Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, 2005.

I think Ishiguro is one of my favourite novelists writing today.
What's weird to me is that though I wouldn't miss one of his books for the world, I do find that his novels are hit or miss for me. His last, When We Were Orphans, while good seemed to be missing something. I never did care for The Unconsoled--there was something about it that never clicked for me--but I loved The Remains of the Day. Moreover, it's entirely possible that An Artist of the Floating World is my favourite novel.

What captures me first is how Ishiguro writes. His prose is clean, clear, and simple; it's elegant, and there's not a word out of place. I'm at a loss for how to describe the elegance of the prose style: there's an opacity to the writing that simultaneously conceals and reveals what is important to the stories.

Each of Ishiguro's stories is told by a person remembering, looking back on events and words and images that are both indelibly seared into his or her memory and at the same time, the narrator lacks a total conviction in the truth of how he or she remembers the past.

His books are about memory; or rather, they're about how to make sense of memories, and the stories deal with profound questions. How do you understand truth? Can you understand what's shaped the person that you are today? What use can truth have for a life?

Never Let Me Go is one of Ishiguro's best, and, to be crass and rate it, I'd slip it in just under An Artist of the Floating World. The story, that comes out in fits and starts, is told by Kathy H. She and her friends were students at an elite country school, Hailsham, and had experiences that shaped and bonded their group during their time there. Well after leaving, a large part of their identity is shaped by their memories of what Hailsham was like for them.

The problem with talking about this book is that it reveals pieces of information gradually, and the reader gets a better and better understanding of what Kathy's situation is, until finally one is left horrified, revolted, and profoundly sad. That is to say, these gradual revelations are the plot, and I'm about to ruin it for you. STOP READING NOW, if you're the type of person for whom knowing what happens is an impediment to enjoying a story.

The world Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy--like all students of Hailsham--are clones. They live in a world of about our own time that has cured cancer and other ailments, in part by having a supply of clones to "donate." After school at Hailsham, these elite students have some time to write a major essay, mature as a person, and then study to become a "carer" --a clone who will tend to the emotional needs of other clones, who, having ceased being carers, have become "donors." After four donations, the donors will "complete." And the outside world is largely uninterested in how the system works. The book is, in part, an interesting study of ethics--one that's been referred to by Martha Montello in a neat article called "Novel Perspectives on Bioethics"--but it's more interesting as a story (and the repeated references to science fiction in various reviews bother me: it's a story about people in a peculiar situation, and what's important is the people. This book is no more science fiction than some of Ishiguro's other works are historical fiction.).

As Kathy sorts through her memories of Ruth and Tommy, and how these two friends shaped her life--Ruth overpowering her and seeking to control her, Tommy always confused and nice, attractive (and attracted) and wrong about nearly everything--she tries to sort out the whys of how her life has been run--at Hailsham, at the Cottages after Hailsham, whether there's some escape from becoming a donor for her and for Tommy. What tears at Kathy is the same thing that she does to the reader, as she tells her story: she reveals bits and pieces, enough to make certain things clear while obfuscating the deeper truths behind what she's saying. Hailsham prepared the clones for their lives without ever explaining or preparing these people for their lives. Kathy tries to make sense of how truths unspoken alter, how their shape and import affects differently when implicit rather than when explicit. How implicit truths are not truths at all. Talking with Tommy, Ruth, and others, she's concerned about how shared recollections reshape.

Ishiguro, though a gifted novelist with a gift for beautiful writing and unflinching honesty, doesn't offer answers, in my view. He shows Kathy's struggle. He asks us to think about these struggles. But I come away from this novel torn and confused, unconvinced that these questions have possible answers and convinced only that they're worth investigating, and convinced that Kathy is a person: for the real question that emerges for her that is primary, that is key, is whether she has a soul.

I was so sad, and so startled when a donor finally dies--not completes, but is referred to as dying. The word "die" is used only once, and given that the book is about what it is to live, it deals also with what it is to die. Kathy's understated sadness, her coming to terms with the loss of Tommy and of Ruth, make her much like Ishiguro's other narrators--detached, in weird ways that prompt yet more questions.

Go read the book. You'll come away from it confused, and better for it. And while you'll be sad, I doubt you'll need kleenex: my own experience was that Kathy's detachedness will be somewhat infectious. More to wonder about.