The Unconsoled Narrator
One of the features of Ishiguro’s Unconsoled is that it makes use of two forms of narration. The story begins with close first-person character narration with the protagonist, Ryder, describing things strictly from his perspective.
“The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one—not even a clerk behind the reception desk—waiting to welcome me.”
However, near the end of the first chapter, as we’ve described before, Ryder becomes omniscient, in that he is able to see inside another character, Gustav. This is jarring and strange to the reader. It presents an enigma: How could Ryder know what has been preoccupying Gustav and be able to show it, going back over the course of Gustav’s day? There is no sense that Gustav has told Ryder about the events described—allegedly, they have just met.
An explanation could be that Ishiguro has shifted narrational styles mid-paragraph. This is generally considered a big no-no for writers, so if so, why did Ishiguro do it?
Robert Lemon has suggested that it’s because strictly close character narration would be too limiting, that in order to show the story, there had to be a way to get inside some of the other characters.
‘Kay. What is shown by this shift that could not be shown otherwise?
That Gustav has been worried about his daughter Sophie since seeing her in an unguarded moment looking despondent. Are there other ways this could have been shown without switching the mode of narration?
Yes. Gustav could tell Ryder in one of those extended speeches about his concerns. Actually, he does just this later on. However, if he had told Ryder about his worries as he showed Ryder his room, he would have been violating his own professional rules.
Another solution would be for Ishiguro to use an omniscient approach throughout, the narrator inhabiting whichever character it wished to show the story. This would probably mean switching to third person—that is, the sections about Ryder would become “he” instead of “I.”
But that solution is not used neither.
Actually, the first-person narration has a quality of omniscience—if the “I” was changed to “third person,” it would work like an omniscient narrator entity.
What I mean is, that first line could become, “The taxi driver seemed embarrassed to find there was no one—not even a clerk behind the reception desk—waiting to welcome Mr. Ryder.”
Another example occurs near the end of the book in Chapter 34. Ryder is at the concert hall, attempting to prepare for his performance. He comes upon a group of people clustering around a sort of cupboard; when they see him, they insist that he go into the cupboard, and he does so.
Once inside, “…I discovered to my surprise that I was looking down into the auditorium from a vast height. The entire back of the cupboard was missing…Then as I watched, Stephen Hoffman came onto the stage from the wings…He walked briskly to the piano with an occupied air, not glancing at the audience.”
Stephen Hoffman, the son of the hotel manager, Mr. Hoffman, has been preparing all week for his performance on piano at the concert (much like Ryder—who, it should be said, has been continually distracted from any sort of preparation outside of worrying).
Up to this point, the narration has been close character; things are presented through the first-person perspective of Ryder. He goes into the cupboard and “sees” Stephen on stage. Ryder describes how he sees Stephen begin playing and then stops when he apparently notices his parents leaving the concert hall. He gets up to follow.
Here’s the shift to omniscient third person: “Only when he had reached the wings did he give into the feeling of outrage now engulfing him. On the other hand, the notion that he had abandoned the stage after only a few bars had for the moment a sense of utter unreality about it, and he hardly gave it thought as he hurried down the wooden steps and through the series of backstage doors.”
So what occurs is that the reader has been happily going along, reassured that she/he understands the story is being told by a character narrator, an “I.” Abruptly, the reader is thrown into third person omniscient narration.
Stephen catches up with his parents—at least his father—in a corridor—inaccessible to Ryder’s perspective up in his cupboard. Stephen has a heated conversation with his father and finally returns to stage to resume his performance.
Here’s the shift back to Ryder:
“As Stephen began the second movement, the technicians turned the house lights right down and I could no longer see the audience well.” The passage continues at length, maintaining Ryder’s perspective.
What is going on? A clumsy error by a master writer? I don’t think so. No, this was intentional. What is shown is the anxiety and intensity of an artist (Stephen) hoping his art will redeem him in the eyes of important others. And then it shows the artist accepting the impossibility of this redemption and performing anyway, his performance a triumph of excellence that others notice.
I believe what we have here (and elsewhere) is Ishiguro hitting upon a way to show different aspects of Ryder through the showing of other characters who may be seen as Ryder himself.
Yes, best beloved. We know that Ryder has had a painful relationship with his parents, that they are supposed to be at the concert to hear him. What we get is another character going through the same thing and feeling emotions in a way that Ryder seems incapable of.
In a sense, his own (missing) emotions are reflected back at him by the others.
Who are these characters that I believe are expressions of Ryder? Brodsky and Miss Collins, Hoffman and his wife and son. Gustav and Boris and Sophie. Fiona Roberts, Geoffrey Saunders, Mr. Christoff—they all seem to be characters showing different sides of being a virtuoso performer, self, parents, wife, son. There are others who are incidental, providing atmosphere, and include crowd members, people in the restaurant where Ryder goes to have lunch with Mr. Christoff, the musicians at the concert, the other porters, waiters. There are two classes of characters, ones that reflect Ryder and those that are more minor.
The brief sections of omniscience (the narrator showing things) establish the ironic distance with the characters. It allows Ishiguro to comment in a way the close first person unreliable narration does not.
Another wrinkle. If much of the story can be seen as dream-like, with its interruptions and delays, strange displacements of people, the omniscient sections represent something different. When we dream, we do not dream about the inner experience of others, only our own. (Try it, you’ll see). It is rather as if the bulk of the book that concerns Ryder’s experience is a dream, but the omniscient sections are like reality breaking in—perhaps to teach Ryder something about himself.
Huh. Let’s consider this next time.