Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find two quite different books to compare this to: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Jerzy Kozinski's Being There. Like The Curious Incident, it's a story narrated by someone with a narrow and peculiar view of the world, someone sufficiently detached from the ordinary rhythms of interaction that he feels almost like he has Aspbergers at times, and, to the good, has justification to describe those interactions in unusual detail. Like Being There, it's the story of a man sitting at the elbow of real power and never quite understanding it, a man who gets the chance to glimpse the invisible-to-the-rest-of-us powers that shape our politics with their wealth, but who cannot translate what he sees into his ordinary experience.

The beauty of this book is its subtlety, a subtlety evident in almost each individual sentence and also in Stevens' sustained inquiries on, above all, the nature of dignity. At its best, it's a stunning novel, giving us glimpses of a narrow man who is stretching to fill his small space as fully as possible. When Stevens thinks about things as small as how to polish silver, the book seems to take us into a tiny, lost space of experience.

It's ironic, then, that the book's weaknesses are its occasional bluntness, its cluttered and unsubtle "climaxes." (There are no real climaxes in so quiet a story, but there are crucial scenes Stevens recalls at later times.) In the first example [MINOR SPOILER ALERT] Stevens's father dies in the middle of a huge party, putting Stevens in the position of having to choose between last words with his father or seeing to the perfect service for a gathering of international politicians. Does it have to be so dramatic? Must the first great triumph of his professional career happen simultaneously with his father's death? And to the very minute? What are the odds that, in a life so filled with quiet, his father couldn't have held on until midnight or morning?

In the second example [SOMEWHAT BIGGER SPOILER ALERT], at the pivotal moment when he might have asked Miss Kenton the question that would have made their romance possible, he is distracted by no less than the prime minister and the Nazi ambassador. Again, there's nothing subtle in that, no elegance of plot to match the deep elegance everywhere else.

And, finally, I have a hard time accepting that someone of Stevens's clear intelligence could not quite see the extent to which he and Miss Kenton loved one another. Or, to put it differently, I couldn't see how she could love a man who had such limited capacity to love her back. Either way, the core fact of their love -- literally the driving force of the novel (since Stevens is driving to see her) seems uncomfortably contrived. He cannot reasonably be as dense as he seems and also as attractive to her as the plot demands. Dignity certainly means something, and it certainly is a kind of attraction, but -- like his Nazi-dupe of an employer -- there comes a point at which failure to understand your surroundings is more than simple weakness. It becomes, instead, a kind of ugliness very difficult to love.

So, much as I admire this -- much as I prefer it to, for me, Ishiguro's uncomfortably gothic Never Let Me Go -- I still found things to get frustrated by with it. There's tremendous beauty and skill at the heart of this, so its impatience to get through the larger facts of Stevens' earlier life and its contrived love affair stand out as blemishes on an otherwise near masterwork of literary invention.

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