Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Notes from 12/29/17

*Light spoilers for Never Let Me Go, particularly because it’s really hard to read anything about this book without it being ruined for you (happened to me)*

Somehow I managed to squeeze in another book before the end of 2017. When I studied abroad in England a peer of mine was really eager to see Ishiguro at the Oxford literature festival, and though I hadn’t heard the name before I assumed his books would be something like Murakami’s (a naive assumption but hopefully understandable). Since then the name has floated somewhere in my mind, and it wasn’t until Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize that I happened to discover a co-worker had a copy of Never Let Me Go.

Initially I was really surprised that, given the hallowed nature of the Nobel, Ishiguro’s prose is really plain and easy to read. Even the names itself — Tommy, Ruth, Kathy — feel a little childlike (likely the intention) and the entire book, for all the literary merit I expected, came in a modest package, delivered without any ceremony. For that reason I was initially rather annoyed at Kathy’s naivete, and the way the novel so obviously foreshadows the future and tugs the reader along with suspense. It made me think of an article recently shared to me by a friend, a reflection by George Saunders on writing fiction:

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

As I explained to a friend earlier this morning, there were many times I felt that while I was deeply entranced in Kathy’s memories, lying in my presence was not only the characters but some thin outline of Ishiguro himself, baiting me along to keep reading. Undoubtedly, Ishiguro is a talented writer, reaching the nooks and crannies of our everyday and childhood experiences we can only intuit but not exactly explain (perhaps explaining such moments is one of the main roles of writers). But this cleverness is not so well concealed, especially when Kathy keeps saying “in order to explain this I need to tell you about this…” creating a “to be continued…” suspense that gets old quickly. This is in part because other than the mysteries of Hailsham and the setting, there is very little motive for me to care so much about Kathy’s trauma. It’s the incredibly realistic voices and probing of memory, the masterfully fabricated dreams that keep you going, if anything just to savor how real and lifelike it all feels. It may very well be that because Kathy’s voice is so real, it’s almost too-real — and therefore you can’t help but force yourself to remember that Ishiguro is there: the talent itself can become the subject if it shines too brightly.

Aside from my thoughts of Ishiguro, the novel itself was a bit too dream-like for me, and I didn’t like plunging so much into these memories. I sometimes have to wonder if I’m more interested in fiction that is just not so immersive, works that are more evocative of big thoughts and act as thought-experiments, or otherwise reflect some aspect of the world. This work is pure fiction, sketched in a fictional world, bare of any particular details that may reveal and specific time or place, and I’m not sure how well that sits with me personally, though I can see how some people would be huge fans of such an immersive experience.

A review in the Guardian kindles in me some more fondness for the book by placing it within a larger theoretical structure — that is, thoughts on life and how this book may be practical:

This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn’t about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

I thought the way the novel delivered its climax in Miss Emily’s explanation of everything — Hailsham, clones, donations, etc. — was thoroughly depressing, and I suppose that is the theme of this novel. You build up all these dreams and fantasies of what places will be like, only to realize that life is really just a big absurd joke (to reference Moby-Dick). While we may at times see Kathy and Tommy as being too childish, and Ruth as being a little repulsive for blatantly conforming to society’s norms, it ends up that we have to cling to something, whether it be acceptance in society, sex, or fantasies of love, in order to escape existential free falling. The way Tommy explodes at the very end of the novel and just screams out against the universe is a nice subdued version of what we see in something like Moby-Dick, and the way Kathy and Tommy clutch each other against the stream of time that erodes away at everything we love exemplifies the powerful way humans will try to hold on even if it may all be pointless anyway. I think as I piece together these aspects of the novel, I realize that it may be less of anything related to craft and more the melancholy of the novel itself that made me not fully like it but still appreciate it. In realizing this I feel more drawn to the novel and its merits.

Never Let Me Go is a novel about loss and recovery, and in that sense the entire plot of carers and donors can seem a bit gimmicky at times. But in any case, these themes of entering the labyrinth of our memories and searching for what we’ve lost is beautiful. It’s intriguing that our gift of memory can bend the passage of time, at least put up a force of resistance against its stream and change its trajectory if only in the slightest. Memory enables us to bring back to life those we’ve lost, to recover them without actually recovering them, and in the same way Kathy “recovers” her missing tape by finding a new one, a “clone” it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s the real thing. What matters is the way it evokes feelings in someone else, and those feelings, despite being different (Kathy and Madame react differently) validate the existence of that being even it’s a clone. The final scene is hauntingly beautiful:

That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that — I didn’t let it — and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to where it was I was supposed to be.

Addendum 1/1/18

Never Let Me Go is not about clones in the science fiction sense, but about the relationship between clones and memory. We effectively clone people when we bring them into the landscape of memory and such memories are not any less valuable than the actual thing, especially when they are all we have left. Of course these clones/memories will never be as “real” as the real thing, but this raises questions about what is “real” and the tragic notion of never being full enough in that sense.

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Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Notes from Sunday, 12/17/15

*Spoilers for Please Look After Mom*

Interesting how one can have so many preconceptions about a book based entirely on the title and what other people say about it. Because so many of my friends said Please Look After Mom was sad, I just assumed it would be another sentimental fiction about how someone loses their mother during the Korean war. Over time such preconceptions built itself into a bit of cynicism, perhaps also in part due to the fact that it was so well known yet not “canonical” — I took it to be something more like The Fault In Our Stars which I really didn’t like (but admittedly it is a young adult book). I ultimately decided to read it only because it seemed short and would presumably enrich my experience in Korea — little did I know just how impactful it would be.

I have never felt a book feel so much like a mirror to me. Throughout the narratives of the daughter, son, and husband, I was constantly pulled into a stream of memories about my own parents and grandparents. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my twenties that I couldn’t help but feel this was essential reading. How well do we actually know our mothers? The entire eighteen or so years it takes for one to grow into independence are spent largely thinking about oneself — how much life goes overlooked as we become spoiled with the belief that having a home cooked meal is something we are entitled to, that “Mom does that because she’s always done it?” Elle puts it well when stating it is “A moving portrayal of the surprising nature, sudden sacrifices, and secret reveries of motherhood.” The idea that we are entitled to such care is quite a fascinating paradox in that while nobody deserves such selfless love, mothers sincerely believe in it — how else can they toil day in and day out and not ask for anything in return? As I push forward in my early stages of adulthood and contemplate the questions of finding motivation and inspiration, I can start to better understand how exactly your life changes when you have a child, and what it may look like to live for someone else. It may very well be the enigma of that kind of lifestyle and dedication to another human being that frustrates our relationship with our own mothers, who can often be seen as nagging or infringing too much on our independence. My own mother never fails to ask if I want a bowl of fruit when I’m home and, even if I say no, ends up leaving some at my desk. It can be frustrating because it doesn’t make much sense unless you put in the mysterious context of motherly love.

I feel there is so much for me to reflect on — the way the mother in the story is portrayed and my thoughts on Korean culture, the ways in which I am thankful to my own mother, the fact that parts of the novel take place in Jeongeup, where I lived for a year, etc. — but for now perhaps the most pressing is my thoughts on the epilogue, in which Chi-hon goes to Italy and finds herself at the the Pieta, a sculpture by Michelangelo in which the Holy Mother is seen cradling Jesus’ body after he is crucified (featured image). In many ways I identified with Chi-hon, despite her being a daughter, because she is the more nomadic, independent child who travels the world and seems a bit more distant from the family than the other siblings. While some may think that the final scene in Vatican City is a little bit too dramatic, I sympathize with the idea that travel can, despite appearing like an escape, bring us closer to thoughts we didn’t know we had to confront. Chi-hon finds herself at the feet of the sculpture, reflecting on what it means to be there and what it is exactly she has been looking for:

Perhaps you wanted to pray in this place, pray that you could see for one last time the woman who lived in a small country attached to the edge of the vast Asian continent, to find her, and this is why you came here. Then again, maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe you already understood that Mom didn’t exist in this world anymore. Maybe you came here because you wanted to plead: Please don’t forget Mom, please take pity on Mom. But now that you see the statue on the other side of the glass, sitting on a pedestal, embracing with her frail arms all of mankind’s sorrow since the Creation, you can’t say anything. You stare at the Holy Mother’s lips intently. You close your eyes, back away, and leave that place. A line of priests passes, probably on their way to celebrate mass. You walk out the entrance of the basilica and look down, dazed, at the piazza surrounded by long cloisters and enshrined in brilliant light. And only then do the words you couldn’t say in front of the statue leak out from between your lips.

“Please, please look after Mom.”

This scene conveys so powerfully the mysteries of motherly love, a force so powerful that it can be felt beyond the lines that one would think divides mere mortals from the divine. The Holy Mother, despite all that has happened, despite the fact that Jesus has gone forth and ended sin once and for all through the greatest sacrifice, still cannot help but look beyond all of the divine consequence and is bound to her role as a mother. If Jesus’ sacrifice is the epitome of fatherly love, of the divine’s passion for mortals, motherly love is the only matchable opposite, of a mortal’s tender love for the divine.

While the novel’s plot is, on a basic level, driven by the search for a physical mother, by the epilogue we see that what they are searching for is not just answers as to who their mother was but also, by consequence of their understand or limit thereof, who they are themselves. The novel is a kaleidoscope of mirrors, piecing together perspectives of the eldest son, independent daughter, regretful husband — all of which stirred in me a spectrum of memories that made me feel selfish, conceited, ungrateful, and yet thankful for being gifted such perspective.

On a final note, I found this quote to be quite interesting:

Do you know what happens to all things we did together in the past? When I asked my daughter this, although it was you I wanted to ask, my daughter said, “It’s so strange to hear you say something like this, Mom,” and asked, “Wouldn’t they have seeped into the present, not disappeared?” What difficult words! Do you understand what that means? She says that all the things that have happened are actually in the present, that old things are all mixed in with current things, and current things mingle with future things, and future things are combined with old things; it’s just that we can’t feel it.

Having spent much of my college career dedicated to the question of who we are when faced with the reality that we are an amalgam of different identities, I was intrigued by this idea in relation to motherhood. While the obvious relationship is in the fact that our mothers, too, were once children and young adults, the more profound idea lies in thinking about how all of these pieces can flow together — I particularly liked the verb “seeped.” It’s very easy to rationalize the fact that our parents had lives before we entered them, but it’s very difficult to embrace the truth that they are not independent of those selves today — they are very much the same and, in some ways, just as youthful as they were then. If we do not consider ourselves to change so much over time (at least in terms of some solid essence), why should we impose more rigid identities upon our parents?

There’s so much to think about here but I’ll stop for now. I’m extremely grateful for having been able to read this before the end of my stay in Korea.

 

 

Meditations on the Force

Notes from Friday, 12/15/17

*This post contains spoilers for Star Wars VIII The Last Jedi*

Watching Star Wars last night made me remember how special moments are where you can take part in a larger cultural experience. Yes, at the heart of all cultural experiences such as this are capitalist machines just attempting to generate money, but it’s a bit easier to suspend those negative thoughts if you focus on being in a crowded movie theater, surrounded by people who are looking forward to a film or performance just as much as you are. The anticipation of wanting to know what’s going to happen next, of progressing through a story together, is something that I’ve really only felt with A Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Despite all of the chaos and issues that divide us in real life, such powerful fictions can bring us together on a basic level for entertainment but also for discussion about issues that, despite being parallel to those of reality, can be examined on a further removed, less political landscape. (Admittedly, it was hard not to think of the Resistance in terms of Doug Jones’ recent win in Alabama.) In any case, such large franchises can feel as much of the story of our generation as actual historical events in that they have an effect on the way we think and reflect the best and worst of us.

Aside from some musings on what makes fiction great and the uniqueness of such communal participation in larger works as well as that of what can be called modern theatre (being present among others and sharing a live performance), I really sat down today to write up thoughts on the Force and its relation to Eastern religions.

There’s a decent post on this blog that brings together explanations of the Jedi order’s inspirations: Taoism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, and the paradoxes in synthesizing them together. I am no expert on any of these religions, but the reason I was moved by the scene in which Rey meditates and Luke explains that the Force is that which lies between good and evil was because a few months ago I became interested in meditation. It was during a period in which I became really set on making a better daily routine, and one of the things I read about was that meditation is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall “mindfulness and wellbeing” (terms you hear so much in college but never think of until you really need it). There are of course studies about meditation improving aspects of your brain and whatnot, but for me, even in the earliest stages of trying to figure it out I still felt the potential for immense benefits.

All the instructions said, in a short couple minute tutorial on meditation I found on Youtube, was that you should give yourself around 10 minutes to just close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Nothing else, just your breathing — the way you breathe in and the way you breathe out, that small pause in between. After doing this for about a week I discovered that I felt more alive in those 10 minutes than I did in a lot of other stretches of the day. That is, because all I was doing was focusing on my breathing, I actually paid attention to the fact that I’m alive and that it is a process, not just something that’s a given. We spend so much of our energy thinking about why we’re alive, what we’re going to do with our lives, etc. that we seldom have time to sit and appreciate the fact that we actually are here now, breathing and existing just like everything else. The other thing I noticed was the sheer magnitude of thoughts that would come hurling towards me in those 10 minutes, ranging from larger existential issues to “What am I going to eat for lunch today?” “Did I leave the heater on?” etc. In casting these thoughts aside rather than wrestling with them I started to feel like I was strengthening a muscle sorely needed in my day to day life. Unfortunately, despite growing fond of the time, I eventually lost my motivation (or more precisely the discipline to wake up early enough to follow through). In 2018 one of my resolutions is to start waking up earlier than I have to, and hopefully once that habit is setup I can reincorporate this one (it becomes quite hard to wake up early in the winter!).

I thought of these experiences while watching Rey sense the living and the dead, good and evil, light and dark, and it felt like such a shame that we don’t think more about nature in our everyday life. Most millenials living in cities feel obligated to state their love of nature, but it’s almost always in an abstract sense — hiking for a couple of miles, driving by the beach, or flying to Iceland for your Instagram is not a pure, full appreciation of coexisting on a planet with other living organisms. An offshoot of that thought was how Taoism and Buddhism (I don’t know that much about Zoroastrianism) take into consideration nature perhaps more so than Christianity (which makes sense because once you have a deity in the picture then there becomes a distinct order of living things). After living in the Western world for my entire life, it wasn’t until after at least half a year in Korea and traveling around Asia that I started to realize that there is a lot more merit to Eastern religions than Western culture would like to admit (I wrote a piece here about my experience developing such thoughts). The aforementioned post on Jedi philosophy raised interesting points about the differences in Taoism and Buddhism and being part of the world and attempting to reach a state of being away from it. While this may be an oversimplification, at the current moment of my writing this I find the concept of existing in a kind of non-existence, of living detached from that which makes us suffer, to be not only wildly idealistic but also just ridiculous. We are given life and death, love and hate, good and bad, in its entirety — to seek a state in which we are apart from all of that seems to be nothing more than glorified escapism (again I could be reacting to a misconception or oversimplification of the philosophies).

My real aim in writing this is to just get some thoughts down and to encourage myself to learn more about Eastern religions and just religions in general. When I was younger and wrestling with Christianity I distinctly remember searching the internet for the main faiths in order to just check of my list that I had done my research before settling on any religion. But that was not only a really superficial skimming of Wikipedia pages but also a generally disrespectful way of going about life — assuming you can know entire belief systems through simple, detached readings, and using such superficial knowledge as a means of undermining and rejecting many people’s way of life. That younger version of me was more interesting in proving his intellectual weight than in anything else, and I feel there are many other self-righteous intellectuals parading their logic and philosophical reasoning skills to further inflate their own egos instead of realizing that religions are not just fantasies but embedded in entire cultures with people just as fragile as they are. Religion is a terrifying thing, perhaps these days especially where they are beginning to unveil themselves as the ancient origin of “alternative facts.” Everyone of different religions and also atheists all live under a different sense of order and justification for their existence. If anything we are all constantly going about our lives for different reasons, whether it be for power and fame or simply for taking care of our children — at the end of the day we are all living in different realities when it comes to our fundamental understanding of the universe and our place in it.

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too” Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy

Notes from Monday, 12/11/17

Today I finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a death row lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides legal aid to those prisoners who have been wrongly convicted and more. While the book is a memoir and therefore isn’t very plot driven, I will be jotting down some of the revelation and best pages in my post so please stop reading this if you feel that may ruin your reading experience (you can also just watch his TED talk to get a feel of the book). Otherwise, this is merely an initial reflection I have on the book’s final pages that underscore its larger themes of how we may not just cope with, but begin to mend a broken justice system full of broken people.

“Do you ever think about dying?” he asked me. It was an unusual question for someone like Walter to pose. “I never did before, but now I think about it all the time,” he continued. He looked troubled. “This right here, is a whole ‘nother kind of situation. Guys on the row talk about what they’re going to do before their executions, how they’re going to act. I used to think it was crazy to talk like that, but I guess I’m starting to do it, too.”

I was uncomfortable with the conversation. “Well, you should think about living, man — what you’re going to do when you get out of here.”

“Oh, I do that, too. I do that a lot. It’s just hard when you see people going down that hall to be killed. Dying on some court schedule or some prison schedule ain’t right. People are supposed to die on God’s schedule.”

The way Stevenson depicts Walter McMillan so innocently was for me reminiscent of John Coffey in The Green Mile by Steven King — to see kindness and hope in such a dark place is an incredible testament to the human capacity for goodness. It also (forgive me for taking such a beautiful, intimate moment and using it to think about broader philosophical questions) raises questions about why it is so wrong for anyone to take a life, including their own. Thinking about dying and the way having a deadline (to take the word literally) can severely affect the psyche both positively and negatively is a common idea but I had not thought at any considerable length about putting discretion over death entirely outside the domain of human privilege. There are so many other aspects of life in which we operate in the realm of gods: surgeons cut open and sew up bodies, we work to design and breathe life into artificial intelligence, and in court we rule judgement over those we barely know. Yet despite this, in so many religions — even beyond Christianity, which is an underlying tone in the memoir and of course a dominant belief system in America — suicide and murder are both considered grave sins. So many of us hold an opinion on the death penalty, but it wasn’t until the end of a memoir with stories about prisoners on death row that I came to really reassess my beliefs. Some of us believe that the death penalty is justified because there are people too heinous to keep alive without risking the welfare of society. Others might believe that the death penalty makes more sense and might be less cruel than a life sentence without parole — to many the latter may seem a crueler punishment. Others, holding steadfast to some moral compass, may be entirely repulsed by the mere thought of capital punishment for the same reasons as Walter’s. And yet these questions, like all questions tied to our character, are incredibly important. Who are we to allow others to kill, regardless of who the victims are? It’s easy to shelve such questions because they are so difficult, but these are the issues we must confront if we are to really know who we are not just as individuals but as a people living in the world’s greatest democracy.

While Just Mercy was for me more compelling for its intimate scenes involving not just prisoners on death row but also the people in communities that stand up against injustice and the hearts that are moved by EJI’s work. For example, a black woman who runs out of the court after seeing a guard dog that reminded her of Selma comes back the next day and conquers her fear because she knows just how it important it is to stand there as a witness. In what may have been my favorite scene in the book a white correctional officer who is initially extremely racist and degrading of Stevenson, eventually changes his behavior because he sympathizes with Stevenson’s a client, one who had mental problems caused by terrible foster care. Despite the lack of larger philosophical epiphanies, the cliches rang through loud and clear, this chapter in particular:

I do what I do because I’m broken too.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt — and have hurt others — are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us…

…We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

The Christian undertones are strong in this passage, but should make sense to anyone regardless of creed (also because it is common among so many). That arrogance and corruption of power — that bending towards a belief that one is divine — is an evil all of us face everyday in workplaces, on the street, and even, for an unfortunate many, at home. The idea that love is stronger than evil, that humility and acceptance of one’s broken self is central to taking steps towards a better self and world, are common themes but not any less true for it.

In this article/interview Stevenson explains that his intention in writing this book was, in part, to inform those not in the legal system about the injustices in our world today, that one’s mindset and illusion about a “fair justice system” must be shaken if any progress is to be made. In thinking about that and the larger ramifications of a broken justice system, I want to conclude by noting that throughout my reading I felt more and more concerned for the generations that will follow me. Perhaps this is due to the many stories Stevenson includes about children who are incarcerated despite their immaturity, and the fact that many children are tried as adults. As I spend more time beyond college I can’t help but think more about the importance of power and its many temptations that may lead one astray from making the world a better place for those who come after us. This seeming obligation to want to help those younger than us, those who do not even yet exist, may also be central to our humanity and capacity for compassion.

*Featured photo is one I thought to be more fitting than any glamorous photos of Stevenson giving a TED talk. Taken in 1989, this is Stevenson in the early stages of founding EJI, and it’s extremely humbling that one could pursue such a noble career without regard for the temptations of materiality.