03 October 2005

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you expect Never Let Me Go to be about cloning, you will be disappointed. If you expect to be able to read it as a logical science fiction novel, one that extrapolates an alternate world that makes sense, you will find much to grumble about. You will not be satisfied. You will be annoyed, even bored. You will have missed the point.

Cloning is a MacGuffin that Kazuo Ishiguro uses to create symbolic situations and characters that coalesce in a powerful vision of life. The symbolism doesn't quite reach the level of allegory, because it's difficult to assign definite meanings to each scene and person, but nonetheless it quickly becomes difficult not to think about certain themes: mortality, love, fate, memory, art, nature. Each paragraph either illustrates or expands one of these themes. In the first half of the book, the ideas the novel personifies do not gain a lot of emotion, but by the second half of the book the characters have become familiar, their personalities distinct, their situation clear, and as the resolution of this situation moves ever closer, Never Let Me Go becomes a sad and unsettling novel, because the surface reality has so fully embodied the symbolic mysteries.

Ishiguro is known as a clever writer, one whose books are carefully constructed to work on multiple levels at once. He's often been praised for his ability to create narrators who are so self-deluded that they are utterly unreliable, creating tension between what is stated on the surface and what is going on in the imaginative reality underneath the words themselves. That's not the structure of Never Let Me Go -- instead, what we have here is a world where the characters all want the reality beneath the words to be different from what it appears to be. If their existences were more ironic, they might be more comforting. Kathy, the woman who narrates the novel, is utterly reliable as she tells her memories of growing up in a strange sort of boarding school called Hailsham, then of becoming a "carer" for "donors" until she eventually becomes a donor herself.

I've read only two reviews that seem to have understood the book in the same way I did: those of James Wood in The New Republic* and M. John Harrison in The Guardian. Wood puts a bit too much emphasis on the cloning, but nonetheless sees exactly how we can best enter the narrative, saying that Ishiguro's
real interest is not in what we discover but in what his characters discover, and how it will affect them. He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours. The children at Hailsham live in a protected environment. They know that they are different, but their guardians are cryptic about this difference. Gradually, through tiny leaks on the part of these guardians, the children gather a burgeoningly complete picture of their fate. By the time they leave school, they know the essential facts. So what might it mean to learn, as a child, that one will never bear children, or hold a meaningful job, or sail into adulthood? How will these children interpret the implications of their abbreviation, the meaning of their mutilated scripts?
M. John Harrison in some ways makes the book sound like one of his own, but he doesn't have to stretch too much:
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.
Wood dislikes the ending of the book, thinking it falls into preaching against the dangers of cloning, but this is an odd view to take when he's perceived the rest of the novel so clearly. Harrison gets it right:
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. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing.
It's not a book about literalizing metaphor or anything so pedestrian; it is, instead, a meditation on how to find meaning in life. (I know that sounds awfully pretentious, but summing up the implications of a great novel usually leads the person doing the summing up to sound either pretentious or silly, because otherwise there wouldn't be any need to write a 300 page book: the meaning could be textmessaged to the gods of summation and we'd all have a lot more time to bask in the eBay.)

Ishiguro presents us with a world where people are born to die, where there is no secret meaning to their fate, where there is only the fact of death itself. What Wood finds so didactic in the ending is instead vital to the thematic core of the book (though I'll grant I thought it went on too long). After their lifelong friend/rival/lover Ruth has died, Kathy and Tommy seek out one of their old guardians from Hailsham and try to get a deferral for their own deaths, because they are in love and have been told that couples who are truly in love can be given a few more years. Ruth herself held onto this hope for them. Surely love can save them.

But of course not. Love can't save them anymore than it can save us. They wonder, later, whether it would have been better for Ruth to die knowing the truth about Hailsham, about why they were raised the way they were, and about how little the world outside themselves cares about them. Tommy says to Kathy:
You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn't like that. She always wanted to believe in things.
It's like asking whether, if the universe is truly as cold and meaningless as it seems to be, we're better off knowing that than believing in eternal salvation, the redemption provided by good acts, and the basic loveliness of human nature. The answer for each person is different.

What Kathy clings to rather than belief is memory. Tommy does too, but to a lesser extent, and he finds some meaning in art, a meaning that had been impossible for him when he was at Hailsham. Ruth held onto dreams of the future, then stayed alive by believing in things that ultimately weren't true, but she often forgot the past, because the past didn't have the weight and substance it had for Kathy.

Kathy's obsession with memory plays itself out in the structure of the narrative. Again and again she moves forward, then finds she needs to go back. The present only makes sense under the light of the past. What M. John Harrison considered Ishiguro's "pathological need to be subtle" is not pathological so much as it is artistic -- the way the story is told embodies the meaning as much as the story itself does. Never Let Me Go has more unity of form and content than thousands of other novels, and this fact makes it seem odd and anomalous, makes Ishiguro seem a bit freakish even. It is a book that is entirely faithful to the premises it sets up, but not in the way that is governed by a political, scientific, or economic logic from "the real world". The only world here is the one between the first word and the last, but the art is that the book's world is provocative enough to force us to consider our own world and our own lives. Indeed, Kathy's narrative is addressed to somebody -- now and then she says such things as, "I've heard it said enough, so I'm sure you've heard it more..." and "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham..." It's as if she is reaching out from her reality into ours, assuming a connection, never questioning that we will understand.

Questions remain, and they are big ones. The big ones. James Wood delineates a few of them particularly well:
To be assured of death at twenty-five or so, as the Hailsham children are, seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?
The questions Never Let Me Go raises are as old as the tragedies of ancient Greece, but though a rich trove of questions lies under the surface of the book, no answers are proposed, because answers are not the writer's job, but rather the job of each reader, because each life must find its own answers. Or not, because our fates are the same in the end.

*Certain readers might find the opening paragraphs of Wood's review to be insulting to the ever-ready-to-be-maligned genre of SF. I think this would be a misperception of what Wood is saying, a misperception that continues to show itself in a paranoid us vs. them mentality -- the clannishness and ambivalence that Michael Chabon spoke of in his Locus interview. I could go on and on and on, but I think I'd better save it for another time, as this post is already far longer than I intended...


  1. I'm going to pick on you a bit, Matt, so I can get at what you're saying.

    "I've read only two reviews that seem to have understood the book in the same way I did."

    How did you understand the book?

    James Wood seems to have discussed the book with the idea of cloning in mind, so for him the story wasn't a MacGuffin: "He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours."

    You wrote: "a powerful vision of life.... how to find meaning in life."

    See fate below. Not sure I agree this applicable since their fates are so distinct and different (I discuss this a bit in my review).

    You wrote later: "mortality, love, fate, memory, art, nature."

    For example? What about them?

    Their fate is too different from any average western civilized individual.

    I talk about memory in my review.

    Art? I think that's more of a MacGuffin here. It's revered and dismissed artificially, then revered and dismissed as a source of revealing the soul (for the characters, but that's what matters here--The Unconsoled, I suspect, takes a deeper look into art from Ishiguro's perspective).

    I'm not sure what you mean by nature.

    Later: "the surface reality has so fully embodied the symbolic mysteries."

    How so?

    "If you expect Never Let Me Go to be about cloning, you will be disappointed. If you expect to be able to read it as a logical science fiction novel, one that extrapolates an alternate world that makes sense, you will find much to grumble about. You will not be satisfied. You will be annoyed, even bored. You will have missed the point."

    I wasn't disappointed or annoyed, didn't grumble or grow bored (except as the characters grew more and more hazy towards the end with nothing to define themselves against, nothing new to explore). I did and did not think it was about cloning; that is, I flipped switches around but I did not find it any more meaningful with or without the subject matter of cloning, so it may as well be about cloning as not.

    Apart from the alternate reality, it was quite a Mundane SF story.

  2. Half the time, I don't know what I'm saying here, Trent, so if you do figure it out, let me know.

    Let's see...

    You seem to be reading what I wrote as a response to your review, which it wasn't intended as. I do have you to blame for my picking up the book in the first place, though, so thank you. But when I went and did a skim of reviewers to get a sense of what they were saying, I used the list from MetaCritic and The Complete Review. By then I was exhausted from it all and didn't really look at any of the SF-specific reviews, because I thought it would get me sidetracked into whether it's an SF novel or not. I got sidetracked enough as it was.

    Some of the things I meant what I said and said what I meant (an elephant's faithful 100%!), so can only shrug and plead an inability to convey what that was to you.

    I think Wood went off on a tangent with his complaints about the ending, and so had to bring cloning in as being something important. The rest of his review has almost nothing to do with cloning. The cloning was what allowed Ishiguro to get his ideas onto the page (as he's said in interviews). "Clone" as a word has only the vaguest meaning in the book, and what meaning it does have only comes from the situation Ishiguro creates; it means someone that isn't the same as "normals", someone who must become a "carer" and a "donor", someone who has "possibles".

    Their fates are different if you stick to particulars, sure. But not overall. They all become carers for at least a short amount of time, then donors. They are picked apart until they die. Human beings in our world, regardless of class, sex, race, nationality, whatever all have the same fate, too: they die.

    I don't think the book is coded so deeply that it isn't obvious to any alert reader how such things as memory, art, love, etc. all are a part of it. If I were writing a book about it all, I might have space to lay it out, but not here. And that's half the pleasure of reading it -- seeing all those ideas getting explored.

    Art gets more attention than cloning does, but you're right that the actual art produced by the characters is a MacGuffin used to get the characters to the point at the end where they can meet with Miss Emily. But art as a meaningful way of transcending death, finding meaning in life, proving you are human, and/or knowing your self -- that's a theme, not a MacGuffin, and it gets plenty of attention.

    Nature in the novel deserves an essay unto itself, and certainly not a blog post. You'd have to start by exploring all the possible meanings of the word "nature" -- "human nature", nature as something that doesn't include humans, nature as natural laws, etc. I think the woods in the book are significant, as is the final image. Again, it would require thousands of words to do justice to this idea.

    The surface reality of the book -- the specificities of character, setting, plot -- all end up being carefully orchestrated to express the symbolism, and the remarkable thing as that the symbolism is not allegorical (1 to 1), it's open to all sorts of interpretations, and yet for every possibility I can come up with, there's still the kind of unity you get with allegory. Usually, books that have strong symbolic content use different surface elements to suggest different things, which is far easier to do. (I'll admit I'm still thinking about this idea, so apologize for any vagueness. I'm thinking of it as almost the opposite of some of what I've said [and quoted other people saying] about J.M. Coetzee, but if I keep thinking along these lines I'm going to end up with this comment being longer than the post itself was, and I expect I would contradict myself in every paragraph if I did so, so I'm just going to keep thinking about it.)

    I don't think it's a particularly meaningful book if it is about cloning, but if you find meaning in it that way, then, well, I certainly can't say that's a bad thing. I'm surprised, but gladly so -- in some ways, that supports the contention of the book about "the" meaning of life: there isn't one. There are many.

    As for the Mundanes, I will admit that when I read one of the paragraphs in Wood's review, I thought he was writing for the Mundane SF blog! (I am utterly neutral at this point about Mundane SF, so will say no more.)

  3. It's interesting to me how different people react to the ending. I'm in the camp that didn't much care for the infodump. I recognise that it makes sense for it to be there--I would say that one of the arguments in the book is how far the way in which Hailsham students are kept from the truth is a good thing; they may be deliberately mislead about their lives, but by their ignorance they are also given a certain amount of hope and happiness--but it didn't work for me. I think the problem was the lingering feeling that it wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know (and that the characters didn't at least strongly suspect). It's the problem of bringing the monster on-screen for the climax of a horror film: you lose the sense of mystery, and risk losing the sense of resonance that went with it.

    I agree that the novel is not about cloning (IIRC the glib phrase I used in my own review was 'science fiction is the setting, not the story'), although I think that the fact that it treats its clones as fully human characters is an admirable point. As terrible as the treatment of those characters is, there's none of the hysteria that usually surrounds the actual concepts of cloning in the media.

  4. "You seem to be reading what I wrote as a response to your review, which it wasn't intended as."

    I'm only responding to you from my reading, which the review happens to contain most of my thoughts.

    If you read it differently, I'd love to have some insight into how you arrived there.

    ""Clone" as a word has only the vaguest meaning in the book, and what meaning it does have only comes from the situation Ishiguro creates; it means someone that isn't the same as "normals","

    But what is gained by saying that it isn't about cloning as opposed to it being about cloning? (For me, toggling the switch one direction or the other created no clear gain.)

    Re: Fates,

    I was referring to their fates as a group compared to society, which is relevant to your comment "Art gets more attention than cloning does." I don't think so. Everything Ishiguro does is by the back door--usually it's an examination of what we don't want to talk about; hence, cloning is the most talked about issue precisely because people refuse to talk about it, even when it's the main topic of conversation. That's what I love about Ishiguro (although by the end its power has drained away--see discussion with Niall below). This may be an irreconcilable difference in our interpretations becauses it's what excites me about Ishiguro, getting at what we won't discuss. I do agree that the texture feels highly symbolic, but I have been incapable of achieving any kind of symbolic sense out of it, one way or another, so if you come up with something, I'd love to see you give evidence to what you've seen, yet I'm not willing to buy your "contention of the book about "the" meaning of life: there isn't one" without demonstration, and the complete variance between characters and reality obtruct arriving at any such universal truth.

    "art as a meaningful way of transcending death, finding meaning in life, proving you are human, and/or knowing your self -- that's a theme, not a MacGuffin, and it gets plenty of attention."

    Although I'm willing to wait for your evidence above, here I disagree wholly. What kind of artist was Kathy? We don't know. We're never told. She never even talks about art. Everyone abandons art in the end. All that's left is talking to people who are in the same position--which is 1) what her boyfriend did (what'shisname), 2) everyone falls into camps of like-situations (consider the opposition of former lovers that thought love might make them exceptions) and 3) the central narrative is set up as a dialogue between people of like situations (I quote the book in this particular). Art (and love) is definitely a MacGuffin.


    "It's interesting to me how different people react to the ending. I'm in the camp that didn't much care for the infodump."

    See, I think the infodump might have worked had the rest of the story not already played its hand out. The characters have come to a flattening effect as their world (in every sense, i.e. literal physical and human culture) has become flattened. This hasn't happened in any Ishiguro novel I've read, and it's curious that it happens here in the attempt at SF. Someone could claim a retroactive authorial purpose for this, but it drained the energy out of everything that the moment of revelation falls flat as well.

  5. I belatedly realized, I think, the intent behind your comments--1) what you're driving at, but I'd still be interested in hearing how you arrived there (maybe we can arrive together), 2) your comment about this referring to my review (I just thought the comment about not being able to enjoy the novel as about cloning was a bit broad. I think a number regular genre readers would not be pleased, but I'm not sure if that would be true for all who read it as a novel about cloning in addition to whatever).

  6. I've heard quite a bit about this novel, and planned on getting it for awhile now. Just waiting until my next paycheque.

    I think the modern world is an interesting place. Were else can two critics critique each others review in a public place, recorded for posterity?

  7. I'm writing this in the midst of all sorts of things, so pardon any terseness...

    Paul -- Indeed, this is why I like weblogs and the internet. Although the recorded for posterity part kind of scares me (that Internet Wayback Machine is a doozy...), I enjoy the opportunity to discuss ideas and to see how other people have responded to things. It often feels quite weird to put not-fully-formed ideas out there and see what people make of them (the internet attracts just as many kooks as it does thoughtful people), but the pros outweight the cons.

    Anyway, back to the book. The opening paragraph may be broad, but I still think it's essentially correct, because I don't think arguing that the book is about cloning really gets us anywhere. Change the word "clones" to "androids" and it's "about" that; change it to "sentient spinach" and it's about that, because there's nothing in the story that depends on the form of otherness the characters experience being cloning and only cloning. Therefore, it has nothing original or unique to say about cloning except in the most general way of being a fascinating portrait of outsiderhood. Thus, if you go in expecting it to be about cloning, you will be unsatisfied and probably bored, because you're looking for something that isn't there and in all likelihood missing what actually is. As Harrison says, it's sleight of hand. If you're not unsatisfied and not bored, you're responding to things other than cloning.

    I'm not sure the ending is an infodump, at least not in the usual sense. It doesn't provide any expository information that we, the readers, need so that we can understand the story. The function of the scene between Miss Emily, Madame, Kathy, and Tommy is, as far as I can tell, to disabuse Kathy and Tommy of all their illusions, to make "the truth" of how Madame and Miss Emily perceive their former situation (at Hailsham) to be the dominating truth, the one that is seemingly inescapable, that controls all their later interpretations of their experiences. This does a few things, but primarily it separates Kathy and Tommy's interpretations of their experiences from Ruth's interpretations before she died, and it opens up the theme of illusion vs. disillusion. This being Ishiguro, though, I bet we could get somewhere interesting if we didn't accept Miss Emily's and Madame's interpretations completely -- they're old, bitter, and probably self-deluded. I'd need to read the book again, though, to really make a nuanced case for that.

    Whether it is the best way Ishiguro could have accomplished this goal, I don't know, but I'm wary of conferring the label of infodump on the ending. I think there's much more going on. I did, though, think it was about twice as long as I needed it to be. But then I think that about the endings of most books (particularly 19th century Russian ones, much as I adore them).

  8. Chris Willmott2/27/2007 5:52 PM

    I did approach the book looking for perspectives on cloning and this may have contributed to my ultimate disappointment with it. as I have reflected, however, I think my main frustration with the book is the implausability of people knowing their fate as donor and being resigned to that. contrast this with The Island, for example, where the clones run for their lives. It seems this latter option is far more likely. Hailsham children allowing themselves to be systematically harvested for spare parts just doesn't wash.


  9. I think Chris Willmott is rather missing the point on a whole number of levels; on a story level, they accept their lot in life because thats why they were brought up, in fact, it harks back to that old literary question of "what is the point of life?" and "if we knew the purpose of our lives, would we fulfill that?" They are resigned to it because of the sense of duty they feel; they dont have anything else do they? Furthermore, if you look back, you see that they have a deep fear of leaving, or not doing as they are meant to (stories of wandering off and getting lost/dying in the wood) etc.

    On a metaphorical level however, there's that whole level about how in society people in general go along with whatever makes life easier.

    As for the end, i agree that the dump of information is a teeeeny bit disappointing but really, I think it works fine, as up until that point, you'd harbored that tiny shred of hope that there may be some escape from their fate.

    Ultimately, its still pretty heartbreaking.

  10. The most unexpected effect the novel had on me was my anger regarding the lack of free will of the characters. I percieved them as being "victims". Their lack of action given their plight caused me great frustration and confusion. In my opinion, the author left us angry about APATHY. Why didn't the characters try to challenge their fate? If you want to get into SF, as "clones" the the just and unjust are two sides of the same coin. Quite a commentary on society.

    1. If they could change their "fate" then it would not really be considered fate. A person can try all day long to change their future by using free will, but in the end fate always wins. They had free will. They could have ran away if they chose, but they chose to stay. Kathy chose to be a carer. That was all choices that they made, with their own free will. Free will and fate go hand in hand. Free will allows a person to make their own choices, but the ending is always the same. If they had no free will then it would not be fate, because fate is no matter what choices a person makes, they are destined for the same thing at the end.

  11. I agree that the compliance is unsettling and ultimately left me frustrated. I get that it's a metaphor for our own fate, except the clones are being killed. Human nature rebels at being controlled and having life and death decisions made for us and being treated unfairly. So I find it odd that there's no acknowledgement of that with even some passing references to clones who found their own way out. My only thought is if the clones are made from humans chosen for those qualities of passivity, maybe that explains such uniformity in their response.

    I also question that it only took a couple of generations to quell any social resistance to the idea. In the end, it's a very compelling story but I can't stop thinking of those gaps. You have to take it as a theme distilled to its essence -- that we all are here for a very short time. But the story is so interesting I can't help but question the details.

  12. It sounds like an interesting book. Symbolic or not, I hope that as time goes on society moves away from the type of meaninglessness that we sometimes see in people.