11 May 2005

Compare & Contrast

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's first three novels a few years ago -- I adored his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, then read the next two, An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, a bit too quickly to fully appreciate them -- then never got back to his work, despite having been intrigued by the reviews I'd read of The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans. Now I'm very interested in reading Never Let Me Go, but don't quite have time for it yet, and so I've been amusing myself by paying attention to certain tendencies in the reviews...

Miriam Burstein:
Never Let Me Go is, in fact, a work of dystopian science fiction (which, of course, won't be shelved with all the other SF--it's Ishiguro, after all...), set in an alternative England during the late 1990s.
James Wood:
Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured--Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

Never Let Me Go is a fantasy so mundanely told, so excruciatingly ordinary in transit, its fantastic elements so smothered in the loam of the banal and so deliberately grounded, that the effect is not just of fantasy made credible or lifelike, but of the real invading fantasy, bursting into its eccentricity and claiming it as normal. Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous.
Geoff Dyer:
In discussing a book built on memories, rumours and hearsay it is, I hope, not inappropriate to start with a few of my own. I heard from somewhere that Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel -- his sixth -- was a work of science fiction. I also remember reading, back in the 1980s, that whereas science fiction once boldly lunged centuries or half-centuries into the future, the imaginative extrapolations now came in increments of just a few years. How neat, then, that in the sci-fi century Never Let Me Go should be set in the past -- "England, late 1990s" -- and that its climax should occur in a little house in Littlehampton.
Andrew O'Hehir:
It might be technically correct to describe this novel as dystopian science fiction or a parable about contemporary life that addresses some social issue (fill in the blank yourself). As a Hollywood formula, I guess you could boil this down to "1984" meets "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." But that's not really fair. Ishiguro is far more interested in capturing the subjective reality of Kathy and her chums, who are, as one of their Hailsham teachers says, "told but not told" about what awaits them -- and who, like all children, more or less accept the terms of their existence.
Joseph O'Neill:
Suffice it to say that Ishiguro serves up the saddest, most persuasive science fiction you'll read.
M. John Harrison:
Inevitably, it being set in an alternate Britain, in an alternate 1990s, this novel will be described as science fiction. But there's no science here. How are the clones kept alive once they've begun "donating"? Who can afford this kind of medicine, in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours?

Ishiguro's refusal to consider questions such as these forces his story into a pure rhetorical space. You read by pawing constantly at the text, turning it over in your hands, looking for some vital seam or row of rivets. Precisely how naturalistic is it supposed to be? Precisely how parabolic? Receiving no answer, you're thrown back on the obvious explanation: the novel is about its own moral position on cloning. But that position has been visited before (one thinks immediately of Michael Marshall Smith's savage 1996 offering, Spares). There's nothing new here; there's nothing all that startling; and there certainly isn't anything to argue with. Who on earth could be "for" the exploitation of human beings in this way?

Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle.
Rick Kleffel:
By focusing on the minutia of the characters' lives and feelings, Ishiguro gives the world behind those lives and feelings reality through its relationship to the characters and their feelings. It's a sly way for this writer to enter the world of science fiction literature. Readers who frequent the genre will find Ishiguro's approach bracing and refreshing, reminiscent of the best examples of what was once known as social science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon once worked and Ursula K. Le Guin still works in this vein. 'Never Let Me Go' is a gripping novel not only by virtue of the veracity of its characters but also due to the level of deception the narrator manages to put between herself and her world. Kathy is the kind of prim woman who knows about the "horror movie stuff" involved in living in the real world. But she's focused on the here and now, on the what-we-can-do as opposed to the what-has-been-done.

Ishiguro's focus on the characters may at first seem like the usual focus of literary authors. His prose is gorgeous and spare, his touch light and unassuming. 'Never Let Me Go' is never less than delightful to read. But the focus on the small aspects of characters serves a revelatory point in the plot. All that gorgeous prose builds up a wave of understanding that breaks over the reader in a precisely timed penultimate scene. The careful characterization serves to set up a classic science-fictional understanding that is brilliantly realized and quite timely. The implications of Ishiguro's novel spread out with a seismic power.
Louis Menand:
Unfortunately, "Never Let Me Go" includes a carefully staged revelation scene, in which everything is, somewhat portentously, explained. It's a little Hollywood, and the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over into science fiction, and this is not, at heart, where it seems to want to be.
Morag Fraser:
I said "surreal" deliberately. This is not a book of science fiction. I doubt that Ishiguro is even particularly interested in the science or ethics of cloning. So don't go to the novel for a Peter Singer workout. What you will find is an intense, but undramatised exploration of the intricacies of human emotion and human interplay.
Alan Williams:
Never Let Me Go is only ostensibly about cloning, and Ishiguro would probably shudder at ghettoizing it in the science fiction genre. Rather, the book plays chilling, new-fangled variations on themes intrinsic to Ishiguro's previous work: interrelated dynamics of self-sacrifice and thwarted love, and gaining awareness of fulfilling an appointed role within a structure that will inevitably bring about one's demise. From this mix of genetics and dreams deferred, Ishiguro conjures one of the most bizarre, tragic paradoxes in recent fiction, rendered all the more startling through subtlety and implication.
Andrew Barrow:
Ishiguro is primarily a poet. Accuracy of social observation, dialogue and even characterisation is not his aim. In this deceptively sad novel, he simply uses a science-fiction framework to throw light on ordinary human life, the human soul, human sexuality, love, creativity and childhood innocence.
Jenny Shank:
Ishiguro eventually reveals the premise of Never Let Me Go, and it smacks of science fiction -- it turns out that Kathy H. is one of numerous clones produced to become "carers" for organ donors and then to donate her own organs one day. But the only counterpart of Ishiguro's novel in the realm of science fiction is perhaps the work of Ray Bradbury, a writer who never lets the fantastic particulars of his plots get in the way of telling a simple human story.
Scott MacKenzie:
The same premise can be found in certain science-fiction works, but Ishiguro avoids the grandiose spectacle typical of science fiction.
Kazuo Ishiguro:
I like novelists who can create other interesting worlds.