I finished Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant the other day, and immediately thereafter I looked through various reviews, as this book has been notoriously disliked by a number of high-profile critics. After judging this book for myself and seeing the objections, I generally don’t understand the critiques being lodged at Ishiguro.
Before I go any further, let me dissuade you from Joyce Carol Oates’s critique in the NYRB. I don’t think it’s a very good review, and it completely spoils the plot (there are a few important surprises in this book, and the ending in particular should not be spoiled). So I would stay away from that one, unless you’ve finished the book.
It seems that the critiques of this book fall into two main camps: first off, there is the complaint about the texture of this novel. The book takes place in Britain in the early middle ages, and Ishiguro has been faulted for not providing verisimilitude as one might expect from a work of historical/political fiction written by an author like Norman Rush. I will not deny that Ishiguro’s book is very much a fantasia (Oates references John Barth), and perhaps he is being judged by books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, where the voice was highly mannered and textured in a very satisfying way, but I don’t see that this critique holds any importance for this book. I see no evidence that The Buried Giant in any way sets out to offer a true-to-life account of Britain in the early Middle Ages, and I imagine that Ishiguro (and perhaps many other readers) would see such a complaint as beside the point. The narrative voice, such as it is, is consistent throughout; it is more in the vein of fairy tale than historical novel, but this suits Ishiguro’s aims for the book (which is more about the social and the archetypal than the personal), and I found it satisfying. He is working in a much more mythic register than in other books, but this suits his aims and his themes, and I don’t see why his past successes should in any way insult his current project.
To perhaps draw one comparison, John Williams’s final novel, Augustus, is a similar pastiche, taking place in Imperial Rome. Williams makes no bones about the fact that he is using well-known historical actors purely for his own motives, freely inventing where he likes and making very little attempt to create an authentic portrait of Rome of the era. Woe be anyone who reads this book for an account of Augustus’s life. None of that kept me from finding the book utterly brilliant and captivating on its own terms, even though we are very far from the voice of Stoner.
Or in one more example, an author like Thomas Mann, who offered extraordinary localized portraits in books like Doctor Faustus and Buddenbrooks, set out to do an entirely different thing in Joseph and His Brothers. Could he have even written that book with the texture of a Faustus? I doubt it. The approach required by re-imagining the Bible freed Mann to write as he never had before, even if it was very different from what many would regard as “Thomas Mann.” I am glad he did it, just as I am glad to have some 400 pages of Felix Krull, even if that book bears much more likeness to a Wes Anderson’s depiction of the Austro-Hungarian era than a Stefan Zweig’s.
The other line of critique, which would seem to hold a little more water, is that this book is an allegory that is too highly on point. On one level, this is so obvious as to be not worth saying: the boatman is death, the titular giant is memory. The dragon Querig’s mist is the historical amnesia that allows for peaceful co-existence. Well, duh. You don’t get any points for picking up on this, and if you think this is the extent of what Ishiguro is up to in this book, you might look at it again.
James Wood in The New Yorker offers a slightly more interesting version of this critique:
On the one hand, the novel suggests that humans may have caused the arrival of the mist (presumably, as a result of warfare so terrible that it encouraged an enforced amnesia, a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement); on the other hand, all the talk about angry or ashamed deities, along with the existence of Querig the she-dragon, suggests forces beyond human control and complicity. Ishiguro seems to want it both ways, as befits the religious credulity, the Arthurian magic, of his fictional world. “Never Let Me Go” is a miraculous novel, because it is an allegory that points straight at us—at ordinary, obedient, unfree human life. “The Buried Giant” points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague.
Well, first off, I do not think Ishiguro’s setting is feeble or remote, as evidenced by the fact that anyone who has read this book can immediately point out the key aspects of its environment: the mist, the dragon, the buried giant, the boatman, etc. These seem quite palpable and fixed in readers’ minds, Wood’s included.
As to pressureless, I disagree. As Wood himself notes, Ishiguro deploys these elements in such a way as to make their tension clear: Beatrice and Axl only remain in love because they have forgotten the sins of their past, but what sort of a love can this be if they cannot remember their lives together? Similarly, the Anglos and the Saxons can co-exist, but only because they cannot remember the wrongs their forefathers perpetuated on one another. What sort of a peace is this? One of the ingenious moves of this book is to project Beatrice and Axl’s version of this quandary into the grand historic Anglo/Saxon version, and vice versa, via the plot mechanics. This is perhaps where Wood finds the allegory becoming too literal and too vague, but I would say here it is reaching complexity.
This is why I cannot call this book “pressureless.” Each of the various subplots in this novel is like a string, and the more you try to pull out any individual string to examine it, the more firmly knotted together they all become. This is the thing Ishiguro has achieved, and it is a different achievement than his usual, because it encompasses multiple points of view, instead of just one (this is his first third-person novel), and implicates multiple levels at once: the historical, the personal, the allegorical, the mythic, the social.
I think the book has flaws: some of the arrangement of plot elements is a little too slack. Here Ishiguro occasionally resorts to rivets and screws to keep this box from falling apart, where he in other instances he has made it all hold tight without need of such tools. At other times Ishiguro descends from his mythic register to give us something a little more mannered and classically “Ishiguro”—brilliant as these stretches can be, they do feel out of place, darlings that might have been better drowned.
But it is an interesting and powerful read, yet another elaboration of Ishiguro’s method and core concerns into new forms and new realms of the human experience. It covers territory Ishiguro has never before touched, and it does so in interesting and valid ways. I would not hold it as his best work, but nor would I casually discard it as have some others.