Dry without being arid, lean without being starved, the stories in Kazuo Ishiguro's new collection are studies in disjunction. They're full of characters in a state of disconnectedness – miscommunicating, misjudging, mistaking one another's motivations and intent. The trick here is that Ishiguro exploits this state of things for neither pathos nor farce, but for a funny-touching blend of the two.
Four of the five stories are narrated by musicians. A Polish-born guitarist in Venice tells of being hired by a famous American pop singer to serenade the singer's wife. An aspiring singer-songwriter escapes to the country to try to compose, but finds no peace there. A jazz saxophonist has plastic surgery because his career has been stymied by his looks -- his manager tells him he's “dull, loser ugly.” Another saxophonist tells the story of the relationship between a cellist and a mysterious woman who becomes his mentor.
The one story that doesn't feature musicians is also the most wildly varied in tone. “Come Rain or Come Shine” still hinges on the power of music – as the title's allusion to the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard suggests. In the story, Ray, a middle-aged man who teaches English on the continent, comes to England to visit his old university friends, Charlie and Emily. The reunion is not a happy one: Charlie and Emily not only berate Ray for not making more of his life, but also embroil him in their own marital tensions, which are like something out of Pinter or Albee.
And then the story turns into situation comedy. Charlie leaves on a business trip and, while Emily is at work, Ray discovers that she has called him “the Prince of Whiners” in her diary. He angrily mutilates the book, but when remorse sets in he calls Charlie to ask what he should do about the diary. Charlie concocts a far-fetched scheme to to trash the apartment and blame the mutilation on a dog owned by some of their friends. The story moves from agitato to scherzando, and by the time it ends it has changed mood again, to andante. The healing agent, at least between Ray and Emily, is music.
Music hath charms. Indeed, it's the almost the only real agglutinating force in the lives of these characters, all of whom are – or feel themselves to be -- outsiders. Janeck, the narrator of the opening story, “Crooner,” was raised in Poland before the fall of communism, and now plays guitar in a café orchestra on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. “Anywhere else,” he tells us, “being a guitar player would go in a guy's favour. But here? A guitar! The café managers get uneasy. It looks too modern, the tourists won't like it.” He's also at a disadvantage because of “the small matter of my not being Italian, never mind Venetian,” but as long as he keeps his mouth shut he can get work because “they need a guitar – something soft, but amplified, thumping out the chords from the back.” He is delighted to meet the crooner, whose black-market records Janeck's mother used to play, and thrilled when the man engages him as an accompanist for the serenade, a romantic gesture that turns out not to be exactly what Janeck is expecting.
Ishiguro knows something about musicians and about feeling like an outsider: Born in Nagasaki, he moved with his family to England when he was five years old. As a teenager, he aspired to be a songwriter like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and at 19 he hitchhiked with his guitar around California and the West. (The guitar was stolen in San Francisco.) But the characters in Nocturnes are no more (or less) autobiographical than the emotionally atrophied butler in The Remains of the Day or the doomed clones of Never Let Me Go.
What gives Ishiguro's fiction its peculiar quality is the sense of things held in suspension, of situations and relationships never quite fated to work out the way they should, rather like unresolved chords in a musical composition. These stories are often quite funny, predicated as they are on odd behavior, misinterpreted actions and false conclusions. But laughter depends on the release of tension, and Ishiguro's skillful avoidance of the expected resolution and his sly refusal to give us a full release of the tension produces a laughter with a melancholy, nervous edge.