When We Were Orphans

A Middling, Mediocre Writer
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 2000 3:06 PM

When We Were Orphans

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Dear Jim, Chris, and Sarah,

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Jim, your message beautifully articulated some of the ethical difficulties inherent in what I do every day, though from the different, and for me welcome, perspective of what you do every day. Every critic knows it's easier to sneer than to enthuse for a number of reasons. For one thing, the available language of praise often seems more limited and carries a risk of embarrassment. Emerson said that our own words often come back to us with a certain alienated majesty, and there's nothing more alienating (or, come to think of it, less majestic) than seeing words of honest praise wrenched from context and decked out with exclamation points in, let's say, a movie ad. Dispraise offers the critic easy superiority and cheap self-protection whereas full-throated acclaim can sound, especially if not backed up by a chorus, like mindless cheerleading.

But there is, of course, an obligation to be honest and forceful. (I was maybe a little too forceful). When you really don't like something--as I really don't like Orphans--you should say so and say why. But the intoxicating rush of negative eloquence is often followed by a hangover of, not guilt quite, but sheepishness because you're trashing something that has given other people pleasure and therefore implicitly calling into question the legitimacy of that pleasure. This is a weird, presumptuous thing to do (it's also the reason I get up in the morning), and it sometimes makes people defensive. I get a fair amount of mail from readers who react to my criticisms of movies (and especially movie stars) they love as though I'd insulted them personally, which in a way I have.

But what were we talking about? Oh yeah, that Ishiguro book. Jeez, how could anyone actually like that wad of suckerbait? Sorry, what I meant to say was, in spite of my deep frustration with the book's methods and my suspicion of its motives, I did indeed keep reading, quickly and impatiently, and not without an occasional flicker of pleasure at a nicely turned sentence or a well-structured scene. If Orphans hadn't engaged my attention, I don't think I would have disliked it, in the end, as much as I did--a merely inept novelist can't really make you feel toyed with and cheated.

Chris, your account of the book's failings was incisive. It's fine to deploy an unreliable narrator and fine to endow him with a sieve-like memory, but these strategies don't license vagueness. I was as puzzled as you were by Sarah's behavior at the end--indeed, throughout--but I had a nagging suspicion that her motives were not only obscure to Christopher but that Ishiguro hadn't bothered to sort them out himself. I loved the Chandler quote (or misquote), and I tend to agree with it, although I'm neither Anglophile nor Anglophobe--actually I veer wildly between the two poles, consistent only in a certain Anglophilophobia, if you see what I mean. Even in their belated embrace of postmodernism, British novelists sustain a higher level of technical competence than most of their American peers when it comes to the business of writing clear prose, keeping the reader amused, and getting characters in and out of rooms. (Ishiguro, by the way, uses the conceit of the diary form to evade this responsibility. Whenever a scene becomes too knotty, Christopher just breaks off or professes not to remember what happened next). And Orphans manifested just enough of this kind of skill to hold my attention, but not enough to inspire a recommendation. In this novel, at least, Ishiguro shows himself to be a middling, mediocre writer.

This has been, as I knew it would be, a blast.

My best to all,
Tony

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This week, our Book Clubbers tackle Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, a whodunit in which some of the most crucial developments take place in the detective's own head. Critical reaction so far has been sharply mixed: Does the novel say something profound about memory, or is it just an unsatisfying mystery? Click here to learn more about the critics and here to buy the book.

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