Last week, we began to look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, specifically the first tale, Crooner. I cut the diamond in stating that I thought the narrator, Jan, was underreading vs. underreporting. Let’s look at this more closely.
(whiny voice: Why is this even important?)
For a deeper understanding of the story. Please settle down.
James Phelan talks about this distinction in depth. To review, underreporting is when a character narrator does not admit to his narratee what both he and the authorial audience know about his personal interest. What does this mean?
A simple example would be where the reader of a story knows that the narrator hates broccoli, let’s say because the narrator has reported in several scenes that reliable characters have said this to the narrator. You hate broccoli. But the narrator then says in his narration, “You know, I love broccoli.” The reader immediately wonders why the narrator is saying this, since it isn’t “true.”
Underreading, on the other hand, is when a narrator does not consciously know—or is not able to admit to himself—what we infer about his personal interest. In the above example, let’s say the narrator has showed himself as being nauseous every time he eats broccoli. However, he keeps eating it and doesn’t seem to make the connection. Again, the authorial audience might wonder why is he doing this? Why can’t he admit he hates broccoli?
A careful reader might say of the above examples that they seem pretty similar. On the face of it, it is difficult to distinguish between underreporting and underreporting.
An effective way to determine whether a character narrator is underreading or underreporting is to link the unreliability to inferences about the narrator as character.
In Crooner, what do we infer about Jan as a character?
We know that he plays guitar in café bands in Venice, Italy, that he has a young and informal way of narrating. He’s different from other musicians he works with in that he plays guitar, a non-traditional instrument, (for the café bands) and he’s not Italian. He’s from an eastern European country and grew up under a communist government, raised by a single mother who has since died. He says, “Years later, when I was working in Warsaw…” and relates a story of buying his mother Tony Gardner records to replace those he accidently scratched as a child. “It took me over three years, but I kept getting them, one by one, and each time I went back to see her I’d bring her another.”
When he spots Tony Gardner, “…I couldn’t quite believe it…Tony Gardner! What would my dear mother have said if she’d known! For her sake, for the sake of her memory, I had to go and say something to him…”
Jan’s mother is his connection to Tony Gardner. “So I sat down and told him some more. About my mother, our apartment, the…records.” He can’t recall the titles of the records but describes the pictures on the sleeves, and Tony remembers the titles.
There are some similarities between the two men. Tony is in a close relationship with Lindy, Jan with his deceased mother. Tony reveals he’s discarding Lindy for the sake of his career, Jan (we can infer) left his mother for the sake of his career and to become an adult. Eventually, Jan expresses disbelief at Tony’s coldness. When you love someone the way you’ve sung about, you stay together, he says. Jan is discovering that Tony doesn’t live the life he’s conveyed in his songs, he is much less romantic and more mercenary.
(If Tony were an author, we could say that the “real” author is very different from the implied author. Heh, heh, heh).
It’s disillusioning for Jan, who grew up admiring Tony, experiencing his mother’s love for the healing romance of the music. Tony isn’t like the “narrator” of his songs. This gives the story’s climax new meaning. Jan’s mother “never got out.” Tony wants Lindy to “get out.” Does this mean that Jan’s mother never got out of the romantic illusion? Persisting in tragic love affairs and listening to sad romantic music? Tony is apart from this and wants Lindy to escape it too. Yet, he serenades her with sad, romantic songs and she cries. Sobs—is this evidence that she hasn’t gotten out? Yet?
Maybe that’s why Tony seems disappointed after the serenade.
Tony is cold and calculating about his career. He tells Jan a story about tricking the maid when he and Lindy made love—tricking the help. He is tricking Jan too although Jan sees through it and is mad. Tony tries to project a romantic persona congruent with his singing, but he is not really like this and finally reveals it.
The sardonic laugh.
So Jan goes through a process of disillusionment that is more than just about Tony and his music; it’s about Jan’s whole life, the illusions he shared with his mother. But is he underreading or underreporting? Both I think, or it’s pretty hard to tell. Jan may not be admitting how he feels about his mother, perhaps out of guilt that he left her, perhaps still out of grief. Or he may not be aware of it—we just don’t know.
He’s telling a story and wants his narratee to believe him, to accept what he’s saying, kind of on the level of: one time I met this celebrity, Tony Gardner, and he was “basically a good guy.” Is this denial? Or is it that he’s telling the story to the narratee and doesn’t want to spoil it by telling the truth—that Tony was a jerk. That’s what the story shows, what—best beloved—the implied author shows.
I suppose that is underreporting.
I think Jan is angry at Tony Gardner but will not admit this to his narratee because he wants to share in some of the celebrity glow.
Let me tell you about the time I met Tony Gardner, the time I played with him, and he said I was pretty good. He was a good guy—that’s Jan’s story.
Till next time.