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...