It's not everyday at Warwick's that you hear somebody say 'That Kazuo Ishiguro is a laugh riot' or 'I laughed so hard while reading Remains of the Day that milk came out my nose.' That's probably for the best as one wouldn't want to taint Mr. Ishiguro's reputation as one of the most talented, distinguished and classically restrained novelists working in stuffy old England today. But, beneath Ishiguro's stoic poker face, his understated prose, and his quietly brooding, melancholy characters, there is a great deal of humor, often missed, misread, or misunderstood.
Ishiguro's latest work, Nocturnes, a collection of five short stories (But not a short story collection, as this Guardian UK interview explains), linked thematically by music, nightfall, and characters whose lives have not quite turned out, should dispel any notion that the author is incapable of a good chuckle. Among the moments of high-brow slapstick are an ill-fated Gondola ride to serenade the scraps of a crumbling marriage, an old friend's visit to a college roommate who is trying to hold together the scraps of a crumbling marriage, a pair of Austrian musicians trying to hold together a crumbling marriage . . . fair enough, it doesn't sound funny, but that is what is so beguiling about Ishiguro: the prose is so unstylized, so deadpan, you are completely caught off guard by a saxophonist who gets plastic surgery because his agent convinces him he is too ugly to be a star. At first you don't know if you're supposed to laugh. His wife's parting gift as she leaves is to have her new boyfriend pay for the surgery, which the musician hasn't wanted all along. This discomfort continues, the narrator wrapped in bandages, hiding out in the upper floors of a posh hotel, until the moment a stranger on a cellphone says,
"But it's a man. With a bandaged head, wearing a night-gown. That's all it is, I see it now. It's just that he's got a chicken or something on the end of his arm."
Legend has it that Franz Kafka, another author few would confuse with Groucho Marx, was often overcome with fits of laughter, to the point of tears- his own and others- while reading his latest (unfinished) manuscripts to friends. Ishiguro, I think, is commonly lumped in with the descendants of E.M. Forster, plainly because of the Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day, which, at its surface is a novel of English class and manners (and implicitly a critique of such things). But that book, like all of Ishiguro's work, is littered with sublime bits of humour and the uncomfortable comic situations that our lives are unintentionally cursed by. I read Remains of the Day while working at a used bookstore. It took roughly four hours, which meant, at $6 an hour, it was the most money I've ever been paid to read a book. At the time I was too young to know it was okay to laugh as Stevens repeatedly attempts to explain the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington's engaged, 23 year old godson. Rather, I thought, isn't that strange? I also thought it was crucial at the time whether Gregor Samsa was really a cockroach or simply believed himself to be one.
Nocturnes then, for me, finishes the loop Remains of the Day began. Ishiguro has given us the dense, uncanny Unconsoled, whose most surreal (Read 'Kafkaesque') moments are also the most hilarious; When We Were Orphans begins as a detective novel and morphs into a Fellini film; Never Let Me Go is a haunting, deadpan parable, whose premise becomes ridiculous in the hands of any other living writer. Ishiguro's style is the ultimate straight man. He is able to convince the reader that even the most ridiculous situations can reflect the melancholy poignance of the human experience. Now that's comedy.
Nocturnes is not Ishiguro's masterpiece, but any doubts about his genius, or his brillant sense of humour, are given the ghost by the second story of the collection, 'Come Rain or Come Shine'. In it, the narrator is invited to visit two old college friends, now struggling in their marriage. When he arrives, he discovers that he has been brought to town because they think he is a sad, complaining wretch. He is told by the husband simply to 'be himself', which will be so unpleasant to the wife that she will suddenly reappreciate her husband's merits. By the end of the story there is an old shoe boiling in a pot and the narrator is on all fours tearing the pages of a coffee table book with his teeth. Like Kafka, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when the story reaches its climax, but it is clear enough that we are in the hands of a master of many things. Nocturnes adds the short story and poignant farce to Kazuo Ishiguro's toolbox of genius.