Can Fantasy Be Good Literary Fiction, Too?

The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Surely if any writer could create a fantasy tale with all the literary trappings, Kazuo Ishiguro is that writer. One only has to read his remarkable The Unconsoled to appreciate this ability to artfully blend psychology, mystery, and stylied writing into a very compelling novel that while satisfying is also frustrating. Perhaps that’s part of its power to involve and push you along.

So, then, what about straightout fantasy, the conjuring of an Arthurian tale of sorts? Does Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant work as both good fantasy and something approaching a literary adventure. His new novel, appearing ten years after the wonderful Never Let Me Go, is at once a novel you can appreciate for its ideas, while not particularly enjoying the story.

The ideas are Ishiguro’s meditations on memory, specifically burying the past in favor of peace and harmony. In the case of The Buried Giant, a spell has been cast over recent post Arthurian England, suppressing memories of battles and slaughters, as well as personal betrayals. The daze in which people exist and the consequences of lifting the veil are the crux of the intellectual aspect of the novel. In a nod to Ishiguro, it’s something of the perfect novel for current times in which many, while not exactly under the pall of total forgetfulness, definitely approach national and world history with sharply limiting selective memories. While Ishiguro’s tale plays out on a less grander stage than modern tribulaltions, his story brings the pain and suffering down to a scale we can appreciate.

As for the story, it’s a tale with place, history, and character, yet coolly vague, like a play performed against scenery painted either white or black, depending on the mood being conveyed. Perhaps this is an issue only for an audience of one, but a bit more meat on the joint would added more savor to the novel.

There’s also the issue of style, a characteristic of literary novels, a voice unique to the book. The Buried Giant certainly possess this; however, Ishiguro has so stylized the dialogue and descriptions as to strip the novel of what it needs badly, what any novel with fantasy and lore at its heart usually delivers: passion.

As to the tale, it is a simple quest weaving in Arthur, Merlin, spells, and speculation on post-Roman English history, something of a void Ishiguro found during his background research. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to search for a son they dimly remember having. They set off for the village they believe him to be living in. Along the way, they attract friends and enemies. In addition to Axl and Beatrice, the two other major characters are the youthful Saxon warrior Master Wistan and the gallant old knight of a bygone era Sir Gawain. While seemingly all strangers and gracious to each other, below the surface soon to rise is what the mist, an important inanimate character, has obscured for years. Ishiguro has said he took inspiration from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can see the influence in the story of Sir Gawain and his relationship with Axl, Beatrice, and Wistan. Though, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proves a more colorful exploration of the chivalric code.

So, while you’ll find many things to like about The Buried Giant, you’ll also find many things to not like so much. Thus the feeling of being caught betwixt and between on recommending it, because, sorry to say, it leaves you with that very unsavory sense of disappoint, as well as and wondering if fantasy and literary fiction can be one. c/w

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