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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