The Lone Booster

When We Were Orphans

The Lone Booster

When We Were Orphans

The Lone Booster
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 2000 11:25 AM

When We Were Orphans

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Chris, Tony--

Advertisement

My, this is fascinating. What's intriguing for me is the odd discomfort, for a modern journalist, of the lone enthusiast role. There's an asymmetrical set of instincts in our business. I imagine that all three of us feel instantly comfortable in the role of the lone skeptic. Being the lone booster is embarrassing, not so much to others as to oneself.

I'm not talking about negativity in journalism or any other socially uplifting theme. Rather, it's the sense that we define or reveal our standards in these assessments, like Olympic judges chagrined when holding up a scorecard two points higher than everyone else's, and therefore it's always safer to err on the low side. Bear with me here a second--I'm not talking about either of you, I'm talking about myself--and I'm getting around to explaining why I basically feel so positive about this book.

My enthusiasm is odd because I agree with many of your specific points and objections. Yes, there is a mélange quality to the plot. Yes, it's infuriating to have anything British-toned be seen as "cultured." (Slate'seditor will confirm that I yield to no one in my decades-long war on American Anglophilia. I give him a funny look if he asks for tea rather than coffee. And when he offered me a "biscuit". ...) Yes, an absolutely crucial plot moment, Christopher's rediscovery of his childhood friend Akira, is undermined by the ambiguity about whether it actually is Akira in that Japanese soldier's uniform--or whether the "unreliable narrator" has entirely lost his mind. And yes, yes, yes, there are other books that have covered wartime China, or the trauma of childhood fear, or the standard English procedural model with more power and coherence.

So why do I still hope that anyone perusing this discussion will read the book? I think it's because of the different state of mind I brought to it.

Advertisement

When it comes to a work in the field in which I'm simultaneously a consumer and producer--the general world of nonfiction about public affairs--I come in with green eye-shade pulled way down on my brow, the better to find any defect. This is partly a defensive twitch (hey, these other guys have problems), but it's also because I'm thinking on every page of the book: How else could they have done it? Is there a better historical parallel they could have used? Are they emphasizing points based on how hard they were to discover versus how important they are? And on and on.

When it comes to fields where I'm just a consumer, anything ranging from Olympic gymnastics to, yes, novel-writing, my frame of mind is entirely different. I know I couldn't do what the practitioner is doing, and so--unlike the crabby Olympic commentators Dick Button (winter games) and Tim Daggett (summer), former champions both--I'm not carping about how else the triple axel might have been performed. I'm thinking: Is this beautiful? Does it hold my attention? Am I glad I invested this portion of my life in observing it? In the case of novels, did I learn anything from it?

And from that essentially sympathetic point of view, I'm very glad to have read this book; I expect that the character Banks will live in my mind for quite a while; I did indeed learn something from it. I know that this perspective is not the one from which all criticism should proceed. I know that at the end of this road lies "you're the greatest!" boosterism. But I think there's a place for this admiring-spectator's view of fiction in the response to a book. And let me step off the stage with a related question:

I can think of scores of books I would never have finished reading if I hadn't felt obliged to do so before writing a review. I read Orphans with pleasure and would have finished it even if this "Book Club" had been called off. How about you? Would you have quit? Would you encourage others to start?

Of course, when Kazuo I writes some nonfiction ... no more Mr. Nice Guy from me.

leftyesspacer/Slate247/001002_Orphans.jpghttp://img.slate.com/mediafalseWhen We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro20111

21
125223PMFridayJanJanuary121/21/2011 5:52:23 PM63431211143791514020111
21
125223PMFridayJanJanuary121/21/2011 5:52:23 PM634312111437915140
20111
21
125223PMFridayJanJanuary121/21/2011 5:52:23 PM634312111437915140
Pfalse200110
19
31134AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:34 AM631390578940000000
200110
19
31134AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:34 AM631390578940000000
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.