Book Report: Never Let Me Go
4 May 2006, 9:01 AM
I’ve been a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro since reading Remains of the Day back in 1988 or so. I thought An Artist of the Floating World was fantastic, and I enjoyed A Pale View of Hills, although not so much as the others. I was all excited about The Unconsoled, and then didn’t like it at all. I thought When We Were Orphans was OK, but not great. So I didn’t rush right out to get Never Let Me Go, more keeping it on the perhaps I’ll read this sometime list. Fortunately, I was given a copy as a gift, because it turns out to be my favorite thing Mr. Ishiguro has written, and really an astonishingly good book.
I’ll take my usual stance of including spoilers, so be warned, although it’s hard for me to tell whether this book would be spoiled by spoilers. I would be inclined to say yes, given the nature of Mr. Ishiguro’s work, spoilers completely change the effect of the thing. You see, Mr. Ishiguro’s main theme in writing is the way memory works. The main character tells stories from memory, many of them false in important respects, or at least so highly filtered through the narrator’s subjective experience and priorities that we take them as unreliable. In Remains, for instance, Stevens’s’es’s first casual mentions of Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies seem like minor flaws in a good man. We discover over the course of the book that Lord Darlington was actively pro-Hitler, and was working to prevent the English entry into the war against the Axis. As we circle around the main issues (not unconnected—Miss Kenton (that was) leaves Darlington Hall in part because of her inability to reconcile herself the way Stevens does to the perfidy of its master, and she realizes she and Stevens are not, actually, suited to each other in part because of his submissiveness to that perfidy) they become clearer and clearer, to Stevens and to us.
In Unconsoled and in Orphans, the main character is not just unreliable in his memories and priorities, the way we all are, but actually insane. Well, and it’s not altogether clear how far from sanity they are, which is part of his point, but the experience of reading a memory and attempting to interpret it out of the context of the rememberer is replaced by the experience of reading a memory, knowing it’s mostly false, and not caring in what way. At least for me. An unreliable narrator is something I can enjoy, as long as the narrator is unreliable in interesting or predictable ways, or as long as I can enjoy digging out what is reliable and what isn’t. In Never, Kathy H. is reliable as far as she can be, which (in real life and in an Ishiguro novel) is not very far, but in this book is far enough.
It’s his first speculative-fiction book, and of course Your Humble Blogger loves the specfic. Part of the world Mr. Ishiguro speculates is the way Kathy and her chums are kept isolated and ignorant; that comes out very strongly in the style. Kathy doesn’t understand a lot of things we take for granted, and we certainly don’t understand a lot of things she takes for granted, and Mr. Ishiguro leads us to those things gently and inexorably.
Now, anybody who’s been reading speculative fiction in the last century or so will pick up some of the stuff right away. Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and their schoolmates are clearly in a sort of humane organ farm; they grow up to care for each other in a series of hospitals while their organs are harvested. These human-like creatures are treated with thinly-veiled fear and contempt; they think of themselves as human, and the reader thinks of them as human, but the society doesn’t. They are outside society, not participants and not even observers, just brief residents of the fringe. We get glimpses of ourselves from that vantage, and it’s eerie. There’s a line in the book, not terribly original, about walking past the same mirror every day until one day you happen to notice that it’s not you reflected, but a monster. Kathy feels that way; she’s not aware that she’s a monster until it’s made clear to her. More important, though, is that I felt that way. Viewing our own world, dimly, through Kathy’s dark glass, was uncanny.
However, I should point out that the bulk of the book, really, is a love triangle between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. It’s a perfectly ordinary one in many respects, and then it’s completely uncanny in many respects as well. Some fundamental ways in which they misunderstand themselves and each other are heartbreakingly recognizable, even in the context of the most bizarre moments of the story. The final separation is incredibly heartbreaking, and it’s heartbreaking not because Kathy is going to die, or because Ruth has died, or because Tommy is dying, but because Kathy is bewildered and defeated by love, and separated by life from what she loves. In her case, yes, it’s because she’s a clone, and she’s been helping harvest her loved one’s organs for the human race that abominates them all, but within the story, that isn’t important. No, that’ s not right. That’s not important to Kathy, because to Kathy, all that’s important is that she is separated.
This means, I would guess, that people who dislike speculative fiction (or dislike the idea of speculative fiction, or dislike the idea of themselves reading speculative fiction) will read the book and not think that it is specfic at all. No, he’s just using the cloning business as a way to write about people. This, of course, is not allowable in specfic at all, which must never be about people, but only about the speculative elements, in a pig’s eye. Furthermore, it’s just false; the book is about the people, and it’s about the cloning business, and it’s about memory and dependence and love and death and transience and the way societies react to technological advances, and it’s also in a way about alien contact. You see, it’s a good book. It doesn’t admit of only one interpretation, and it doesn’t restrict itself to only one narrow and discrete area of experience.
I’m left with a slew of questions about the people and the society involved, and about Mr. Ishiguro’s attitudes toward them. Do the clones have obvious physical differences that account for their special treatment, or are they on first sight indistinguishable from true people? Do they really never read the newspapers, and if so, is that a matter of conditioning, or is there some access-limiting involved, or vice-versa? Do the recipients of the organ “donations” know about the clone business? How are recipients chosen? How many clones are there, anyway? Does Ruth really forgive Tommy? Does Katie? What really happened to Miss Lucy? Was she just fired, or was she disappeared? Are the hints of true fascism real, or just distorted through clones’ eyes? I don’t necessarily want answers to all of them, and I certainly don’t think it’s a flaw that Mr. Ishiguro leaves them open. This is the sort of book that does leave a lot open, which Mr. Ishiguro always does very well, but it also provides enough good solid ground to stand on to view the marshes circumjacent, which Mr. Ishiguro doesn’t always do well. It’s a book worth talking about, anway.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,