Ishiguro surrenders too much. It has long been a point of principle in his work to make up as much as possible. It is rather a different set-up in the new book. These opposing approaches can be juxtaposed to good effect, as when a dazed Ryder spots a tourist reading Newsweek, but the merely proximate relationship they have here only serves to expose the frailties of both.
About the Book
Despite the title, Nocturnes is not especially concerned with, or inspired by, music and musical form. Music, variously represented as private passion and public spectacle, work and play, features in all of the stories, but often as backdrop or springboard. They are more strongly connected by the subject of marital discord — which would seem to be promising material for Ishiguro, whose pet themes are the impossibility of perfection and the inevitability of regret, and whose fiction has returned repeatedly to the idea of the marriage of convenience where the love comes later, or not at all. It seems almost wasteful for him to create idiosyncratic yet coherent voices, only to silence them after 20 or 30 pages, and this length is insufficient anyway, since it allows him to establish a patina, but not to insinuate what it might be concealing.
Ishiguro is attempting to reconcile wonderment and wistfulness, but he fails because — again — the relationship is a merely proximate one. It concerns Tibor, a Hungarian cellist who embarks on a strange, unacknowledged courtship with an American woman. From the outset, the circumstances of this accident are unclear. A very large, brown-haired man walks over and sits across from them in the lobby, coldly staring at them.
Photo by STPI. These fragmentary memories continue as the speaker begins to awaken from the ether. He thinks the big, brown-haired man, sounding like a robot, has shown him a photograph asking if he recognizes the subject.
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He has the impression that he is in a hotel in the mountains and that the woman driving the car during the accident once lived down the hall from him. His missing shoe turns up. Then, strangely, the big man brings him an envelope, its contents a complete surprise, and has him sign a report admitting to the circumstances of the accident and his own role. Photo by Arielle. He meets a girl, a music teacher, then suddenly finds himself, thirty years later, overhearing another familiar name from the past on the loudspeaker at Orly Airport, at which point he races to find the person.
Time before and after the accident become confused, as the same or similar images and memories appear and reappear, and names in one time period reappear in another. Perhaps dissatisfaction had led her soul mate to make a life-altering decision that changed the course of their future; then again, maybe it was fear.
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While getting dressed that night, Fiona decided to unlace her leather cuffs. Her timer read: 00 03 01 16 38 02—three weeks, one day, sixteen hours, thirty-eight minutes, and two seconds to completion. It amazed her how quickly the timer was counting down now that the first two digits had reached zero.
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- Paris Nocturne.
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Fiona had waited twenty-four years for this sight; now whenever she saw it, she flushed with pride, as if it were a reward for her hard work and determination. Siobhan would die if she knew. Fiona joined Siobhan at the tail end of the bar, where she was busily counting out candles for Roman and Matt, whose birthdays were just forty-five hours apart. Both of them were turning twenty-eight.
Fiona pushed off the bar, through the gaps between bodies.
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Peanut shells cracked underneath her boots. Classmates milled about, drinking well liquors and two-dollar cans of PBR. One of the local pool hustlers missed a shot Fiona had seen him make fifty times. Way in the back of the bar, Fiona found her friends: the birthday boy and girl were nestled in a booth, arms thrown around each other as they ate fries and mean mugged for the camera.
I need to talk to you about Siobhan. Can you hook me up? Fiona understood now. Matt and Roman were platonic soul mates, life partners who found romantic fulfillment in others. This sort of arrangement was not uncommon, particularly among those of different sexual orientations or religious faiths, but Fiona herself had never met a couple like this before; she found it refreshing. Matt grinned, lifting his beer in toast.
An old-fashioned? Fiona snickered, allowing the giddiness of the night to seep into her. She was terrible, just incapable of playing pool with grace or skill, but she did like listening to the balls clack around on the felt, their hard, shiny resin gleaming in the light of the low-hanging lamps.
Fiona followed these runaway balls under stools and jukeboxes, wondering when she did if anyone would see the numbers on her timer or if they were more concerned with the eight ball upending itself at their feet. When she shook her head, she noticed that her timer had grown soft and that the numbers in each column had gotten stuck, trapped somehow between two and three, six and seven, one and zero.
Fiona glanced around, seeking new faces, ones she thought she could trust, and then, when she turned, her timer blared its end: 00 00 00 00 00 Here she was: gray-eyed, smartly dressed, with painted nails that glinted like the surface of the ocean at night. Her lips parted, and Fiona felt a sudden wash of affection. She felt her life aligning inside her, like the gears of a puzzle box turning, clicking into place in preparation for the moment it would be solved.
Her face felt totally numb, and she was shivering inside her winter coat. Marianne, he called her, tugging on her arm with just enough force to make her take a step toward him. Outside, the cold midnight air soothed her, and after several deep breaths she was able to remember which way to walk to get home. Her timer was still visible. Its numbers had turned black and had stopped glowing, but the individual digits had not faded into her skin, lingering there months after completion.
Perhaps this explained the indecisiveness of her timer.
Fiona had seen photographs online: of the ferries Marianne rode across Puget Sound, of the books she read and the misty beaches where she lounged, watching pods of orcas drift past. What had brought her to this cold, snowy campus, where the prettiest thing was the sound of a waterfall roaring beneath your feet? Apparently, Marianne had a long-term boyfriend. Charles Tremblay.
The man who held her arm at the bar that night. He called and texted until finally he wore her down and she agreed to take him back. I give it another month, tops. Siobhan had dropped in on her at a bad time, while she was looking at a series of homemade videos shot by people who had rejected their timers: people who attempted to cut out, burn off, or otherwise remove the numbers from under their skin. Fiona was barely able to gather herself and now sat on the far end of the couch, hugging a pillow to her chest.
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Thinking back on it, though, part of her had known. On her fifth birthday, her mother had recorded her having a conversation with her great aunt.
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She has curly blonde hair and speaks with a French accent. Now, years later, thinking back on that conversation gave Fiona a sinking feeling deep in her stomach. In her lowest moments, Fiona texted Marcus and asked him to come over—but he was rougher than she remembered, his thrusts sharp and selfish and his hands bruising, as if using her to work through some dark and buried anger. How ridiculous she looked now. Occasionally, she rallied, braving the cold for a trip to the library or a night at the cinema.
Fiona felt safe there, in the silence of the theater, where the heated stairs and the scent of buttered popcorn transported her to another world. This was her sole comfort in the dark, early days of the year. More often than not, the sun set shortly before Fiona crawled out of bed, making it feel like no time had passed at all. Life was just one long night stretching into eternity.
December became January. Monday became Tuesday. What was his name? Attendees were encouraged to wear period costumes and buy drinks at the bar. On the walk over, Fiona saw more than a few tipsy donors in flapper dresses and cloche hats traipsing through the snow.