by Kazuo Ishiguro
Nocturnes is a collection of short stories that revolve around musicians: crooners, jazz musicians, has-beens, not-yet-beens, guitarists, cellists. This collection made me realize anew how much I love short stories.
I have always thought Ishiguro writes with a certain musicality and I knew this was a book I had to read. I was not disappointed. The musical details are real—so grating to find inauthentic descriptions of a musician’s world—and the thought processes and struggles familiar. There are heartbreaking events, but the author treats them, and the characters: despondent, clueless, or disappointed, with sensitivity and care.
What struck me the most about this collection was the choice of the narrator. Except for Nocturne, the most substantial story of the collection, the others are told by a bystander, like Nick Carraway telling the story of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. The first story, Crooner, the narrator helps the major players of the story complete a task without knowing his role. In the last story, Cellists, the narrator has but a passing acquaintance with one half of the main characters and no relation at all to the other half. The narrators in the other two stories, Come Rain Or Shine, Malvern Hills, while steeped in their own concerns, unwittingly play a part in the reunion / breakup for another couple.
The choice of narrator, the choice of point-of-view, is one that usually doesn’t call attention to itself to a reader. Yet as a writer, I know how important it is. It sets the tone of the story, gives the story the certain bias, highlights some details while deliberately excluding others.
Ishiguro’s choice in this collection results in a balance between intimacy and distance that works perfectly. Obviously, using an observer to tell a story isn’t a magic pill. In lesser hands, this would probably be as ineffective and self-conscious as harvesting a crop with safety scissors.
And that’s the thing about reading a consummate writer. We can dissect and analyze and come up with principles all we like. But unless we keep writing, incorporating these new ideas or throwing them out, all the analysis and studying is still not going to make any difference in our own work.