Monday, July 09, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A couple of days ago I finished up Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It wasn't as difficult to get through as Jane Eyre (which I'm still working on; made it to Volume II; 153 pages and counting!), but I didn't exactly speed through it either. I picked it up, not knowing anything about Ishiguro other than he wrote The Remains of the Day, which won the Man Booker Prize, and that Never Let Me Go has sci-fi/fantasy elements. Sounded like a great combo to me.

This book is very, very slow. Have y'all seen that movie The Island, with Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, who are in this sort of self contained dome where everyone is wearing white track suits and drinking protein shakes, and they can't ever go outside because supposedly the world has been contaminated/destroyed, but they break free, because they are intrepid Americans, and figure out that the world is just fine and they are clones, or "insurance policies" for really rich people, and when the time comes, whoever cloned them will harvest their organs, like Scarlett Johansson is a clone for this model who wants new skin, and Ewan McGregor is a clone for this guy who has some disease, maybe AIDS or something resulting from wild sex in his youth, I don't remember all the details, because at this point the movie became absolutely ridiculous and I stopped paying attention. But the premise of the The Island - that people can clone themselves and create living insurance policies, and what if those "insurance policies" escape? - is really cool; right out of a Philip K. Dick or Robert Sheckley short story.

Never Let Me Go has a very similar premise. The main character, Kathy, is looking back on the minutia of her life; in particular, her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school for "very special" students (i.e. clones). Right from the start of this novel a sense of paranormal or irreality is established, because I kept thinking, in what sort of world are really boring memories and details like this important? Do I really need to be paying close attention here? Ooh, they just said "maths," is that like, sci-fi, or just British?

Kathy introduces us to Tommy, another of the main characters, by talking about how he had this nice blue shirt, and he kept getting mud on it, and damn won't he be out of sorts when he finds out. But when he finds out, he's only mildly disappointed. Whew! Kathy narrates like an absent minded senior citizen, constantly saying stuff like, oh, before I tell you about this, you really need to know about that (yes, she uses the second person, just like she's talking to me, which is a device I almost always find annoying), and then she'll finally come around to the point, which will be something really anti-climatic anyhow, (like, will Kathy ever find that cassette tape she lost?) or she'll just lead into a new chapter with another rambling story.

Ishiguro uses cliff-hanger sentences like these to get your hopes up that something is going to happen soon:

"So I wasn't prepared at all for what happened at the churchyard several days later."


"But then everything changed again, and that was because of the boat."

By the time this boat was mentioned, on page 215, I was on to Ishiguro, and I didn't fall for his little trick. I knew that nothing was going to happen because of that boat, and that the boat scene would let me down, like all the other false promises scattered throughout this book.

In a similar way, Ishiguro keeps the reader in suspense about the novel's fantasy world and how it works for way too long. In the first third of the book, everyone at Hailsham is very focused on being creative. They create art, poems, stories, whatever, and it's this very big deal that everyone takes seriously, except for Tommy, who has a temper, and doesn't seem to like art, and so doesn't participate in the Exchanges (where students trade their work with each other). Nobody knows why it's so important for the students to create this art, especially not the reader, who keeps dutifully turning the pages and waiting, waiting, waiting for some sort of pay-off. Every so often, Madame comes and takes the best of the students' art for her Gallery. No one knows what this Gallery is for. Never Let Me Go is an extremely quiet novel, full of nuance, and in all honestly, not my type of read. Why don't these kids run away or something, like Scarlett and Ewan? Why don't they do something that would give this book more of a plot?!

Really, there's no pay-off for the reader, or even a clear idea of how the world works until the very end, when as adults, Kathy and Tommy hunt down Madame, and confront her in her house. This scene is actually pretty damn heartbreaking, so in true Kathy style, I better back up and give you some backstory:

At this point, you've picked up on the fact that Kathy, Tommy, and friends are clones, and were cloned from the dregs of the society - drunks, homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes: ostensibly people who won't talk and give these secrets away. (I kept hoping one of these people would have cleaned up and sought out their clone, but alas, Ishiguro keeps it way too real). You also know that they were cloned to have their organs harvested at some later date. You also know that there's been this rumor going around, that if two people can prove that they are in love, then they can get a deferral for five years, and they can live in peace and not have to continue donating all their vital organs until they "complete."

So Kathy and Tommy show up at Madame's house and tell her their theory about The Gallery, that it's used to substantiate a couple's claim that they are really in love. Madame laughs at them and says, no, we took that art to prove to the scientific community that y'all clones have souls, and that you deserved to be treated humanely up until it's time to harvest all your organs to cure cancer. But now that Hailsham's closed down, we've gotten rid of The Gallery. No one believes that clones ought to be nurtured anymore.

This big reveal was too close to what I suspected to be surprising and fulfilling. And afterwards, Kathy and Tommy just go on with their lives. Tommy completes after his fourth donation. Kathy takes a long drive and mulls over her memories.

I realize that my comments imply that I'm trying to turn this quiet, evocative, and sometimes effecting novel into a Hollywood action movie, or yet another work of American Values that affirms the undeniable pull of freedom, and our right to blaze our own paths, determine our own futures, even for clones. That's not exactly what I'm saying. Never Let Me Go just seemed too much like real life. Which is a great compliment, or a great criticism, depending on what you're looking for in fiction.

*Other books I've read by authors who've won the Man Booker Prize:

Man Booker: A Prize for Thorough Introspection.


Writer, Rejected said...

I don't know. I was pretty moved by NLMG in the end, despite all the true things you've pointed out here. It kind of had this creepy effect of making me feel that the sad lives of those clones searching for love and belonging and legitimacy were not all that different from the sad lives of human beings (at least this reader).

Jonathan Lyons said...

Scarlett's sponser doesn't need new skin; she was in a car accident.

BookCannibal9 said...

WR: You're right; NLMG is moving at the end, especially that scene where Tommy gets out of the car and throws this temper tantrum, and then Kathy calms him down and hols him tight. I almost feel bad critiquing it here, because in all honesty, it's just not my kind of book, and I try to follow the old adage, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." There are plenty of books out there that I *do* like. But NLMG nagged and nagged at me, until I just had to sort my thoughts out here.

JL: You're adopted. You're parents don't even love you. What movie is that from?

Humour and last laugh said...

interesting blog.

Jonathan Lyons said...

Stick it in your ear LaFluer/McClure, you poopy-flavored lollipop!

Writer, Rejected said...

It was a weird book. I will definitely give you that. And now I'm in the middle of a dodgeball game.

The Bibliophile said...

I personally liked his When We Were Orphans better. Maybe you can try Ishiguro again one day...

Anonymous said...

i agree with the bibliophile, when we were young was more interesting and remains of the day was interesting-er. the premise was gripping and probably the slow, aimless narrative complemented the ultimate futility and fatality of the novel.... but.... hmmmm (it WAS sometimes tooooooo slow)

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that it so like real life is supposed to be the point. It shows that there is practically no difference between us who consider ourselves normal people and the characters who are clones.
And of course this leads to big pretentious sounding questions such as: Does that make them human or us clones? or Are we all the same under the skin?
I really liked this book.
I think you are almost forced to fill in the gaps and feel instead of Kathy rarely tells you the full effect of the situations she describes. Which again makes you feel more like the clones/donors.
You said that the clones are replicas of the dregs of society - this is said by Ruth when she is frustrated by the fact that her "possible" does not actually shows much resemblence to her. I think we are supposed to question the truth of this as Ruth is lashing out and lies consistently in the novel. She also uses this as a reason for why the normal people dislike the clones and I think the novel says this is more becaus ethey do not want to be involved with them because this would force them to think about where they have come from and what their function is as donors. Is it not more likely that the people the clones were replicated from were a) healthy and/or b)rich to pay for the organs and maintanence of their The Island-like "insurance policy"?

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous. I found the book really touching and very well written, and the fact that its so like real life is its purpose.
I feel ishiguro is quite an amazing writer, so the fact that Kathy narrates like she is speaking to you is purposely to make you feel like a clone, as if she is talking to a clone, which like anonymous said, allows you to be able to evaluate the situation more clearly.
The boat scene amongst others are of course a symbol of the clones lives, that they are trapped in their destiny.
incredible read

View this site for Alaska Bear Viewing deals said...

An endlessly intriguing book, that leaves just the right things unanswered and just enough holes unplugged, to let the enlightened reader exercise his/her mind during the read and for a good while after.