Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?
Randy was the first 50 Booker to read The Buried Giant in May. He loved the book, saying it "mixes the best of two worlds: the best of Ishiguro's writing with its subtle subversion between characters, whose reliability we cannot trust, and classic elements of fantasy tales, knights, plagues, ogres, and even sprites...Highly recommended"

Then Chris read it in June and disagreed with Randy, saying "Ishiguro seems to have no real idea of how to harness the possibilities of fantasy, or how to build a world which is specific and real...[it] reads exactly like what it is: a fantasy novel written by someone who never really reads fantasy novels."

In July I messaged Brett requesting a review because it was listed on his books, and then I messaged Billy and told him to read it because I thought it would be interesting if we all read the same book - especially since our readings this year have been all over the place. When Brett reviewed the book, he sided with Chris: "[In The Buried Giant] though, things don't really come together in a satisfactory way...I have to side with Ursula K. LeGuin and Chris. There are just too many weak links in the story for it to hit as hard as Never Let Me Go or Remains." 

As in 50 books, so in life. This book is really divisive. NPR says it's "masterful...radiant and deeply moving." The New York Times calls it an important book that "does what important books do: It remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over." At the same time the reviewer says they were unable to fall in love with it. Ursula K. LeGuin famously blogged "it didn't work. It couldn't work...I found reading the book painful." The New Yorker also had some choice words, calling it "feeble...generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague - a magic rare but unwelcome."

I actually didn't know any of this when I started the book though. Randy told me to read it, I told everyone else to read it (and honestly, almost forgot until Billy asked me what I thought about it - oops), so I entered the book without any ideas. I did read Never Let Me Go ages ago, but I disliked it so much I never felt compelled to read another Ishiguro novel. I was very surprised to enter the world of the novel:
Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land...such monsters were not cause for astonishment. people then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about.
Thus it opens with ogres and fog and an old married couple, Axl and Beatrice, who decide to leave their village to visit their adult son in a nearby village. As they prepared to leave for their journey, which involved a lot of permission getting, supply gathering, waiting for appropriate weather, and of course forgetting what they were doing and why they were doing it:
In this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past - even the recent one." 
Once they started traveling, I realized I needed to read it like an epic or a pilgrimage, and I fell into pace with Axl and Beatrice and their travel companions and really began to enjoy it. In fact, I really liked 315 pages of it thoroughly. But the novel is 317 pages long. And as a reviewer this puts me in quite a pickle.

I'm not going to talk about the end of the novel, so let's go back to the beginning. In reviews of The Buried Giant, one of the arguments is whether the novel should be read as an allegory and what the meaning of that allegory is. When I started the book with the Never-Let-Me-Go-inspired-assumption that things were not as they seemed, I was frustrated and bored. The dialogue was slow and repetitive and what is the secret twisty meaning of it!?
"And why would you be after medicines, princess?" "A small discomfort I feel from time to time. This woman might know of something to soothe it." "What sort of discomfort, princess? Where does it trouble you?" "It's nothing. It's only because we're needing to shelter here I'm thinking of it at all." "But where does it lie, princess? This pain?" 
(Full Disclosure: my parents have been married for over 30 years and if you took away the pet name and added a little more cursing, this is basically how they talk.)

So, again, once I fell into pace with Axl and Beatrice and stopped looking for secrets, twisty meanings, and symbolism, I really liked it. I totally didn't realize a creature was a dragon, and when the dragonness was revealed, I was delighted. I laughed when Sir Gawain's old ass appeared. I really enjoyed the intrigue of the monastery and the epic fight scene. I appreciated why political leaders made the choices they made in order to stop the wars that were devastating the Britons and Saxons even as I disagreed with them. I accepted everything that happened as literally happening and then when the last two pages literally happened I was emotionally wrecked and so so sad. 

Reading many many reviews of The Buried Giant shows that most readers interpreted the ending allegorically. For the record, that makes a much better ending. But I'm reluctant to read that as an allegory because then I have to re-read everything as an allegory and I'm back to the beginning when I was trying to 'figure it out' and bored by the mental gymnastics of trying to give deeper meaning to everything. Although I liked the book much more than the New Yorker reviewer did, I have to agree that it is both too allegorical and yet not enough. Although I don't think I quite agree with the New York Times reviewer that it is an Important Book, I have thought about the book almost non-stop since I finished last night. 


Christopher said...

Did you... title this correctly?

Christopher said...

Also, you should really read The Remains of the Day, which is the best Ishiguro novel by a few hundred miles.

Randy said...

Obviously the title is supposed to be Never Let Me Go: Fantasy Edition by Kazuo Ishiguro (now with more ogres and dragons!).

When I read my first Ishiguro novel (The Remains of the Day), I felt like the writing spoke to me. I liked the quiet subversion of dialogue, both between character and the inner monologue. I felt the same way reading Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant. I wonder if part of the draw for me, that made me like this novel (and not see/forgive its faults), is how much I love that part of Ishiguro's writing, which I see The Buried Giant as continuing.

Or maybe I just liked it. Who knows.

I echo Chris's sentiment: The Remains of the Day might be worth reading because it doesn't have the problems you have with The Buried Giant or Never Let Me Go. In that regard it's probably his cleanest novel in that he successfully achieves his literary goals.

That said, you've already disliked two of his maybe it's not worth the risk...

Brent Waggoner said...

Remains is a lot different but it does hit many of the same themes and arrive at similar conclusions. I do think it's a little more human than NLMG or TBG, even though the end of NLMG is a total gut punch waterworks moment for me.

Billy really should have read this so we'd have a tiebreaker.