Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 240 pp)

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to England in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and continued his education at the University of East Anglia obtaining a master’s degree in creative writing in 1980. A celebrated novelist, Ishiguro has been nominated four times for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for his work, The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, was adapted to a full-length film featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. In 2017, Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro resides in London with his wife and daughter.

Sitcom My Life

I don’t understand the cultural infatuation with situation comedies. For as long as a television earned the status and focal point of a family living room, a situation comedy flickers on the screen.

Even in an era of choice in television programming, tentpole situation comedies permeate the cultural lexicon.

But why? They are so awkward. Granted, I LIKE awkward, so this introduction I am writing to a collection of short stories is ultimately an assessment on my psychological foundations.

Do we like seeing others in social pain? Does it make us feel better about ourselves? I remember watching sitcoms as a kid and wondering why these people would bring such avoidable conflict on themselves. Why would they keep lying, digging a bigger ditch out of which to climb?

Even though his oeuvre in no way should be qualified as a sitcom, Kazuo Ishiguro transverses the situational awkward. In his most accessible work, the awkward sits just beneath the surface, the reader knowing a little bit more than the characters on the page about the plights the character will face. In his most challenging works, the awkwardness makes each page a ritual of stress management.

Meditations on Awkwardness

In his collection of short stories on music and nightfall, Nocturnes, Ishiguro continues his meditations on memory and awkward societal cues.

In his first story, Ishiguro creates a fantastical scenario in which a fledgling musician meets a music hero and gets carried away on a mission to help this crooner win back his love.

“I was about to protest, but something in his manner told me to drop the whole subject. So we kept moving, no one speaking. To be honest, I was now beginning to wonder what I’d got myself into, what this whole serenade thing was about. And these were Americans, after all. For all I knew, when Mr. Gardner started singing, Mrs. Gardner would come to the window with a gun and fire down at us” (16-17).

The reader never knows whether this mission is meant to be a success like all romantic comedies should be, or, if the crooner is an unstable stalker of an estranged lover.

Ross Geller as a Short Story

In another highlight, Ishiguro paints an awkward picture of marital discord, where a friend must spend time with the jilted lover, so she can see how she could be worse off.

“Don’t get me wrong, Ray. I’m not saying you’re an awful failure or anything. I realise you’re not a drug addict or a murderer. But beside me, let’s face it, you don’t look the highest of achievers” (51).

The increasing absurdity of actions feel right at home with Ross Geller.

Look Your Best

And, in perhaps the highlight of the collection, a jazz musician gets a facelift with the hope of a better aesthetic that leads to more profitable music business outcomes.

In the recovery ward of the plastic surgeon clinic, the musician meets a famous socialite and finds it difficult to communicate his shameful circumstances.

“Look, sweetie, listen. I hope your wife comes back. I really do. But if she doesn’t, well, you’ve just got to start getting some perspective. She might be a great person, but life’s so much bigger than just loving someone” (182-183).

His wife, as a parting gift in a divorce, has paid for his facelift.

In each of these stories, Ishiguro builds tension through the socially awkward situations. Nocturnes is brilliantly crafted, but if you can’t take the awkward, it probably isn’t for you. As for me, I’m all about that awkward.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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