Quiet Surrealism

I’m eating a sweet pea and crab soup at Michael’s restaurant with Kazuo Ishiguro, and the celebrated British novelist (Booker Prize winner, OBE, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) is telling me about a Proustian encounter — with a Hostess fruit pie. “It started when I was 19, I was traveling around America, and I ate a lot of fruit pies. I remember thinking they were delicious. So I thought if I ate Hostess this time around, I might have my madeleine experience. It would take me back to my days of youth. But my publicist got me some and they tasted ghastly.” He leans infinitesimally forward: “Tell me. Why is American food so bad? Why is so much nasty, barely edible food being marketed at such an aggressive level in striped buckets? What happened here? What’s going on?” He’s not being snobby. He’s genuinely curious — and disappointed by the pies. Ishiguro is in town to promote his new novel, Never Let Me Go, which pulls off the remarkable feat of being at once creepy and heartbreaking. I had approached our meeting with a bit of trepidation. After all, he is the child of two countries, Japan and Britain, known for repression; his novels are awash in important ideas and feelings that will not, or cannot, be expressed. What if he was as reserved as his work? But it’s foolish to think writers must resemble their books, and in person, Ishiguro isn’t remotely daunting. Although his all-black garb suggests an austere, postmodern sensei, he has an amused mouth, a gentle gaze and an air of brisk affability — he tells me to call him “Ish.” Astonishingly youthful-looking for a man of 50, the bespectacled novelist seems eager to talk about almost anything but his new novel. He discusses the ethnic composition of Singaporean food courts and the regional pride of Italian cooking. He tells me he approves of his 13-year-old daughter reading chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada because “it teaches her practical things about the world and what might face her.” He explains why, despite being routinely put in the same literary cage as the many-headed beast known as Amis-Barnes-McEwan-Rushdie, he actually belongs to a different generation. “These guys were already well-established when I began writing,” he says. “They were part of the landscape I aspired to join.” And join them he did, although I was at first a skeptic. In fact, after his first three novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1989) — all three of them prizewinners — I had him pegged as a consummately skillful but minor novelist who methodically churned out realistic stories whose narrators were tiresomely reliable in their unreliability. But in 1995, Ishiguro burst free of the pigeonhole I’d put him in. He brought out The Unconsoled, a long, hallucinatory novel about a concert pianist wandering around an unnamed European city apparently built by the firm of Kafka, DeChirico & Beckett. This book not only staked out new literary territory but forced me to rethink his earlier work. I grasped that, far from being a conventional realist, Ishiguro was actually a surrealist — a quiet one to be sure, but still a surrealist. Whether it’s Stevens the butler in Remains of the Day or the childhood-obsessed detective Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans, his characters inhabit melancholy worlds that, if not wholly solipsistic, are closer to hypnotic states than ordinary prosaic reality. Ishiguro himself is far from a solipsist. His novels may deliberately eschew the journalistic detail found in so many contemporary novels, but this is a choice, not a personal blind spot. Whether he’s pondering Japanese aesthetics or the risks of literary “riffing,” he’s a very precise noticer of the objective world around him. At one point, he gestures toward my Sony microcassette recorder and says, “It’s just like a Japanese room. All of this stuff is packed into this tiny little box. And without the Japanese, your recorder would have taken up half the table.” He smiles. “Japanese people would think it’s very elegant to have that much stuff, that much power, that much detail, packed into a tiny space. And on the surface it’s all smooth.” He could almost be describing Never Let Me Go, a novel that appears to be drifting idly along on the memory stream of its narrator, Kathy H., until you realize that it’s engaging fundamental questions of life. Set in a slightly askew version of contemporary Britain, it tells the story of students at a country boarding school who, we gradually realize, are clones who’ve been created to have their organs harvested. Where Hollywood would make such a premise the trigger for an action picture — in fact, noted human-rights advocate Michael Bay is doing just that in The Island — Ishiguro transforms this story into a metaphor for the way we all live our lives. Like Kathy and her cloned schoolmates, we all lose control of our bodies, see our possibilities cut off by death, find refuge in the vastness of memory, seek ways to make meaning and register that we’ve existed. Even knowing that we must die, most of us soldier cheerfully on, all-too-readily accepting what the outside world has decided will be the boundaries of our lives. “We actually take pride that we put up with things,” Ishiguro notes with a tincture of astonishment at the human animal. “It’s a bias — being courageous, upbeat, stoic.” Which brings him back to the American way of eating. “Surely you can get close to the heart of a nation by looking at the way it eats. It’s such an intimate thing, food. It’s how you feed your children. It’s how you feed yourself. So why do the Americans, who theoretically should have the pick of everything, why do they choose this awful food — and eat it in vast quantities?” I suggest that he write a novel to answer this very question. After all, his work is all about the human capacity for acceptance. “Hmm. I would like to write a book set in America. I’ve often thought about writing a Western.” A Western by the dude who wrote The Remains of the Day? The idea is less bizarre than it initially sounds. In his own sly way, Ishiguro is a genre-bender: He likes borrowing ideas from popular mythology and then giving them a distinctively personal twist. That’s just what he did in When We Were Orphans, which offers his take on such figures as Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey, and in the storyline of Never Let Me Go, which grafts sci-fi horror onto the traditional English boarding-school novel. For all his literary refinement — his excellent sentences never flaunt their excellence — Ishiguro sees himself as profoundly steeped in pop culture. Unlike the Amises and McEwans, who seemingly emerged from the womb clutching book contracts, he didn’t set out to be a novelist. Until his 24th year, he hoped to be a singer-songwriter in the 1970s vein of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. “A lot of the way I write now was shaped by what I learned about my style by writing songs. I went from being an intensely autobiographical, very verbose writer of songs to writing spare, apparently simple kind of stuff.” He’s also a self-described “film nut.” In recent years, he’s begun doing serious movie work, including an original script for what eventually became Guy Maddin’s demented The Saddest Music in the World, and the screenplay for Merchant Ivory’s upcoming The White Countess, a story of ’30s Shanghai. But he remains an avid watcher and speaks glowingly of Lon Chaney, Billy Wilder’s underappreciated autumnal comedies, Avanti! and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the Japanese movies of the 1950s. “My early novels,” he laughs, “are straight Ozu rip-offs. “And I love revisionist Westerns,” he says, “because that’s what drew me first. Once Upon a Time in the West is one of my favorite films. But once DVDs appeared — we actually have a projector at our house — I could watch all those Westerns I used to watch on TV in bad prints when I was a kid. And for the first time I fell in love with John Ford.” He finishes up his ahi tuna — a fish he’d never heard of until he kept finding it on menus in the States. “This brings me to another thing that puzzles me about Americans. Your literary culture doesn’t seem to accept the Western as an acceptable genre. But the Western myth goes right to the heart of how America sees itself and its history, including the mythologizing of recent history. If I was an American writer, I’d certainly want to address the Western in some kind of way. Coming at it from the outside, I find it strange that, with a couple of exceptions, nobody has. It’s like a dead dog that’s lying on the dinner table that nobody mentions.” I’m eager to find out what an Ishiguro Western would be like — surely he’s had ideas bouncing around his head for years. How would he make that dead dog bark? Before I can ask him — let alone request that he sing me one of his old songs — our waiter announces that his car is waiting to take him to LAX. We make our way out to Third Street, where his publicist awaits him. Ish puts his bag in the trunk and takes off his black pullover, replacing it with a heavier one for the flight. A methodical man. He gets into the car and smiles: “It’s a shame we didn’t get to talk more about movies. Did you ever notice how much Quentin Tarantino is like P.G. Wodehouse?”

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