Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Buried Giant: some treasure here, but more spadework required

There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work. I don’t know where this notion came from. You can’t see Maugham or Greene or Forster having any truck with it. But the question is not where it started but whether that is the kind of literary writer that Kazuo Ishiguro is.

Adam Mars-Jones seems to think so. In his LRB review of The Buried Giant, he particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

I’m not so sure about that particular scene. It could be that Ishiguro is reaching, not for the drama of the events, but the drama of the telling of the events. In the way he deploys the scene, we’re left in the dark for a while as to the fate that has befallen a major character. It’s how Conrad, say, might have chosen to tell it. The point is, though those events are not told in a way that plays up the excitement of the action itself, they nonetheless have dramatic effect. It works – just not as Mars-Jones or I might have preferred.

But there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

An example – and from here on beware of spoilers: Wistan and Sir Gawain are both supposedly charged with killing a dragon whose breath is causing people’s memories to slip away. Finally, approaching the dragon’s lair, Sir Gawain reveals that he has actually been protecting it for all these years. The two warriors walk up to the lair, chatting away, and we have plenty of time to see how this has to play out. Wistan and Gawain must fight, and because the book has a good way to go yet and there’d be no story if the dragon isn’t killed, we can see that Wistan will beat Gawain, and then he’ll slay the dragon. Almost sheepishly, Ishiguro then goes through those exact motions, apparently sensing that something he has done has defanged what ought to be a thrilling peripety, but not knowing how to fix it.

Unlike the burning tower, this isn’t a case of a scene that Ishiguro has made to work differently. As he tells it, the scene simply does not work. No story can grip if it fails to make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next. Here’s how he could have fixed it. Wistan and Gawain walk up to the lair. Wistan is still injured from the fight in the tower, Gawain is an old man. We wonder if even together they’ll be able to overcome the dragon. Then, just as they’re about to descend into the crater where the dragon waits, Gawain steps in front of Wistan and admits that he is sworn to protect it. Now that would be a moment of pure anagnorisis to make Aristotle cheer – and the reader would be left reeling. What? Sir Gawain’s on the dragon’s side? He’s about to fight Wistan? What is going to happen now?

See? Told like that we wouldn’t have time to predict the consequences. We’d be in the moment, struggling to draw breath. It would be – gosh – exciting. And it would work.

There are other places where Ishiguro struggles with the storyteller’s craft like it’s a broken deckchair. Fleeing from enemy soldiers through an underground labyrinth, Gawain and his companions come to a portcullis, which they lower – barring their own escape route – simply so that they can discuss (ie tell us about) the hell-hound that is said to dwell in the tunnels. In a movie the hound would at least turn out to be on the same side of the portcullis, though the shock would be soured by knowing the characters had done something dumb just for the sake of getting the plot into its next mooring. As it is, the hound turns up on the other side and we have to go through a lot of tedious mechanics about how they will raise the portcullis while ensuring that the hound doesn’t attack the two old people who are tasked with doing that. Everything plays out exactly as Ishiguro has just had his characters describe it, and then to top it all off we have to go through yet more nuts-n-bolts prose about getting the portcullis up having cut the rope earlier.

This verges on “he crossed the room, putting one foot in front of the other, until he reached the other side,” and it’s surely the job of the editor to point out to the poor dumb author that he has befuddled himself with foolish details and really ought to take a stab at getting the story firing on all cylinders rather than wandering around the side alleys of his narrative in an obsessive-compulsive daze.

Talking of obsessive-compulsive, I feel compelled to dwell on some quibbles. Ishiguro has a curiously imprecise control of authorial viewpoint that may possibly be deliberate, but in light of some of the fumbled set-pieces I’m inclined to think it’s just a failure of craft. For instance, lapsing into a personal narrative voice as he is inclined to do every hundred pages or so, he says, “Many were roundhouses not so far removed from the kind in which some of you, or perhaps your parents, were brought up.” Ah, so I am supposed to be a reader familiar with this world; these are events that occurred just a generation or two back. But not so fast – just a few lines further on he describes “a tall fence of tethered timber poles, their points sharpened like giant pencils” and we’re back in a modern mindset. Why not, “and a duckpond the shape of an iPad,” while you’re at it, Kazuo?

Maybe that skittering viewpoint is deliberate, but how about the sinews from a hacked-off arm being described as “entrails”? A “hollowed-out trunk” – when he means just a hollow trunk. “Comprised of” occurs a couple of times; didn’t this book have an editor? And there are several instances of constructions like, “with my wife and I hanging together on the rope” – these from characters whose grammar is otherwise solid enough.

And then this: the narrator tells us, “This door – it would have been a ‘proper’ door on wooden hinges – ” What? That voice, that “it would have been”, is how I might relate an anecdote. Pyrrhus being hit by the roof tile, for instance; something I know about but have no first-hand knowledge of, so I have to intuit details like, “it would have been a flowerpot-shaped cylindrical tile.” But everything else in The Buried Giant is related as if the narrator is there to see breath steaming on a cold morning, clothing flapping in a high wind. So why that one lapse into a removed viewpoint? If it’s technique rather than carelessness, it’s a technique that fails to have any useful effect.

Tom Holland in The Guardian gives Ishiguro the benefit of the doubt. "The gaps and seams," he says, "[...] are designed to show." But I say, goddamn it, an author should do the bloody work. Nabokov wanted Laura burned, and it was in not greatly more ramshackle a state than The Buried Giant. 

And yet – the book has something. A world in which memory is unreliable, a fantasy told without the pomp-rock bombast that’s typical of the genre, events recombining in oddly shifted permutations as in a dream, a quasi-allegorical exploration of love and loss – those are all interesting ideas. And Ishiguro has moments of great inventiveness that are well-served by his flatly unadorned style, as he talks of the ogres that emerge out of the mist or describes an attack by pixies on a boat caught in reeds. It often reads (and this probably is deliberate) like a translation of a classic saga, in that its brilliantly arresting images are recounted in the voice of an academic whose striving for accuracy sacrifices any of the original’s lyrical power. Fine, that's what Ishiguro set out to do and that, at least, he achieved. But me, I like to luxuriate in the poetry of beautiful language, and I kept thinking that if my accountant rewrote Malory or Beowulf she might end up with something a lot like this.

Look, here's the thing. All this carping is because I can see the outline of something great here. I just wish Ishiguro had chipped away the stone until he found it. Written by somebody like Alan Garner, The Buried Giant would be fabulous. As it is, throughout the book we continually run smack into quagmires of clumsy prose and expository specifics , with the result that it all reads like the extensive notes an author prepares before he or she gets stuck into writing the novel itself. It really is half brilliant and half incompetent – both "fascinating and moving" and yet "aimless and atomized", as Laura Miller described it in Salon - and that alone makes it almost unique among modern novels. Well, I say that, but I have yet to read the rest of Mr Ishiguro’s oeuvre.

If I haven't put you off reading the book (and I hope I haven't) then you might be interested in hearing Kazuo Ishiguro talk about it on this Guardian podcast.



  1. I'm persuaded by many of the quibbles, but not as much by the first objection.
    It was already pretty obvious, even to the amnesic old folks, that Gawain was protecting the dragon well before the two men fight. To have a "sudden fight scene" would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying). It's more indicative of the mutual respect and understanding that they have as warriors, and better acknowledges the inevitability that a wakeful reader already has, that they fake-casually but deliberately mosey into the topic rather than have an unconvincing "SURPRISE!" moment.

    1. Literary fiction is cripplingly terrified of being seen as cheaply gratifying, that's for sure. It's become the nice manners of storytelling, the "don't eat with your mouth full" - and it shouldn't be. Adam Mars-Jones was even harder on the book than I've been on that score.

      It is of course obvious that Gawain is protecting the dragon long before they fight. Hence the interminable waffle that Ishiguro subjects us to with Gawain drawing his sword, talking about it, then moseying on up the hill, and more talk, and more. I got the mutual respect thing, sure, but I didn't need them to keep going on about it. The stilted dialogue style that Ishiguro chose didn't make that any easier to bear, and if he eschewed a YA/genre brand of surprise then I would say look at Brontë, Nabokov, Orwell, Dickens, Andrew Miller - a hundred authors who can write a novel without being nervous of the craft of storytelling, and deliver genuine thrills and surprises without coming across like a Suzanne Collins wannabe, just as a good film director can shock, dismay and even move us to tears without being blatant about it.

      A writer needs to play the reader the way a performer plays his or her audience. That's the job of storytelling, if it's done with any guts. To do that, the writer must be aware of the feelings and expectations they're creating in the reader. The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered. In Ishiguro's case, I don't think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But if he says, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that's the whole point - well, in that case I think a Man Booker prize beckons.

  2. Hi Dave - thanks for a genuinely engaged review: most I've read have been either for or against without finding the middle ground that allows for some decent discussion (I'm probably guilty of this myself). In fact, a good deal of my own pleasure in the book is a mystery to me - quite why I'm prepared to forgive the needless expository passages, or found the dawdling and wholly undramatic pace somehow fitting, I couldn't quite say. Nice then, to read a more carefully examined opinion of the book than my own, and useful in helping to consider some of my own views of it.

    My review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

    1. Thanks, Matthew. I was a little worried that the review came across as too negative. Despite all my gripes, I found plenty to enjoy and I'm glad that's the impression it gave you.