Metafiction and the Dreamscape: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995)

40117After almost three months of bedtime reading—a combination of plodding, groping in the dark, winding, twisting, and turning—I’m finally out of Ishiguro’s labyrinthine 500-page epic.

Truth be told, I was very tempted to put the book down midway through and simply take a break from reading altogether. After a promising introduction to his oeuvre via Remains of the Day, I was quite looking forward to be awed and impressed by yet another poignant narrative on inner struggle with memory and personal tragedy.

Unconsoled begins with familiar nuances of psychological drama, but very quickly regresses into something undefinably absurdist. 

So we have the narrator, Ryder, who appears to be a renowned musical virtuoso of sorts; he’s here in the sleepy yet restless town of this unnamed country to stage a piano performance—and the implied assumption is that his arrival and presence would initiate a cultural revolution that would revitalise the rather senescent local arts scene. After Remains, I was already primed to assume that this narrator would be unapologetically unreliable. True enough, he implicitly suffers from some sort of amnesia—that, or his life has accelerated beyond his grasp, and he’s going to unfamiliar places, attending functions for unknown reasons, meeting people whose names he has forgotten, preparing for a musical performance of whose exact importance he is absolutely clueless. Given that the novel is narrated entirely in first-person, the readers are as much of an amnesiac as he is, and we discover features of the town and its people as Ryder discovers them (not before being inflected by his own tinted perception, of course).

As if that rather disorienting device and the ensuing second guessing the readers must endure aren’t enough, the narrative becomes almost disconcertingly oneiric (dreamlike) at certain junctures. The initially innocuous screen of psychological realism is rather abruptly shattered when Ryder, having travelled miles away from his hotel and stopping by an inn to rest, then proceeds to walk through a series of nondescript passages and stumbles back into the hotel in the span of one page. Spatially and temporally, this does not make sense. It was a very vivid what-the-fishcakes moment. I had to do a double take—but almost immediately knew what I was in for over the remaining 200 pages or so. The fluidity and almost surrealist atmosphere of the narrative defy at one level the physical assumptions we bring with us into the experience of the narrative world; and the moment this physics is inexplicably defied, that world is defamiliarised and our expectations as readers are thwarted and revised. Structurally, the novel itself is a testament to the same aesthetic manipulation: the sprawling narrative covers only a span of three days (between the time Ryder arrives and his concert). These narrative incongruities, like mechanical ghosts in a horror house, make the reader extremely conscious of the fact that what he reads is an artistic construct whose creator has taken liberty with the conventions of storytelling and writing. And I think that is what makes Ishiguro’s Unconsoled a work of metafiction that draws our attention to the artistry of the written word, and by implication, the anti-realism—the dreamscape—of narratorial universe.

So when this postmodernist/nihilist bible ended with a ‘denouement’ that could have easily been placed at any part of the narrative trajectory, I wasn’t at all surprised or betrayed. If there is ever a diametrically opposite term for beginning in medias res (in the middle of the action, and I think there is), this piece of absurdist work is the perfect exemplar, because it literally ends in the middle of the action. That is to say, there is no stable ending—the narrative continues even at the point where narration is discontinued—and I think Ishiguro points to this inevitable fading into imagined eternity many pages before. It’s like waking up from a dream.

Metafictive elements aside, the story has its poignant, if not tragic undertones (or else they are features that I’ve read into the text). A man who believes himself a force of cultural change—a kind of Promethean with a Messiah complex, who labours for his ideals at the cost of his relationships with those closest to him—is at last confronted with a nihilistic emptiness when what he has been duly preparing for never comes to pass. It is the absurdity of existential absence in the face of failure. What we have given our life to is never fully realised—so now what?

But our dreams never really end, do they? We simply awaken.

Remains

“Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989)

There are some books that you put down like a burden laid down to rest—with a sigh, perhaps of cathartic relief that it’s only just a story; then there are some that remind you of the inextricable burden that you carry by virtue of your human condition. This book is one of them.

You become—no, you are the story; the story of unfulfilled potential, of what-ifs—many counts of love that could have been, of age-old, conditioned delusions that you refuse to abandon because forsaking them would mean admitting to the realisation that your life thus far has been one phantasmal dream—a colossal waste.

My favourite moment in any novel, drama, or poem is when the title is repeated—reiterated in some form, strategically emplaced in some part of the text like a treasure chest, awaiting prying eyes to reveal the gold within. It’s like waiting for the sun to rise and when it finally does, you are overwhelmed by a sudden surge of enlightenment, inward and out. Suddenly the whole narrative makes sense on so many different levels; suddenly the title earns new meaning—a leaf tinted gold by nascent sunshine, that last puzzle-piece that not only makes whole the picture, but also completely re-presents it through its relationship with the existing pieces. And what began perhaps as a dismal portrait of an old, disenchanted man imprisoned by the psychological structures of social class therefore becomes a documentary of the Everyman held captive by a neurotic fixation on his-story.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this psychological narrative finds a particularly striking resonance with me—not because of its faded Victorian domestic charm—but plainly because I see in the narrator’s ambiguous obsession with his past my own revisionism and obsessive hindsight. How many times have I stared into space to have the present blur into a daydream of forgone conclusions—of things that were or never done? Memory and Imagination make strange bedfellows; the one lends itself to the other to conjure new and pleasing fictions that are so alluring, if not enthralling (in both senses). And is not memory itself a work of imagination—of reconstruction, revision, elision? Sometimes the past emerges from the mist of waking hours like a reiterated voice I strain to make sense of. It materialises one day, then a few weeks later, and a month or two—sometimes a year after. And in every iteration some detail is smudged, or missing—or replaced, I don’t know. A kind of Theseus’s ship in the making; perhaps one day I will remember an experience I never had—and never know that the past I think I know is a wild work of fiction.

It is rather disconcerting, if not tragic, isn’t it? If all we remember are phenomenological fragments distorted (and worse, fabricated) by the lens of Time and the fallibility of human recall, how ever can the experience of the past be a self-testament to a life lived? Memory then, is nothing more than a euphemism for a dementia that begins the very first time we forget. Perhaps that is why the only promise of fulfilment lies in the unspoilt, unforgotten future—or what remains of my day.

With Bolder Wing

“Thee I revisit now with bolder wing
Escaped the Stygian pool though long detained
In that obscure sojourn while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th’ Orphean lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night.”
John MiltonParadise Lost (III.13-18)

As I climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the ELL department office on the sixth floor, there was none of the proverbial surge of anticipation before the end; nor did I feel overwhelming relief as I hastily passed my softbound copies and other paraphernalia through the window at the counter. Perhaps it was because much of the pathos and sentiment had been lost in the frenzy and rush of printing and binding. That was quite an adventure in itself—a kind of parodic rite of passage—which brought out the technological idiot in me. I say this unflinchingly. If you had been there to watch me run between printer and computer terminal no less than 14 times (I subconsciously kept track), you’d have been torn between feelings of amusement and pity.

I got up early to arrive in school at about 8:30am, and settled myself comfortably in the library to begin my last round of proofreading before printing. When that was done, you should have seen the conviction in my eyes when I strode up to the printing release station—it was a glorious moment. Until I realised that I printed EVERYTHING double-sided, including the peripherals like title page, acknowledgements, contents page. The triumph very quickly turned to comedy, and then threatened to slide into the burlesque tragic. But thank God I printed only a single copy (you know, just in case exactly what happened happened). For the next hour, I wrestled with MS Word’s (heresy, I know) printing function like dear Jacob with God, trying to segment my print order such that the first few pages printed single-sided, and the body of the thesis printed double-sided, AND each chapter began on a new page. I almost literally bled paper; my condolences to Gaia and her leafy offspring.

In exasperation, I decided to manually print chapter by chapter. Things turned out fine for the first few pages. Then when it was time for the chapters proper to be printed, the system refused to differentiate between Arabic and Roman page numbers, and all that effort went to hell. At that point, I told myself “f-that, I’m just going to print my hardbound copies single-sided”. I would have made that the order of the day across the board, if I hadn’t heard one of the other Lit majors quip to her friend from the terminal behind, “the Lit department is quite eco-friendly.” Drats.

So I spent the next one and a half hours figuring out how to selectively print my softbound copies (the two sent for marking) double-sided. By 10:30am, the amount of scrap paper I amassed from my gross incompetency had piled up to slightly more than an entire thesis printed single-sided—that’s upward of 71 pages. I surprised myself with my nonchalance though; but any closer to 11am and I would’ve begun freaking out like a live fish in a frying pan of oil.

My saving grace dawned on me in a mockingly matter-of-fact instruction from one of the technicians, to those two equally exasperated Lit majors behind me—”just print in PDF.” I swear, at that moment I would’ve flipped the table—four terminals, keyboards, people and all—if I had been less occupied with cursing MS Word inwardly. The twist? I had the PDF version in the same thumb-drive all the time. Somewhere halfway around the world at that moment, someone probably heard something that sounded like a cataclysmic whimper.

It took all of 15 minutes.

After this technological farce, everything was more or less in the style of The Amazing Race, from binding to submission, which brings us back to the point of exoneration. It was one of muted joy, with muffled notes of tragic, as I turned in the upshot of my six-month labour. Unsurprisingly, it felt like I was letting part of myself go—fixing it in the past, and acknowledging its undeniable facticity. So much investment—time and otherwise—had gone into the writing. If there is anything I’ve learnt from this brief stint with Paradise Lost, it is this: the Fall of (Milton’s) Satan is the true tragedy of the epic, and not the Fall of Man. While the latter is promised a prospective redemption, the other is eternally consigned to damnation. And I think many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—forget that Satan began just like us, and perhaps even more initially esteemed, for he was created the first archangel of Heaven. It is as much a reminder of an equal susceptibility to evil, as it is a sobering realisation that his transgression was nothing Man couldn’t have possibly done himself, in that capacity and circumstance.

One more thing: having mentioned it innumerable times over the course of my thesis, I’ve learnt, ironically, not to misuse the term trauma. In many ways—between the symbolizable and unsymbolizable—it is not simply an absence as my thesis has suggested. It is more negative, more radical, more fraught than absence. It is the excruciating void at the heart of the subject that abjures being in spite of ontological presence. I am here materially and viscerally, but in my metaphorical heart and soul I feel an annihilating absence; and at every moment, there is a violent crossfire of cosmic forces—a rending and tearing of the body, spiritually and existentially. Trauma is not merely loss. It is a loss that cannot be understood because we survive in being, in the aftermath, when so much of us has died inside. To be honest, if there is one way in which I feel my thesis has fallen short, it is that I have not done the phenomenology of trauma justice; then again, can any discourse ever embody in writing the soul-wringing despair and agony of loss? No matter how much I endeavour to circumscribe the experience of trauma, it will always be a dispassionate, clinical exercise—naive and almost ironic. Perhaps it is only when I have myself come face to face with the prospect of self-annihilation—only then will I be fully aware of the limits of language, and the experiences that transcend language not because of their high sublimity, but because they are so incredibly visceral, primordial, and unsignifiable.

Whatever the outcome of this project, I think the journey itself has sufficed as just reward. Perhaps that is why I feel no absolution or weightlessness, post-thesis. Perhaps it was never truly a labour. Perhaps in my exegesis, I was simply writing my own narrative, and the narrative of the Everyman for whom Eden has been lost, and lost irrevocably.

“All hope is lost
Of my reception into grace; what worse?
For where no hope is left, is left no fear.”
John MiltonParadise Regained (III.204-6)

Dawn of Reason

“O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce
And evil turn to good more wonderful
Than that which by Creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!”
John Milton, Paradise Lost (XII.469-72)

This is my obligatory ‘recovery’ post, because if there is anything writing my Honours Thesis has taught me, it is that I need closure, no matter how spectral, no matter how specious; presence must always succeed absence, and recovery, trauma. This presence does not need to be ontological—existing. I only need to believe it—it only needs to be epistemological; I only need to feel it—it only needs to be phenomenological.

When I first conceived the subject of my HT—tracing the fall and rise of Milon’s Satan—on a train ride home about eight months ago, I thought: hey, this potentially qualifies as a kind of self-narrative, doesn’t it? I mean, it is the allegorical performance of everyone’s life; it’s about losing Eden and recovering that lost presence in another guise. But as I proceeded with a more detailed formulation of my thesis this semester—when I finally began writing—I realised Paradise is forever lost to Satan, and there is no recovery. No, I don’t mean the actual corporeal Paradise, or the paradise within; I simply mean that state of fullness and self-assuredness—that simple vocalization of identity: this is me, I am he. As I wrote my first words, I wanted adamantly to redeem this fallen morning star: if he is precluded from divine salvation, then at least, at the very, very least, please return him his Self—the most intimate possession of any sentient being. But no, I’ve realised, even that reprisal is impossible. And my thesis has metamorphosed to reflect this futility, this debarring, this immense void irreparable.

I am done with the nexus of my thesis—the twinned architecture of trauma and recovery of Satan, amounting to some 8500 words and more. And I realise that I’ve unconsciously projected more of myself into my work than I’ve dared to imagine. Every single section is a discursive repetition of some event, some fall, some rise; in my writing I have inadvertently procured reasons for why I do the things I do, or feel what I feel. At times I half-remember tapping out those same words over whiskey—half-drunk—here on this page, in the dead of night, many nights ago.

And although I know we can never return home to Eden, maybe—just maybe—Eden has always been within us, always, now and forever, in the trying.

The Long and Last Winter

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!'”
Rudyard Kipling, ‘If’ (1895)

Yesterday marked the start of a 12-week sojourn into academic research and writing—an honour which (I think) is the crowning object of an intrinsically fraught but fulfilling undergraduate career, and perhaps a foretaste of the future. And what better way to close the chapter than by marrying the two literary realms—Critical Theory and Renaissance Literature—that have, over these semesters past, afforded me incredible insight into other worlds, and worlds within worlds?

Yet while I have much to be thankful for, there lies a festering ambivalence in the heart of a seasoned though restless mind whose labyrinths are occupied with thoughts other than the thought of its imminent labour. Lately, the HT seems more of a foil than a scholar’s fortune—an almost insurmountable colossus standing between me and what would otherwise be a clear, wind-swept brickroad to the finish. But you and I know we could never imagine graduating without doing a HT; I mean, it is (to us) inherent in the definition of an undergraduate education to round the journey off with an epic feat—the hallmark of one who has gone there and back again. Still, the prospect is daunting, if not debilitating. I realise that in the days leading up to this moment of beginning, my mind has begun to feel (can minds feel?) the redoubling weight of commitment and expectation—once old friends, now old enemies, as battleworn as the battered body that plods this course: we’re tired of each other.<

Occasionally, whether haunted by the ghost of an academic exhaustion that refuses to die, or the dread that precedes another round of feverish rushing against deadlines and self-imposed standards, I have contemplated just getting by this last semester. You know, just wind down and deliver the minimum, and forget about grades that would qualitatively make no difference. But in my psychic vocabulary I find no entry for minimum; how does one give minimally? There must be a critical threshold for the minimum, no? What is it? That’s the problem—I don’t know. Neither do I know what maximum is, but according to reason and experience, it is always safer to err on the side of caution. So I err.

Even now, I find myself fighting to resist the encroaching belief that—in choosing to write on Paradise Lost—I have unwittingly steered this wandering bark into an oceanful of icebergs or floating mines; that I have overestimated my capacity to approach this cataclysmic masterpiece in a composed, circumspect, and mature manner. I usually have no problems hitting word-limits or even exceeding them by questionable lengths, but this is the first time I’m writing on solely one text; to me, 12 000 words on a single work seems almost overwhelming, although I understand that Paradise Lost is essentially inexhaustible in its interpretive value as long as the hermeneutic enterprise stands. Self-doubt is a dangerous diversion; but I know this seemingly Herculean labour can be completed—I’m just not sure if it can be done with finesse enough to justify the risk that I’ve taken, or the ponderous mental shadow that will linger until the project reaches its upshot.

Some people probably wonder why I’ve chosen to potentially encumber myself with Milton’s magnum opus, and together with it three centuries of critical scholarship, not to mention the immense burden of doing a decent job with a text of such intense literary and historical value. It isn’t the impulse of ambition—that much I can be sure of. My decision was intuitive, and not calculated. I have a deeply personal investment in Paradise Lost, though I’m cautious not to let it interfere with my academic engagement of the text proper.

Time and I shall tell what my research will yield—what answers, and what vindication.

Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!
Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;
Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,
Which now sat high in his meridian tower.
— John MiltonParadise Lost (IV.18-30)