Fantastic Metropolis

Distortions of the Artist in Space and Time

The Speculative Nature of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled

Geoffrey Maloney

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled was launched to mixed reviews in 1995. After winning the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1986 for An Artist in the Floating World, then the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day in 1989, it may have been expected that Ishiguro was very much part of the modern literary establishment and would, with his latest novel, deliver more of the same in his original and idiosyncratic way. Unfortunately, The Unconsoled failed to attract the major awards or praise of his previous books.

The reasons for this are all too obvious. Viewed from the perspective of the literary establishment The Unconsoled is an odd book. So odd that reviewers agonised for a touchstone to anchor it against. Kakutani (1) likened it unfavourably to both Kafka’s The Castle and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another reviewer described it — more favourably — as a cross between The Twilight Zone and The Hobbit (2). Others merely thought it an abstruse book which defied description and settled on the more than inadequate description of “surreal” or its literary associate, “Kafkaesque”.

The Unconsoled is certainly an unusual novel, but the problem with most people who have reviewed it is, I think, that they hold a fairly narrow view what of what constitutes a good literary novel. From my perspective, this view usually dictates that a literary novel will contain strong elements of social realism, that the world it describes obeys natural laws and its characters act rationally or irrationally depending on the nature of their character, and the pressures of their present circumstances. Most often the protagonist is experiencing some sense of conflict and, through an exploration of that conflict, the author attempts to provide some insight into the nature of human existence, whether that be sublime or ridiculous.

Ishiguro’s earlier novels met these criteria with a high degree of resonance. The Unconsoled also goes close to achieving such resonance, but fails on a key criterion. The world Kazuo Ishiguro creates in The Unconsoled disregards the known laws of space and time. In this sense the novel could almost be regarded as a work of speculative fiction. I use this term in its widest sense. It is common these days to use speculative fiction and science fiction interchangeably, but I think this is incorrect. Speculative fiction is much broader and captures a range of literary genres within it, including medieval and mythical fantasies, horror, science fiction and much writing that defies categorisation. What all speculative fiction appears to have in common, however, is some element of the fantastic.

The Unconsoled is one of those books which defies categorisation. While remaining true to the fundamentals of a “good” literary novel, Ishiguro often uses fantastic elements to illustrate the central theme of his novel, that of an isolated and intelligent artist: Ryder, the pianist, caught between the duties and responsibilities of his personal life and the duties and responsibilities which flow from his public identity. In essence it is a novel about the role of the artist in society and the gap which exists between personal and public images.

This is not a new theme in literature and it is not an unusual theme for Ishiguro. It is what he always writes about in one way or another. But where The Unconsoled differs from Kashiguro’s previous novels is in the way it takes the personal and private worlds of the artist, breaks them apart and sporadically and chaotically merges them again. It turns them into parallel worlds — in an identical sense to which you would find parallel universes in a science fiction novel. But it is not just the existence of the parallel worlds which lends the novel its speculative nature. Ryder himself, as the first person narrator, differs significantly from the Ishiguro’s previous protagonists in that he displays, at times, extraordinary mental powers. These involve the ability to read minds and project his consciousness through space and time.

A summary of the plot of The Unconsoled gives no hint of its complexity, nor of the elements that it has in common with speculative fiction. Ryder, the first person narrator, arrives in an unnamed European city whose residents regard him as “the world’s finest living pianist.” (3) The city is experiencing what is best described as a cultural malaise and the concert Ryder is to give is welcomed by many as the event which will rejuvenate the city. So high are the expectations, however, that Ryder soon finds himself being all things to all people. He is constantly called upon by the citizens of the city for small favours, most wanting some assistance with personal problems, while being pressured by others to maintain a high profile at a series of cultural events.

At the outset of the book, Ryder arrives at his hotel and is shown around his room by an elderly hotel porter by the name of Gustav. As Gustav is explaining the conveniences of the room, the reader is suddenly confronted with an example of Ryder’s exceptional mental abilities. While listening to the porter describe the features of the hotel room, Ryder becomes aware that the porter is thinking about something else:

a certain matter that had been preoccupying him throughout the day had again pushed its way to the front of his mind. He was… worrying about his daughter and her little boy. (4)

Reading the porter’s mind, Ryder than relates the precise nature of the troubling matter, while the porter continues with his description of the room. Ryder feels a wave of sympathy for Gustav and resolves to assist him with his problems.

On another occasion Ryder attends a dinner party where he gains knowledge of what has occurred prior to his arrival from the atmosphere within the room:

Then after a while I noticed there was an odd quality to the whole atmosphere… though I was unable to immediately put my finger on it. (5)

A short time later he informs the reader:

Then, as I continued to cast my gaze about me, I began steadily to realise just what had taken place before my arrival. (6)

Ryder then proceeds to relate a series of events, including detailed conversations, of what has taken place previously. He is able to move back into the past and narrate what has occurred.

Through this technique Ishiguro lifts Ryder beyond the limitations of the first person narrator and gives him some of the powers of the detached omniscient third person narrator, those of the writer of the book himself. Ryder’s powers, however, as well as being sporadic are also limited by the fact that he is ultimately a character in a story — he is not the writer incarnate.

This is displayed clearly in another scene where we find Ryder waiting in a car outside an apartment block while the hotel manager’s son, Stephan, delivers a message to Miss Collins, a friend of his father. Ryder watches Stephan leave the car and enter the apartment block. He then carefully relates the conversation between Stephan and Miss Collins as if he had been standing next to them. On this occasion it appears that Ryder can do more than just read the minds of those that he comes into contact with. It is as if he has relocated his conscious mind into the apartment where the conversation takes place. It is made clear in the novel that this takes a considerable degree of concentration on Ryder’s part. He is totally absorbed in narrating the conversation which is occurring and is unaware of anything which is happening in his own physical environment. But at one point, Ryder becomes distracted from the conversation between Stephan and Miss Collins:

Miss Collins sipped her sherry thoughtfully. She seemed about to reply, but just at this point I heard Boris shift behind me in the back of the car. (7)

Ryder’s concentration is broken and his consciousness is pulled back to the interior of the car he is sitting in. When his mind returns to the apartment, he finds that the conversation has ceased and “something in both their manners suggested that their meeting had concluded on an uneasy note.” (8)

Unlike a third person narrator, Ryder is unable to pick up the events where he left off. He missed the final minutes of the conversation because his mind was elsewhere and he was unable to exercise his unique powers of concentration.

Throughout the story Ryder’s unusual mental talents occur spontaneously and without any narrative comment. Ryder never says, for example, I know what happened because I have this talent for being able to do these sorts of things. Yet the fact that he does possess these talents, and they are not commented on, lends a certain arrogance to Ryder’s character which seems to fit naturally with his superior position in the world. He is a world famous concert pianist, he understands and has insights into things that escape others, and he believes himself to be on a mission. Quite early in the book he states his value to the world:

…the fact is that people need me. I arrive in a place and more often than not find terrible problems. Deep-seated, seemingly intractable problems, and people are so grateful I’ve come. (9)

So the artist sees himself as a saviour, or perhaps even a messiah figure, and Ishiguro gives him powers which are beyond those of mere mortals. But what Ishiguro gives to Ryder, he also takes away, by forcing Ryder the cultural messiah to juggle two different realities at the same time, one his public life, the other his domestic life. In earlier Ishiguro novels this conflict was handled by portraying the artist in both private and public settings and, as readers, we were able to explore the protagonist’s character through his different reactions in each setting. In The Unconsoled Ishiguro carries this essential conflict to extremes. He splits the private and public worlds of the artist into parallel worlds, each one existing in a separate universe to the other. When parallel worlds are explored in science fiction, the differences between the worlds are obvious and usually the main thrust of the story. For example, the protagonist, as a result of some experiment or accident, awakens in a world that appears to be the world that he knows, but suddenly realises that something is drastically wrong when he picks up a newspaper to find that all the words are written backwards, or the events described in a history book are very different to those that he remembers. (9) Ryder’s parallel universes work in a similar fashion, but the differences between the worlds are less dramatic. In one, Ryder is a musician with few family ties who is able to concentrate on his profession and public duties. In the other he is the same musician but with the responsibilities of an estranged wife and adoptive son to deal with.

As with Ryder’s mental powers, the existence of Ryder’s parallel worlds are introduced with very little warning. Ryder agrees to assist Gustav (the hotel porter) by speaking to his daughter, Sophie, about her problems. Following Gustav’s instructions, Ryder comes across Sophie and her son, Boris, in the Hungarian Café in the old part of the city. He identifies them from the description that Gustav has given him and it is clear that up to this point that “our” Ryder, the narrator, has no knowledge of Sophie and Boris. Sophie, however, soon after meeting Ryder starts a conversation about a new house about to come onto the real estate market and expects Ryder to come and inspect it with her. At first Ryder is perplexed by the conversation, but then as Sophie continues to speak:

She began to give me more details about the house. I remained silent, but only partly because of my uncertainty as to how I should respond. For the fact was, as we had been sitting together, Sophie’s face had come to seem steadily more familiar to me… (10)

Ryder experiences a sense of disorientation as result of this shift — as does the reader. He is caught between two worlds, one in which he has met Sophie for the very first time and another where he is married to Sophie and they are experiencing difficulties in their relationship. As the second world takes hold of Ryder, he remembers a number of quarrels they have had over the phone and feels the sense of estrangement those disagreements have brought on. Ryder, the visiting concert musician, the cultural saviour, quickly becomes trapped in an alternative reality where his own domestic problems are demanding attention.

Ishiguro’s handling of Ryder’s experience of these alternative worlds is not simply a case of moving his character from one world to another and seeing how the character deals with the distortions that arise. In the novel, Ryder shifts back and forth between both worlds frequently, often in a very short space of time. This appears to account for the lingering partial amnesia Ryder experiences throughout the book. His memories are constantly being filtered through the perception of another self who has not lived through the exact same events that Ryder the narrator has. The reader is often unsure which Ryder in which world is in control of the narration. Sometimes it is Ryder the musician and estranged husband of Sophie. At others, it is Ryder the visiting concert pianist, unencumbered by family responsibilities. Neither has knowledge of everything that is going on, despite those extraordinary mental powers, which appear to give the domestically troubled Ryder no assistance in solving his marital problems.

This at times leads to some absurd situations that lend a certain dry humour to the book. After his first day in the city, Ryder, exhausted and obviously suffering jet-lag, is ready to retire for the night. He has changed into his dressing gown and is thinking of only one thing, getting some sleep, when he is dragged off to a formal dinner party as part of his round of official engagements. The fact that he is still wearing his pyjamas and dressing-gown is unnoticed by others, and when Ryder protests that he needs to change his attire he is assured:

you look splendid Mr Ryder. (11)

Ryder’s perceptions of how he is dressed do not match the perceptions of those around him. This is because they do not experience the same shifts between the two worlds that Ryder does. Others, although they exist in both of Ryder’s different worlds, remain the same people in both worlds, with the same character and roles. It is only Ryder who is capable of moving between two realities and only Ryder who suffers confusion because of this.

One evening Ryder is supposed to give a speech at a dinner party, but due to a series of irritating incidents, he is never able to get to his feet and deliver it. The next day everybody is talking about how successful his speech was. While the reader has been privy to the failure of Ryder in one of his worlds, “offstage” Ryder, the professional musician, has been performing grandly in the other.

That the literal existence of these two parallel worlds is clearly Ishiguro’s intention is hinted at by the only overt reference to science fiction which occurs in the novel. Ryder goes to see a movie one night — 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a favourite of Ryder’s that he “never tired of seeing.” (12) Yet in Ryder’s 2001, Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner make the fateful trip to Jupiter. (13) If you are reading this in the same world that I am writing it in you will probably know that the actors were Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea.

Aside from Ryder’s extraordinary mental powers and his movement between parallel worlds, there are other fantastic elements in the novel which may have well been influenced by the climactic scenes which occur on Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are a number of prominent distortions of space and time which are introduced into the narrative as natural elements of the geography of the city in which Ryder finds himself, but which appear to be simply impossible in terms of the known laws of the universe.

When Ryder attends the dinner party, he arrives there after a long journey by car from his hotel. Yet towards the end of the evening, after his failed speech, he realises that the dinner party is being held in an annexe of the hotel that he is staying in. At first this realisation takes him by surprise:

“I’m very tired now too,” Stephan said. “I’ll walk back with you.”

“Walk back?”

“Yes,” I’m going to sleep in one of the [hotel] rooms tonight. I often do that if I’m on duty early in the morning.”

Then Ryder states:

For a moment his words continued to puzzle me. Then as I looked past the clusters of standing and seated dinner guests… to where the vast room disappeared into darkness, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in the atrium of the hotel. (14)

While it might be possible to explain this in terms of Ryder’s parallel existences (e.g.: in one of Ryder’s worlds the dinner party is held far away from the hotel, but in the other it is simply downstairs), this explanation does not sit well with similar distortions of space which occur elsewhere in the novel. The most dramatic of these occurs when Ryder attends a lunch at an inn in the countryside outside of the city. He realises after lunch that the inn is in fact an extension of the Hungarian Café in the city centre:

…I had at that moment remembered that this café and the one in which I had left Boris were in fact parts of the same building, this being one of those establishments offering contrasting rooms — opening onto separate streets — catering to different kinds of clientele. (15)

Except one of the streets is in the middle of the city and the other is miles away. Ryder does, however, manage to negotiate a narrow passageway which takes him in very little time back to the city.

Corridors, passageways and rooms are often distorted in The Unconsoled. They are often narrower than they should be, darker than they should be, longer than would be physically possible, and their nature changes frequently. At one point, Ryder finds that a white-tiled corridor in a concert hall, previously used by the catering staff, becomes a short while later filled with doors that lead to the dressing rooms of the musicians who are to perform. There is no obvious explanation for these events. Ryder does not exercise any unusual mental power to rearrange the physical dimensions of the world, but rather accepts the world as it changes around him in the same manner that a dreamer accepts the shifting landscapes of a dream.

Picking up on the often dreamlike structure of the narrative, one study site for The Unconsoled on the internet posed the question “How much of The Unconsoled can be explained as Ryder’s dream?” (16) For myself the answer is easy — none of it can. Ryder is not dreaming, and nowhere in the book is this suggested. Ryder never wakes up. The intersecting realities that he experiences are his reality as he lives it, not as he dreams it.

Stripped of the fantastic elements which contribute to the book’s dreamlike narrative, The Unconsoled would be a much slimmer, much quieter Ishiguro novel about the significance of the artist in society. It is a book, I think, that Ishiguro could have easily written, a book which may have more readily satisfied his critics. Instead Ishiguro chose to experiment with his narrative. He took the shifting realities of the world of dreams and used it to restructure his previous approach to novel writing. To do this he has borrowed some well-known elements from speculative fiction, creating in the process a challenging novel that deserves to be widely recognised as a classic of fantastic fiction.

Works cited

  1. Kakutani, Michiko, “Book of the Times: From Kazuo Ishiguro, A New Annoying Hero”, New York Times, October 17, 1995, Late Edition — Final

  2. Menand, Louis, “Anxious in Dreamland”, New York Times, October 15, 1995, Late Edition — Final

  3. Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Unconsoled, 1995: 11

  4. Ibid: 13

  5. Ibid: 125

  6. Ibid: 126

  7. Ibid: 61

  8. Ibid: 64

  9. For a delightful example of this see John Wyndham’s short story “Random Quest” in his anthology Consider Her Ways and Others, London, Penguin, 1970

  10. Ishiguro, op cited, 37

  11. Ibid: 34

  12. Ibid: 119

  13. Ibid: 93

  14. Ibid: 94

  15. Ibid: 147–148

  16. Ibid: 203

  17. http://www.villard.com/vintage/read/unconsoled/ (no longer active)


This essay is reprinted from the pages of Fables & Reflections #7.

Geoffrey Maloney lives in Brisbane, Queensland. He is interested in the fictional territory that lies between genres and enjoys crafting stories that use avant garde, speculative, mainstream, mystical and horror elements to generate a sense of otherworldliness. His first collection Tales from the Crypto-System was released by Prime Books in November 2003.

Copyright © 2005 by Geoffrey Maloney.