You’re perched atop Vilas Hall on an edge of the rooftop. The campus sprawls out beneath you, stray pedestrians going about their day. A perceptive woman notices you. The two of you wave, and then the woman returns to her business. It takes a while, but when classes end you’re still up there. The doors open and the sidewalks start to fill. Give it about 30 seconds. Then, after the crowds of people make it difficult to see the sidewalk below you, take the pebble you brought with you and throw it.
The pebble is small. You don’t know the wind speed or which direction you’re facing. Perhaps your wrist is sprained, or maybe it’s healthy. Odds are the pebble landed in the street.
But if it hit a person, it probably hit someone who is a better writer than Kazuo Ishiguro.
In 2017, I woke up to find that Ishiguro had snagged the Nobel Prize in Literature away from Margaret Atwood and Ismail Kadare against all odds (this is not to say these authors deserved it, but rather that Ishiguro was an unconventional choice). My initial reaction was unnecessarily visceral based on my experiences with his writing. To be frank, it was beyond me why any serious critic would think he deserved it.
“The Buried Giant” is the story of Axl and Beatrice, an old couple in a post-Arthurian Britain where memory is either dulled or faded entirely. They leave to visit a son neither of them remember very well and are caught up in a dragonslaying quest that will presumably restore memory to Britain. At least, that’s what the book is ostensibly about.
From reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, one would be forgiven for thinking that Axl and Beatrice actually had no role to play in the story. All the actions that push the narrative forward are done by other characters, and our main couple’s role in the plot is to have things happen to them. I find that this kind of story is significantly less interesting on average, because it gives the author less time to develop the cast and creates a feeling that the plot isn’t going anywhere.
Not that this kind of story can’t work, but it has to be based on making the characters’ responses to the outside influences interesting and distinct. This is the central tension of all tragedies: We either know or suspect what will happen, but the important part is how.
Ishiguro doesn’t manage this. Without getting into specifics, the dragon is slayed and the couple regain traumatic memories about each other. They go through the motions of a rift and the book ends on an ambiguous note, each uncertain if they still love the other. This could have been powerful, but Ishiguro again robs the characters of their agency, introducing a ferryman to (what is implied to be) the afterlife who will take them both only if they love each other.
There’s no serious attempt to work through the characters’ dilemma by analyzing the basis of their relationship or examining what “love” meant to either of them: The ferryman becomes the decider. Particularly disappointing is that, when it comes time for the ferryman to interview each of the main characters separately, we only get Axl’s perspective. However, the alternative could have just as easily been disappointing, because — even on a technical level — I do not consider Ishiguro a very good writer.
His prose is clean and competent but otherwise unremarkable. His dialogue, however, is mediocre at best. Ishiguro makes a half-hearted attempt to “mimic” the language of Arthurian legend. What this means is that people speak in unnecessarily florid sentences with the same polite tone throughout the entire book, and they end up sounding like each other. It’s a bit silly, actually, and at times hard to take seriously. This isn’t E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros,” which was thoroughly researched and meticulously written in an archaic version of the English language.
I suppose it wouldn’t be such an issue if large sections of the book weren’t filled with dialogue. Much exposition is handled by having other characters explain what’s going on to Axl and Beatrice, then conjuring up some reason to move them along. It becomes repetitive, particularly because the relationship between the two leads doesn’t develop and isn’t explored until the very end. And there really isn’t much else. There’s very little tension and the pacing is slow. Ishiguro is too busy being profound to write an exciting story. He’s also too busy being generic to write a profound one.
I really do think generic is the word. Ishiguro has nothing interesting or new to say about memory or identity, and he doesn’t have a compelling way to frame what he’s saying. From people I’ve talked to who have read “Never Let Me Go,” his most famous book is similar.
So why, then, does Ishiguro get so much praise?
I think it has more to do with the culture surrounding literature than anything Ishiguro actually wrote. There’s a vein of misery running through literature, dating all the way back to the Greeks but seen more recently in the Brontë sisters and, later on, William Faulkner (and even more recently Cormac McCarthy, a mediocre writer Ishiguro has expressed great admiration for). Critics have a bad habit of mistaking misery for profundity, forgetting that, while Faulkner wrote about human misery, he framed it by emphasizing the human spirit at the center of it all — Patty Jenkins did the same thing in her movie “Monster.” Additionally, his dialogue was really good:
“It never bothered me much,” he said.
“You mean, it never bothered Anse much,” I said. “No more than it bothered him to throw that poor devil down in the street and handcuff him like a damn murderer. Dont tell me. And dont tell me it aint going to bother you to have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of your life—if you walk at all again. Concrete.” I said. “God Almighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family…” —William Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”
By taking away the characters’ memory, Ishiguro depicted love as mere attraction, based more on habit and a vague sense of past kindness than on the struggles, arguments, tribulations and, yes, kindnesses that real relationships are based off of. His portrayal of it and of memory bears little resemblance to the real thing, and I suspect the reasoning is that these things just don’t really matter to him. Like those critics, Ishiguro has stratified emotions into tiers of importance.
Whereas happiness ranks decidedly near the bottom, unhappiness is firmly in the top tier. At least it is above laughter, though — Ishiguro is aggressively unfunny. As bizarre as it sounds, this is the same problem DC Comics has right now with its movies: Your works don’t have to be funny and they don’t have to be lighthearted, but if the only emotions you care to develop and expand are the dark ones, then it becomes hard to relate to a work or find something profound in it.
Real life is complex, and unhappiness is no more or less profound than happiness, love and, indeed, laughter. Quite frankly, if Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t understand this principle by now, then I doubt he’ll ever write a book worth reading. He has been writing for a long time, but “The Buried Giant” was released in 2015 and feels like it could be a decent writer’s lackluster first book — not a work by a Nobel Prize-winning writer.
Give it to that person you hit with the pebble instead.