The Oxford Literary Festival: Kazuo Ishiguro

I am tired of both London and life. So, to Oxford, for the Literary
Festival, and an audience with Kazuo Ishiguro, every book club’s pick
of the moment. Fresh air and the life of the mind! What could be
better?

Ishiguro is terribly good at winning prizes. That’s his job. An Artist
of the Floating World
picked up the Whitbread, The Remains of the Day
got the Booker, and The Unconsoled briefly held the WBF Light-Welterweight belt in the mid-90s. He even has an OBE. He’s here at the festival to talk about his work with Professor John “Scary” Carey.

I don’t understand the event. About 500 people, all of whom seem to
have a pathological attraction to brown corduroy, have paid £8 to see
him. The lack of pollution out here in the sticks may be muddying my
brain, but this looks a dreadful scam to me. Jamie could make 16
school dinners for £8. I’m outraged even before Ishiguro takes the
stage, and mildly disappointed that the proceedings don’t open with
Prof. Carey saying “Evening, Suckers.”

Once talking, Ishiguro calms my rage. He’s likeable, unpretentious and
aware of his faults – his books are a bit samey, he’s not one for
flashy prose, and he tends to be a bit abstract. He admits to never
having finished Proust. Shame he’s so affable, because there’s
something off somewhere in the novels.

His latest, Never Let Me Go, is doing well: it’ll probably win prizes.
It’s about a society that clones boring narrators, then harvests their
organs. It’s a bit like Science Fiction with all the good bits –
aliens, lasers, Space Queens – taken out and replaced by literary
devices – the unreliable narrator, pathetic fallacies, et bloody
cetera. That’s the problem with Ishiguro. His novels feel like they’re
there to be done for GCSE, like you’re meant to write an essay on
them: What does the cassette mean to Kathy? Does Kathy always tell the
truth? What does the boat symbolise in the novel? Answer one question
only. Write on one side of the paper.

It doesn’t add up to a lot. His books usually feature a narrator
bleating on at you, eventually revealing more than they intended about
their life. At the end, you’re left thinking “Yes. Stuff. It’s a bit
sad, really, when you think about it.” Never Let Me Go even climaxes
with one of the great “stuff – it’s a bit sad” clichés:

“Up in the branches of the tree, too, I could see, flapping about,
torn plastic sheeting and old carrier bags”

Carrier bags in a tree? Does he have his eye on the sixth-form writing
prize this time out?

You get prizes by being good and inoffensive: they’re handed out to
the well-behaved children. That’s Ishiguro. He’s good, but (with the
exception of The Unconsoled, his brilliant, batshit experiment from
95) he’s not much more than a set of nicely controlled literary
gestures. He’s a prefect. Best idea: if you can get better than 7-1,
put £20 on him winning the Nobel by 2025. He wins prizes. That’s his
job.