Kazuo Ishiguro is a British novelist with eight books published since 1982, and he is my favorite author.
The idea of having a "favorite" anything is silently frowned upon the older we get, or, at least, it's less acknowledged. Children have favorites — candy, movies, songs, characters, friends, school subjects — but as adults, we're rewarded for showcasing a fluid set of preferences, for being selective based upon our audience, and for resisting the urge to publicly express intense emotion over things we enjoy. I'm unconvinced that the call of fandom is inherently a childish one, but even if it is — so what? Who am I to deny access to the kind of unfettered joy that only rears its head during childhood? All of this to say, I had the rare opportunity recently to meet Kazuo Ishiguro, and it was fantastic.
Mr. Ishiguro was signing copies of his latest novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, 2015), at The Strand Bookstore in New York City on March 19. Since I've lived my whole life in the Northeast, and Ishiguro has resided in England for decades, I never imagined I'd have the chance to meet him, and so promised myself I'd attend the signing event no matter what.
Mr. Ishiguro is best known for his novels The Remains of the Day, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989, and Never Let Me Go, which Time magazine deemed the Best Novel of 2005, and though I adore both books, it's Ishiguro's fourth novel, The Unconsoled, which holds a special place in my heart. The Unconsoled is a sprawling, first-person tale of faulty memory, mounting pressure, half-revealed pasts, ulterior motives, and the causes and consequences of familial pride and shame. It is a weird book, written like a tightly plotted dream, with a narrator who doesn't seem to notice the unusual behaviors and high expectations of the citizens of an unnamed European city facing crisis.
Of any of the dozens of things I wished to tell Mr. Ishiguro — that I also wrote fiction, and considered him an inspiration; that I had read everything he'd ever published; that I was so thankful his books explored the topic of memory — it was The Unconsoled that I needed to mention, and my love of it specifically, in the brief moment I had while he signed my books.
I felt this need for two different, distinctly equivocal reasons. First: Though I know very little of Ishiguro's private life, I wanted to make him feel better about The Unconsoled. Unlike The Remains of the Day, which received near-universal praise upon publication, The Unconsoled was met with mixed reviews. It is, as I mentioned, a weird book. Its unyielding narration carries you past moments you may rather stop at to have a few questions answered. You get the sense early on that either the narrator or everyone around him is a blatant liar or completely mad in the head. It's a daring book, one that forces you to piece plots and characters together to form your own closure or meaning against the smartly patterned framework of the story. And by working the meaning out for yourself, you can more easily apply it to your own life or to those you care about.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone shares this belief. Literary critic and essayist James Wood, in fact, claimed that The Unconsoled "invented its own category of badness," which is about as harsh a thing as I've ever read in a book review. And because I love this novel so much, and because these harsh reviews hurt me as non-creator, I wanted to let Ishiguro know that I liked his book in case it hurt him too. This is, again, a childish thing to admit, but there's something about meeting one's favorite author, and the inherent power structures and sense of urgency at play, that can strip away adulthood in a flash.
The second reason for mentioning The Unconsoled was purely selfish, and as old as fandom itself: I wanted Ishiguro to know that I was not like all his other fans. I was madly excited to read The Buried Giant, but like the Beatles fan proclaiming his preference for "Wild Honey Pie" over "Eleanor Rigby," it was a prideful thirst to be recognized for my devotion that made me most want to visit Ishiguro at his signing.
On the morning of the event, for the first time in years, I practiced smiling. I stood before my bathroom mirror and imagined how our photo would look — him, striking a sitting pose, the model of etiquette and taste, and me, hunched over into the camera's field of view, probably sweating, the crudest prototype of a grin stretched onto my face. I'm bad at smiling for pictures; still, I thought Kazuo Ishiguro deserved my best effort.
In line outside The Strand, I attempted to size up the other readers shivering with newly purchased book in hand. There were packs of family members getting books signed for absent relatives; singular fans, like me, with one or two previous titles in tow; college-aged friends complaining about the cold; well-dressed elderly couples standing in arm-linked silence, eyes closed against the wind, book and receipt tucked under their arms. I saw many copies of Never Let Me Go, most of them still bearing a Strand price sticker. I saw a few love-worn copies of The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, even A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro's first novel. But I did not see another copy of The Unconsoled, its blocky thickness easy to spot. It was possible, of course, that others were keeping their copies safe from the jostles of crowds and winter weather in a separate bag, like myself. And in a smaller, kinder part of my brain, I hoped this was true; I hoped that there were secret droves of fans devoted to The Unconsoled, who sung its praises with equal gusto.
With time, portions of the line were led from outside the store to the warm labyrinth of its fiction and poetry bookshelves. I leaned against a row of Langston Hughes volumes and tried to sneak a peek at the author, sitting some 30 feet beyond in a small enclave of copies of The Buried Giant. At best, I could catch the top of his hair or a bit of ear; largely, I saw nothing but the winter caps of those waiting before me. I seesawed from foot to foot, my thumb keeping both books open at their title page, ready to sign, and tried very hard to remember the order of everything I wanted to say to him. Once the author came into full view, though, and I neared the front of the line, everything seemed to speed up to a comically fast pace. My books were tugged away by a friendly Strand employee and placed on the signing table; a photographer asked if I wanted a picture with the author; and with a flash of realization that I did not like the way I looked in this coat, I suddenly found myself before Kazuo Ishiguro, my favorite author.
His British accent was delightfully thick. He wore an unassuming black shirt, his salt-and-pepper hair unstyled. His glasses, quaintly pale and rectangular, magnified the small, sharp, intelligent eyes I'd seen peering up from various author photos. As he took the two books from the Strand employee, I saw that he had the hands of a pianist and I smiled. The protagonist of The Unconsoled is a pianist, like Ishiguro himself, who also composes.
"Hello," he said with a smile, jet lag or simple old weariness pulling on the corners of his mouth and eyes.
"Hello," I said. "It's really wonderful to meet you."
"Thank you," he said, choosing The Unconsoled over The Buried Giant as the first book to sign.
I pointed to the title page as he began to write, and said, "That's my favorite novel."
"Oh?" he asked while he wrote. "I'm always surprised when readers say they like this particular book."
A jolt of excitement swept through me, and I asked a question I hadn't thought of until right then: "Do you like that book?"
He finished signing The Unconsoled and placed it aside. "Yes," he said, giving a grin and picking up The Buried Giant. "I do." He then paused a second and laughed, shaking his head and saying, "Though I suppose I shouldn't say these kinds of things about my own work."
I laughed and didn't reply in the hopes that he'd continue speaking. As he began to sign the second book, he said, "I had to reread it recently for a project. I found it...weird. It's different than my other work."
I nodded, and searched my mind for some way to agree that didn't sound dumb. As I did, he pointed to my name, scribbled on a Post-it note stuck to the inside jacket flap to ease the signing process, and asked, "Are you French?"
"My father is French Canadian."
"Ah," he said, closing the cover and handing the two books over to me. "That'll do it."
"Thank you so much," I said. I turned to the photographer, who nodded and brought the camera to his eyes. Ishiguro struck an authorial pose of epic proportions — pen in hand, head cocked to one side, eyebrows raised, mouth shut tight — and I was only vaguely aware that I would be in the photo as well. But as soon as I did, the camera flashed, and I thanked the staff and Ishiguro one last time before I was released back into the buzzing commerce of The Strand.
That's essentially all there was to meeting my literary hero, though I do have a few physical mementos as well: a couple pictures of me with the author, a signed copy of The Unconsoled, and of course a brand new, signed copy of The Buried Giant, which turned out to be a fascinating, emotional read and an excellent addition to the Ishiguro canon. Once I exited the store and began my walk to the subway, I felt that slow thaw that marks the end of an adrenaline rush. Like most events in life I look forward to, this one went by quickly and left me with seemingly little memory of its experience. I had to stop on the sidewalk and look at both books' title pages just to make sure they'd really been signed, that I'd really just met the author.
In the days since the signing, I've looked at the autographs a few times, read the new novel, and scanned the photos taken at the event, but it's the memory of our brief conversation, now crisp in my mind after allowing time to settle, that makes me feel renewed. If you ever want to feel younger, don't buy a $35 bottle of face cream — just go to a book signing for your favorite author. Nothing turns back time like spending a few hours with a stomach full of butterflies, hands and feet fidgety with the knowledge that something and someone more important than yourself exists nearby, and then being kindly herded into line like a classroom heading to recess. It's the kind of interaction you take for granted as a child, when heroes are untouchable, and you're blessedly lacking in self-awareness. And so, more than I'm grateful for the signed copies and the photo, I'm grateful for the chance to have experienced bright-eyed wonder once again. Though the moment was brief, I'm optimistic that — like One-A-Day vitamins and 401(k) investors — its emotional resonance is playing the long game.