Short-listed for the man Booker Prize for four out of his six novels, of which one, The Remains of the Day, won in 1989, Kazuo Ishiguro is the undisputed genius of vagueness, threshold states and constantly shifting surfaces. Now he has turned his attention to the short story for the first time. Nocturnes, subtitled "Five Stories of Music and Nightfall," was written, Ishiguro said in a recent interview, as a unified, organic project from beginning to end. It is much like a novel and unlike most short-story collections, which tend to be a gathering of work published elsewhere over a long period. As such, the collection is tight and assured although the unifying themes that Ishiguro signals at the very outset, music and nightfall, prove to be diversionary.
The themes in this quintet of first-person narratives are those of failure and unfulfillment of lives having to settle for second best. "Crooner" is narrated by Janeck, who plays guitar in Venice's tourist cafés. He spots Tony Gardner, a schmaltzy crooner whose heyday is well behind him, and gets roped into accompanying the singer while he serenades his wife, Lindy, from a gondola. What begins for Janeck as an unprecedented honor, in being party to a famous man's romantic outpouring, modulates to the realization that the gesture is despairing and valedictory. Lindy, now divorced from Gardner, reappears in "Nocturne," convalescing after facial surgery in a swanky L.A. hotel. Here she meets the narrator, Steve, who is her neighbor in the adjacent room and is there for identical reasons. Steve is a struggling saxophonist who never managed to hit the big time; together, they get involved in a caper, which, for all its superficial childishness, shines a rueful light on two related kinds of failure. In "Malvern Hills," a young man, with ambitions of becoming an indie singer-songwriter, spends a summer at his sister's café in the Malvern Hills and meets a middle-aged Swiss couple whose lives portend an unpromising future of blighted dreams.
Written in a studiedly bleached style, in which repetitions assume a cumulative detonative force, this is a book drenched with regret. But it is also suffused with sympathy for lives that hide, behind a smile, a diminishment of the dreams they began with.