Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

The Unconsoled

personal 6 min read

About three and a half years ago, at the end of August 2005, I had an unusual dream. I wrote about it here on the blog, and in the comments on that post, Patrick Correia remarked that my account of the dream read similarly to a book called The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (Amazon UK, Amazon US). I replied that I’d look into obtaining a copy, and thought little more of it.

Fast forward a few years to one evening in mid-2008 when Lauren was placing an order on Amazon, and asked me if there was anything I’d like added to the order so that it would be eligible for free delivery. For no particular reason the title of the book entered my mind, and so we added it to the order and it arrived in due course. It took me quite some time to begin reading it (I have a shamefully large backlog of books to read), and I only just finished it in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The Unconsoled has been a singular reading experience, quite unlike any other book I’ve ever read in any genre, and I wanted to offer some thoughts on it. This post has nothing to do with my usual topics (Cocoa or iPhone development, user interface design, etc), so consider yourself forewarned to skip it if appropriate.

Any discussion of the book must necessarily deal with the nature of dreams, but not because dreams feature as a prominent concept in the story. Rather, it very soon becomes apparent that The Unconsoled is written in a different style to the majority of the books you’ll have read; a style which is alien yet is intimately familiar to each and every one of us - that of the narrative of a dream.

Let me make this plain: it is never implied that the story is a dream, nor do I believe that this was an intended interpretation. It is told in the manner of a dream, and this fact (and all that it entails) is why I felt compelled to write about it.

The first question, then, must be what precisely I mean by “in the manner of a dream”. The basic plot of the book is simple: Ryder, a world-famous concert pianist, arrives in a city in central Europe to give a recital at an upcoming concert. The story is set at some point in the 20th Century, though the specific time and location are never revealed, and takes place over the course of a few days. In terms of the core events of the story, I’m unable to classify it according to any particular genre.

The ambiguity of setting and genre may be slightly usual, but are hardly sufficient to justify my claim of the book being dreamlike - so let me clarify just what I mean. Dreams have many unusual and fascinating qualities, but there is an even stranger phenomenon connected to how they’re represented in fiction.

Literature almost always portrays dreams as either starkly waking-like reality, or excessively symbolic events (on a symbolic spectrum between laboured and surreal). We accept this since it’s helpful as a dramatic construct, but actual dreams don’t often follow so simple a pattern.

Actual dreams, rather, are notable for their departures from logic and continuity. We’re all familiar with some of the forms this can take:

  • The primary quality is that of malleability; situations are not constant and unchanging as we would expect them to be in reality, but rather shift and alter as we perceive them.
  • Locations which have been seen to be separated by large distances are nevertheless also observed to be adjacent, such as doors leading immediately back to a previously distant origin point.
  • Merging of geography; a current location becoming (or being suddenly realised to in fact be) another location of significance.
  • Unreliable or missing memory of places and people - but without any conscious rational objection to, or unease at these quirks of recollection. Nor is there any implication of a conventional cause such as amnesia.
  • A seamless (and at the time entirely unremarkable) shifting between being a participant and being an observer, often allowing the following of conversations and incidents even when you are not physically present for them.
  • Spatial and temporal discontinuity, allowing you for example to temporarily experience the thoughts or memories of another, before returning once more to your own main narrative.
  • Varying awareness of the passing of time, and of urgency. Sometimes we are extremely aware of upcoming deadlines or events, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be extensively sidetracked regardless.
  • Mundane and repetitive events, such as exceptionally lengthy yet apparently trivial and vague conversations, being experienced without arousing normal impatience or anger.
  • Apparent temporal dilation, with lengthy events transpiring within moments or brief events taking disproportionately long periods.
  • A feeling of mounting urgency, lateness or lack of sufficient preparation, regularly coupled with a sense of being continuously delayed, frustrated and thwarted in your attempts to make a journey, meet a deadline or achieve a goal. This is sometimes experienced as an inability to physically move as well as you would expect to be able to, particularly when it is critical to do so (such as when being pursued).
  • A complete lack of surprise when encountering any of the above.

All of these dream characteristics are well known to all of us, and are often exaggerated in those dreams born of over-tiredness, stress or fever. This brings us back to the book.

Imagine taking the actual narrative of a dream, with qualities such as those mentioned above, and telling a story in that manner. Not a story which is a dream (and certainly not ending with a trite awakening to relieved realisation); rather, a story which is set in our waking world but which has the form of a dream. This is The Unconsoled.

Accordingly, this book is an extremely difficult read. Not due to any obscurity of language or complexity of plot (neither is the case), but rather for the very need to suspend our ordinary dependence on logic and the connection between emotional responses and surrounding situations. In many ways, the story is entirely irrelevant, because this book is really about you, the reader. I think it would be fair to say that I progressed through it constantly feeling equal parts admiration and extreme discomfort.

There’s a pervasive sense of unreality and a constant undercurrent of tension, and the particularly fascinating thing is that the reader’s experience is often far removed from that of the protagonist, Ryder. We feel almost panic-stricken as he calmly ignores an urgent matter to delve instead into a newly-surfacing recollection, and by contrast when he finally is struck by the need to quickly fulfil an obligation we feel relieved that all is not yet lost.

Reading The Unconsoled was the first time I’ve ever been aware of my own emotional response constantly breaking the fourth wall of the story; but then, that’s another quality which dreams often have.

This is an extremely significant book. How you interpret the story is up to you, and there are many possible readings. Some opinions have it that the book is a study of how we react to others and are interdependent on them, or that it’s an essay on depersonalisation and losing control of one’s life, or a lament for dementia, or a figurative work showing all the ages of one man as a cast of characters interacting with him. I won’t even share my own feeling on the matter, because the nature of the book is such that the meaning of the story isn’t what I want to focus on.

The Unconsoled is haunting, and genuinely draining - it asks a great deal of the reader. The vast majority will passionately detest it; we’re simply not set up nor taught to process a story in this form. A high percentage of those who begin reading it will undoubtedly not make it past the first fifty or so pages.

There are horrors to be found here, but not horrors of plot or person; there are no dramatic disasters nor villains or monsters. The horrors are not for the characters, but rather for the reader, who finds the heretofore comfortably solid and well-defined lines of rational reality beginning to blur and run, with a shapeless but insistent tension mounting page by page.

There is also an ending which I found frankly chilling; a quiet, unremarkable closing scene which leaves our protagonist settled, happy and optimistic almost for the first time since we joined him, and which leaves the reader in a state of existential agony, and (for me at least) something approaching dread.

This book reminds us that reading can bring a pleasure beyond simple immersion in the story; there is also the possibility of enjoyment of the art of the story, even if reading it is arduous. There is something vastly rewarding here for the reader who can persevere through this stunning work; this is a triumph of style and narrative innovation which renders the actual plot details largely irrelevant.

This isn’t a book written of a dream, but a dream in the form of a book. It is the difference between a book written by one culture about another, and a book written by that other culture about itself.

If the place we all go each night (whether we remember it in the morning or not) is actually another realm, with its own natural laws and customs and strangenesses, then The Unconsoled is no tourist’s cold-light-of-day sterile rendering of it; instead, this book is actually from that place, somehow snatched through a window into our own world to frustrate, challenge and inspire.

This is a book taken from the world of dreams, and you owe it to yourself to at least attempt to experience it.