This morning, I trawled the internet for a good story, and was gratified to stumble upon “A Village after Dark,” a short story by Kazuo Ishiguro that’s readily available through The New Yorker. Though I don’t believe it will have the same lasting effect as his novels (check out Never Let me Go and The Remains of the Day), it reminded me of Ishiguro’s massive talent, and his ability to slip into his characters’ frame of mind.
In “The Village at Night,” that frame of mind is Fletcher’s, an elderly man who wonders back into a village where he apparently used to be a big deal. You get the sense that he was involved in some sort of political movement. There’s a slight insinuation it’s a post-apocalyptic world, with everyone poor and in tatters. He goes to places where he once was engaged. He’s reproached by a former lover, and then by a man he bullied as a youth. No one really seems to like him, frankly, but one young woman seems vaguely fascinated by him. She treats him like a novelty item, then abandons him on a long path outside the village. He’s led back in to wait for the bus that might take him to this young woman’s house. But honestly it doesn’t seem that hopeful.
And that’s pretty much it.
It’s a short, short, short story.
One might be tempted to say that not much happens in the story, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. This is not a plot-heavy story. There’s relatively little in the way of exposition, rising action, and climax, those everyday elements of story structure. Instead, “A Village After Dark” is a dreamy vignette from inside a hazy mind; it’s a look into nostalgia, the vagaries of memory, and the fact that even if we can describe the way something looks or sounds, we don’t necessarily understand it.
This was conveyed, in my opinion, by the relatively sparse use of figurative language. Sometimes strong figurative language really adds to a story, gives it dimension and clarity. In this case, i thought it was a brilliant stylistic approach for Ishiguro to describe things quite simply and matter-of-factly, and instead have the disconnect be between his narration and reality.
Many authors rely on metaphors and similes to convey meaning or mood. Especially in a story like this, which possesses an extremely dreamlike quality, I would expect a lot more dancing around reality. And I absolutely love a good metaphor, a juicy analogy. But I can appreciate Ishigur’s relative sparseness.
Here’s an example of his descriptions, simple and clear:
“In fact, it was so small and shabby it hardly merited being called a square; it was little more than a patch of green beside a solitary street lamp. Just visible beyond the pool of light cast by the lamp were a few shops, all shut up for the night. There was complete silence and nothing was stirring. A light mist was hovering over the ground.”
His descriptions are matter-of-fact (while still lovely), but Ishiguro uses a casually inconsistent narrative voice to convey a sense of dreaminess in his work. Great gaps of time elapse in ways that, on closer inspection, make no sense. For example, when Fletcher enters a cottage, he leaves a young woman outside. He goes in, takes a nap, remembers HEY, I USED TO LIVE HERE, and seems to spend quite a bit of time inside; when he returns, the young woman inexplicably still stands outside. Not much attention is drawn to this fundamental strangeness. Similarly, time and space seem to move in strange unparallel ways when that same young woman loses him outside the village.
“We suddenly found ourselves facing an open field, and we both halted. Glancing back, I saw that we had walked our way out of the village; the last of the cottages were some distance behind us. Just as I had feared, we had lost the young woman; in fact, I realized we had not been following her for some time.”
The story has an unsettling quality. Its ambiguity allowed me to read it through different lenses of reality. What is the first person narrator really experiencing? Is this a dream? Is he dying?
It’s what I would imagine it might feel like inside a mind losing its grasp on memory. And in that sort of mind, you wouldn’t necessarily grasp for metaphor to convey your experience. Why, when levels of reality are slipping away, would you rely on comparison?
No, you would want stability and surety. Although our first person narrator is arguably in the stages of advanced memory loss, or even traversing the misty-grey landscape of a pre-death experience (the bus at the end has a very light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel feel to it), he tries to describe things the way he sees them. He opts for simple, unflashy descriptions.
He describes the room:
“I found myself in a cramped, untidy room full of rough wood and broken furniture. A log burning in the fireplace was the only source of light, by which I could make out a number of hunched figures sitting around the room…”
And then suddenly, almost surprised, he remembers why it’s significant:
“It was then, as I did so, that I was suddenly seized by an intense sense of recognition. I had chosen the cottage quite at random, but now I could see that it was none other than the very one in which I had spent my years in this village.”
The simplicity of these scenes belies what moves below the surface of the story: the vagaries of memory, the disintegration of reality. The ways in which we try to capture our life experiences when memory is itself a vague thing shaped by perception. Ishiguro’s stylistic choice of plain, unadorned language allows the reader to settle into the security of a stolid description, while the gentle dreaminess of the narrator’s memory snaps us out of it, challenging our concepts of perception and reality.
Write like Kazuo Ishiguro: Clear Language, Unclear Narrator
This week’s writing practice, based on my analysis of “A Village After Dark” invites you to experiment with the vagaries of memory and perception, while keeping true to a clean, unencumbered writing style a la Ishiguro.
- Perspective: First Person, Old Man
Think vaguely of the life you’ve lived as this fictional old man. Did you have kids or no kids? Were you law-abiding? Did you work as a janitor? Were you a free-spirited artist? An administrator in a highshool? Married or single? Gay or straight or nonbinary? Nothing crazy detailed: just the broad strokes of a life lived.
- Setting: Reunion or Party
A highschool reunion or a college reunion or a party thrown by an old friend, depending on your character’s education and lifestyle. Then detach from the party. Wonder the hallways. Or the campus, if it’s a college. Memories come back to you, sometimes slowly; sometimes in a rush. Who do you run into? What do you see? Who do you talk to? What are you confused about – and what challenges your memories and perceptions?
- Incident: Run in with a Former Acquaintance
You run into an old friend, lover, or enemy. Get to talking. Maybe you meet up at the old library on the campus, or on a bench near a pond on the party’s property. What memories do you share with this person? What miscommunications, misconceptions, and mysteries are revealed?
- Style: Clean and Succinct
If you’re generally a flowery writer, this is a great opportunity to flex your writing muscles. Write clean, succinct sentences. Describe things the way you see them, while at the same time engaging with the haziness of memory. Maybe your old man can’t be trusted. Maybe his memories don’t align with an old friend or enemy’s at the reunion. Let your reader guess what’s “real” in the narrator’s story, while keeping them grounded with a simple, concise style.