Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes has many shades of light

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      Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

      By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf Canada, 224 pp, $29.95, hardcover

      If, on finishing Kazuo Ishiguro's first short-story collection, the reader feels a certain degree of ambiguity, that's understandable. Ambiguity is Ishiguro's stock-in-trade, both artistically and personally: his fictions rarely resolve in any conventional manner, and he has created for himself an imaginary world that draws equally on his Japanese heritage, his English upbringing, and his love of American pop culture. His characters are often conflicted, even indecisive, and that's no less true in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall than it is in novels such as Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

      Don't take this new volume's title too literally. “Malvern Hills” is bathed in the sunshine of an English summer, and much of “Nocturne” takes place long after midnight. And while music plays a prominent role in all five stories, it's rarely central. Instead, Ishiguro once again examines the plight of those who find themselves in situations that are not entirely of their own making. In the title story, for instance, a middle-aged saxophonist agrees to undergo plastic surgery in order to gain pop-star good looks; while in recovery, he meets another patient, a Hollywood celebrity, and hesitantly becomes her accomplice in a series of mildly slapstick after-hours pranks. In “Come Rain or Come Shine”, another greying nebbish visits a pair of old university chums only to find that he's supposed to play the fall guy in an ill-conceived attempt to patch up their failing marriage. Both participate reluctantly, and both feel like they've let themselves down.

      The moral ambiguities here—most of Ishiguro's central characters are good people doing dubious things—are matched by settings that seem slightly askew. Whether the stories take place in Venice, Hollywood, or the United Kingdom, we're recognizably in the here and now, but the normal laws of existence have been subtly warped. In what world, for instance, would a millionaire's new wife pay to make her former husband freshly handsome, or a mild-mannered ESL teacher tear up his friends' apartment like a dog?

      Such incongruities demand a certain wariness—and yet such is Ishiguro's skill that these sad yet effortless stories register as true.