Dear Jim and Chris,
Reading When We Were Orphans, my reactions ran the gamut from mild annoyance to intense irritation. I must confess, though, that while I admired Remains of the Day (the only other novel of Ishiguro's I've read), I didn't love it the way so many readers (and critics and prize-giving juries) did. It seemed to me an ultimately rather empty tour de force, a book whose breathtaking technical control couldn't quite overcome the hollow contrivance at its heart. The trick of the unreliable narrator was, in the character of Stevens, brilliantly executed, and the slow unraveling of his self-enclosed, delusional world of correct form and checked feeling was perfectly handled. But I never felt, as many did, that the book had anything to say about the matters it was credited for offering insight into, namely the English character and the problem of evil. Stevens didn't so much represent a distillation of the English temperament as the recycling of a stereotype of Englishness, one calculated to appeal especially to a certain kind of American middlebrow reader, the kind who reflexively thinks any third-rate Masterpiece Theater broadcast is intrinsically more serious than anything on American network television. Stevens seemed concocted out of a bookish, ambitious writer's echo chamber. And his master's collaboration with the Nazis didn't illuminate anything about the moral quagmire of 20th-century politics but rather used the disasters of 20th-century history to give the novel a patina of urgency and seriousness.
When We Were Orphans suffers from the same basic problems--the serious business about the opium trade, the Sino-Japanese war, and the approaching global cataclysm of World War II have been diluted to a thin veneer of portentousness. This time, though, the technical mastery has been replaced by arch game-playing. Chris, your elaboration of the book's literary debts struck me as exactly right. The problem, as your posting implies, is that in the novels of Waugh, Greene, and for all his flaws, Powell, you feel the resistance of the material--that is, the pressure of reality informing and impinging on their attempts to construct a picture of social life. But with Ishiguro I don't feel that any human reality is being illuminated. London and Shanghai both seem like inert, generic places, memorized from maps, and the characters act and speak as though they'd wandered out of the pages of other novels. I found the dialogue--all those "old chaps" and "my boys"--especially grating and the narrator's voice hopelessly artificial. Perhaps in the interwar period, upper-class Brits at home and in the colonies really did talk the way they do here, but never for one moment did I feel I was listening to human speech. I thought I was reading an English translation of a lost Tintin comic but with no pictures, not many jokes, and a lot of pages missing.
Which brings me to the question of the plot. Again, Chris, I think you're right that the mystery novel and the unreliable narrator don't mesh. Readers of mysteries, like duelists, demand satisfaction. Now, this satisfaction need not consist of an actual solution to the mystery--obliquity and indeterminacy are part of the tradition and also hallmarks of the modern novel. You don't read The Trial for the Perry Mason revelation at the end. And I don't mind being teased and thwarted. One of my favorite novels of last year was Katharine Davis' The Walking Tour; reading it was like finding a jigsaw puzzle in the attic with half the pieces missing and the pictures rubbed off most of the rest. But in that case, it seemed to me that I was being left hanging for a purpose. Here it seems the purpose is to rub my face in my own ignorance. There are novels that flatter you by making you feel smart, by posing puzzles and giving you their solutions in such a way that you congratulate yourself for having discovered them. When We Were Orphans never lets you forget that the author is smarter than you and knows things neither you nor poor Christopher Banks can ever comprehend. But of course the game is rigged. This isn't a mystery. It's a hoax.
Perhaps this is too harsh. Perhaps the novel isn't deceitful, just muddled. Christopher's unreliability is signaled early on--he can barely remember what happened to him two days ago, let alone in his distant childhood--but his fall into painful enlightenment in the book's climactic section seemed to me badly mishandled because the reality of what happened to his parents was as luridly incredible as any of his fantasies of rescue. As Christopher slogged through the charnel house of Shanghai, I kept thinking about Malraux's Man's Fate, which renders the same events with incomparable vividness. I know the comparison is unfair--apples and oranges, you'll say. Or maybe a shriveled raisin wrapped in fancy packaging and a bottle of good burgundy.
A glass of which, come to think of it, I could use right about now.