The Unconsoled

Which books have you thrown at the end of the bed?

I’ve just been having an interesting conversation on Twitter about books we’ve thrown at the end of the bed either during or at the end of the reading process. Of course there are many reasons why we might be frustrated with a book. Much of the time it just didn’t live up to the expectation we had of it or was simply substandard in some way in our estimation. But there are other potential reasons. Perhaps the material was too close to the bone. Perhaps it was very similar to the amazing novel we wrote five years ago and never had the courage to send out.

So which novels spring to mind? I’ve had some interesting answers so far: Lessing’s Good Terrorist, Miller’s “Demo”, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Perhaps the individuals who gave me those answers might visit and tell us why in the comments. My own examples are ‘One Day’ by David Nichols, The ‘Terrorist’ by John Updike and ‘The Unconsoled’ by Kasuo Ishiguro. My husband also threw the much lauded The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen at the end of the bed. It was ‘too much’ for him.

With ‘One Day’ ( A book I’m almost afraid to criticise because of the hype and exaltation around it) I was not moved in the way I expected to be, I didn’t warm to the characters over time, I felt it all quite superficial and the ending (which I won’t reveal) was just a bit let down. Particularly with film, I try particularly hard not to hear too much before I see a film because I don’t want to know what it’s about or how amazing it’s meant to be. I think I suffered with One Day with expecting something extraordinary due to the hype surrounding the book. The premise was great enough for me to buy it but ultimately I didn’t enjoy it.

With The Terrorist I was put off again by the superficiality of character and lack of real insight into the character’s motivations but also by the unnecessary misogyny evidenced more by the writer himself than the main character.

With the Unconsoled it was a far more complex reaction. The reaction was visceral, physiological. The book engages from the off but then continues it’s narration over the long book in the manner of our dreams, endlessly truncated journeys and quests, a push towards a climax that ultimately dissolves. Sometimes I physically could not stand reading the book. I threw it to the end of the bed but retrieved it just to find out what happened. One of the quotes on the jacket says that it it ‘probably a masterpiece’. An apt description. Despite my difficulties reading the book, it has never left me. It’s dreamlike qualities have infiltrated my brain as if he spoke the very language of consciousness. And perhaps we, the readers are the ultimately ‘Unconsoled.’

So tell me, which books have you thrown at the end of the bed, and why?

Imagination and Reality

Go outside and eat a leaf, tear off your clothes and swim underwater, stick your fingers in mud, stand at the edge of a crevasse and feel yourself sway, in summer, autumn cram strawberries, raspberries, blackberries into your mouth, see the stain on your fingers, eat carrots whole from the ground, lie in a darkened room with your favourite song blaring, dance until you sweat from head to toe, in winter make angel patterns in the snow, feel frost in your teeth. Stand in wind, rain, sun, turning your face upward, outward.

When we read, we read in a dream. We make places in our minds, we create the vague outlines of characters, scenes. At present I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, a strange and at times infuriating book ‘almost certainly a masterpiece’ it says on the cover. It is written in the manner of a dream, those sequences that lead one to the next without satisfying resolution, companions are left in mid-event, journeys are endlessly impeded, truncated, thwarted and then distant places are suddenly in the same building. The main character is omniscient, as we are in a dream, we are in the dream, but we are the dream’s ineffectual creators. We try to do things and don’t quite succeed, although we are aware of an underlying plot thread, a narrative stream, a place where we want to be taken.

In dreams we might feel emotions strongly, wake up due to sorrow, ominous prescience or fear but the feeling of a dream is not like reality, the feeling I have spoken of of rain, air, mud, water, life. But when we write, we try to make things real, to evoke colours, characteristics, hair, lighting, mood but when we read, we read in that same sketched reality as a dream. We travel, this time following that unspoken narrative stream that the author has created, this impetus that we sense is underlying, that by convention we hold to exist. But is it convention or something more fundamentally and physiologically essential? Because when we dream we tell ourselves stories, and we know instinctively that it is a story shaped thing, a thing with a purpose, even if we never get there. So in fiction we make the shape of stories, we follow a forward momentum and like Ishisguro’s dream-like work we can subvert expectation, we can undo all the doing, we can draw places that are like reality but are never quite so, or we can undo reality by coming very close and then veering off into speculation or seeing the world through the eyes of a unique and original character who’s vision we struggle to comprehend.

As writers we are often closed off to the elements, often to interactions, we dwell more in the life of the mind. We try to evoke life while we watch the grass from inside the windows, hear children shout on the street like distant nostalgia. But we try to make paths through the soup of the subconscious, through the maze of memory, the endless byways of association, to make meaning out of the waterfall of human perception, culture, context, history.

And for readers read books become like half-remembered dreams. The successful ones ring true, this nodding resonance, we found a mirror for ourselves, be it old, cracked, mottled. We go out into the sun and in our subconscious we find an archetypal meadow which segues into a post apocalyptic town in which we are constantly searching. We sit in a chair in the summer sun and doze and dream of ourselves in the chair, the book fallen from our hands.