Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes is so disappointing largely because I have so enjoyed the few novels I have read by him—if he was a new author I would just forget it and not read anything else he wrote. The short stories here take a typical feature of his work, the naïve and/or sycophantic narrator, but stretch these faults so that they become implausible. In novels like The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, the narrators’ actions and beliefs are sustained by a convincing social fabric, whether a historical reality or an invented dystopia. By contrast, in Nocturnes the characters behave by codes that simply do not make sense for who they are. The stories usually occupy themselves with traditional questions of professionalism in art, and particularly the tug-of-war between a desire for artistic purity on the one hand and the impulse to do whatever will get one a record contract (as the title indicates, these are stories about musicians) on the other. The character flaws are, I suppose, meant to be rooted in the desire to be recognized, out of the masses, as a genius, but the characters always allow themselves to be taken too far. That said, the very worst story, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” uses a different kind of situation, in which the narrator really has no reason at all to debase himself as thoroughly as he does. Is Ishiguro going for slapstick farce here? It doesn’t really seem like it, but it is the only excuse I can think of for how over-the-top the masochism goes.
Admittedly, there are some nice touches here, perhaps because Ishiguro is as skeptical of the purist position, a less typical position in a writer of “literary” fiction, as he is of the argument for simply doing what the audience wants so that you can have a career doing what you want. If the panderers have questionable abilities playing their instruments, then, humorously, so does one of the purists: a supporting character in the final story, “Cellists,” is a musical genius who nonetheless never learned to play her instrument because, she says, she was genius enough to know that the teachers her parents paid were not that good and would thus lead her astray. While the protagonist (although here not the narrator) is an example of too much naiveté to really be believable—he never catches on that she can’t play until she confesses it—her character itself is well drawn, and I wish Ishiguro would have found something else to do with her.