ryder and then another five-hundred-word production.

This feature of the narration represents a stylistic break for Ishiguro, who stated that in writing The Unconsoled, he wanted to try something new. What is it akin to? We know that Ishiguro was interested in Franz Kafka, and there is some stylistic connection with Unconsoled, certainly in terms of the paranoid and alienated mood but also that Unconsoled shares with Kafka’s writing long passages of quoted speech. W.G. Sebald’s writing features this as well, although he was writing during the time Ishiguro was writing Unconsoled, so I don’t think there was influence—Sebald himself was influenced by Kafka. (Kafka wrote about music, too).

These long monologues are not a mimesis of human speech where there are frequent interruptions and a back and forth between those engaged in conversation. Perhaps one could detect a connection with Shakespeare’s plays where the characters make long speeches. However, a major difference is that in Unconsoled, it is not Ryder, the protagonist, who speaks long (a la Lear or Hamlet). No sir, it is the other characters who do this speechifying—at Ryder—and this feature suggests more the influence of Kafka. It creates more than a hint of aggression, hostility, and creepiness.


It should be said that these speeches are challenging for the reader and—one would think—for the character who’s listening, Ryder, although he remains polite and attentive. And perhaps that is the point; that Ryder is inundated with information the others tell him, so much so that he screens it out. They speak to him in a way that presumes he is interested. A fine example is when he encounters an old school friend, Fiona Roberts, who implausibly now lives in the city Ryder is visiting and works as a tram conductor. She berates Ryder for not seeing her the previous evening as he had promised—although he has no recollection of this. But she doesn’t just accuse him, she launches into a protracted and lengthy account of just how she waited for him, what her neighbors thought about it. It is a staggering amount of information she dumps on the hapless Ryder.

There is a sense that the characters speak at length not so much because they want to communicate with Ryder (and the reader) but more that they don’t expect to be listened to. It’s similar to the way someone might go on and on about a topic, completely boring her/his audience.

These long-winded efforts suggest alienation and a turning in on oneself. A sense that no one is listening, no one cares. But not narcissism where the speaker doesn’t care if others listen or not to one’s fine orations. The speakers in Unconsoled seem more melancholy, sad over their sense that no one is listening. Maybe if you felt desperate that no one was listening, you’d try to say everything you could to get attention. The monologues always have the same theme: the speaker has been disappointed and let down and apparently wishes to justify these feelings by defensively offering particular and lengthy detail.

But Ryder rarely responds or apologizes, remaining steadfastly polite and formal despite his confusion. So, for the speakers, it is like shouting into the void.

Till next time.

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