A Long Seduction: Narrative Thrust in Kazao Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled

Posted on Tue, Jun 7 2016 9:00 am by Erin Kate Ryan


The blurb on the back of my copy of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled takes the position that Ryder (the protagonist) arrives in the mysterious central European city and slowly begins to remember details from his life; the phrase “vital clues to his own past” is used. It’s a position from which I respectfully differ. And despite the consistent dream-like aspects to the novel (traveling around and around to find that the new destination connects to the original spot with a single door, the “it’s my house but it’s not my house” feel to Ryder’s entrance into several of the places, and so on), I strongly prefer a reading that withholds judgment and conclusions about what is happening to Ryder throughout this novel. The absurdity, the uncanny surges of emotion, and the (sometimes tediously) slow reveal of details are far more interesting to me (as both a reader and a writer) if they do not point to some big explanation. It’s also an interesting exercise in how long an author can seduce a reader into keeping the book open on their laps while withholding reason and sense. (That is, if he can. Many readers have begun and not finished this novel, a fact that makes me feel sad that their efforts weren’t rewarded as mine were. Then again, many others have called it a masterpiece.)

To summarize this novel is to enter into a hall of mirrors, though “a stranger arrives in town” is a fair beginning. We aren’t quite sure who he is (he’s a pianist named Ryder, we do get that), where he is (is he touring? is this a destination?), why he’s there (eventually we understand there is to be some sort of concert, perhaps an address, though the protagonist’s role remains obscured). So why do we keep reading? A.k.a., where does this novel find its narrative thrust? What engine powers this story? Here’s what kept me:

  • Intriguing bewilderment—or, as others might call it, the useful mystery. It’s not just that I was confused about why the main character was here and who he was, but he was confused about that, too. That mystery had meaning. And (important!) his confusion was conveyed clearly. I, as a reader, am empathetically confused. As he moves through the story, little new mysteries pop up (who is this lady? who is this kid?) that both inject freshness at moments where the propelling mystery might sag, while feeding back into this same larger organizing mystery, reinvigorating my curiosity about what the hell is happening. This, my friends, is a technique worth outlining and using as a structure for a draft of your own.
  • A character who never stops moving—he might be moving in concentric circles, but he’s always moving. And we get a touchstone—the hotel at which he began, always in his path, always grounding us, even as maybe his cab drives him in circles just to deposit him at the back entrance of the same building. Someone’s fooling someone, but ah, at least this hotel I recognize. The grounding point allowed me to pause, to take a breath within the whirlwind, to prepare to take off again.
  • A clear physical and temporal goal—getting Ryder to the events of Thursday night and their location at the appropriate time. Even though I didn’t understand the significance of the event in Ryder’s life or the cultural life of this place, it was a clear grounding point and ending point. I trusted the narrative to get me to this event—or near the event, or far away from the event, but I trust that the event will be given space in the text. Ryder may be meandering, but he’s always meandering in the direction of that event. The importance of his attendance at this event is stated and restated to the point of absurdity, and that absurdity itself made me more invested. Maybe the event wouldn’t be important by my weighting system, but I sure as hell wanted to find out what the deal was with that.

These multiple engines aren’t going to work for everyone, naturally. But even in a story that appears aimless, there is a defined thrust to the narrative. And perhaps especially in stories like these, it’s critical to read with an eye to the mechanics chugging along beneath the page.

Explore narrative thrust in your own fiction in Erin Kate's summer class at the Loft, "Narrative Thrust: Keep Your Fiction Moving, Your Readers Engaged" which starts June 14!

Erin Kate Ryan has published fiction in many literary reviews. Her fellowships and grants include a 2016 Minnesota Artist's Initiative grant, as well as a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship. She holds an MFA in Fiction, and a JD.