Look Back In Apathy
Never Let Me Go is an intensely British book, as is The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was born in Japan and emigrated to Britain as a child and grew up there. I think these are books that could only be written by someone utterly steeped in a culture who has nevertheless always been something of an outsider in it. The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way.
Jo Walton’s recent comments on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – seen via Crooked Timber – reminded me again how much it divides people. I thought this would be a good opportunity to re-post my Instant Fanzine Book Group post on the novel (there are additional comments on the original article).
With The Unconsoled Kazuo Ishiguro moved away from the period naturalism that made his name. In doing so he lost the critics. He also lost me. I was a great admirer of his wonderful early novels but for fickle reasons to do with thickness and reviews it sat on my shelf unread. He returned to period naturalism with When We Were Orphans which received good but muted notices and joined The Unconsoled on my unread pile. Now with Never Let Me Go he has moved more firmly away from this to produce a science fiction alt history. The book enjoyed an excellent critical reception, was shortlisted for the Booker and firmly re-established his name as a hot property. I’m not sure whether this attention was deserved however.
Never Let Me Go starts with a bald bit of infodumping:
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.
Kathy is telling the story of her life and the first third of the novel is given over to a description of Hailsham, the boarding school she grew up in. Since the students of the school are not your average student these differences have to be explained and the way in which Ishiguro does this is rather clumsy. A typical aside runs:
I should explain about the Exchanges we had at Hailsham.
Everything is direct to the reader and the text is constantly interupted by such asides. The one thing Ishiguro doesn’t explain is exactly what a carer is or what a donor is. This is partially to give the book a climatic revelation and partly because the concepts are decidedly ropy and best kept off stage for as long possible. As a novel of revelation, though, the book is a failure. We are never interested in this revelation and nor it seems is Ishiguro. The whole of Chapter Twenty Two is given over to a fill-in-the-blanks session that is not only ridiculously implausible but very crudely delivered:
“What was this Morningdale scandal you keep mentioning, Miss Emily?” I asked. “You’ll have to tell us, because we don’t know about it.”
As is now traditional Adam Roberts misrepresents the book to serve his point in his annual Clarke takedown. This not withstanding Roberts is bang on the money in his dissection of the novel’s main flaw. Allow me to condense his review:
That’s what’s missing in Ishiguro’s treatment: comedy. Wit. Irony. Or, indeed, human warmth of any kind… Moreover, everything happens in a weirdly dissociated climate of affluent seclusion; one amongst many elements lacking is any context for the experience of cloning as Ishiguro represents it… This isn’t to say it’s badly written, exactly; but only that it is so carefully written, its prose is so neurotic about putting a single foot wrong, that it becomes bloodless… The representation of banality need not itself be banal; and, indeed, SF has greater need than most genres of the understanding that most of life is trivial, that banality is a major force in life. But Ishiguro is so allergic to melodrama that he’s gone too far the other way: he’s purged his drama of any music at all, save (perhaps) a thin atonal melody playing very distantly in the background.
O brave new world that has such boring bastards in it. Kathy is more an observer of her life than a participant in it. Reading Ishiguro is always an exercise in reading between the lines but as we read between the lines of Kathy reading between the lines of her own life it is hard not to wonder if there is anything there. John Mullan suggests this is a novel “shaped by all that it leaves out” but does Ishiguro leave anything left to give it shape? As in The Remains Of The Day the desires of the character’s hearts are hidden and repressed but here there is no societal reason and character motivation is not so much mysterious as non-existant. Why does Kathy not attempt a relationship with Tommy? Why does she remain friends with a poisonous bitch like Ruth? So much is left unsaid that the love triangle is implausible and Ruth’s deathbed confession when it comes rings hollow.
Other critics have read this more charitably. Mullen goes so far as to suggest Ishiguro makes a virtue of both his and his characters’ lack of interest in their world. In his review M. John Harrison says:
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. Beneath Kathy’s flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan.
I’ll admit I missed this “unexpressed” rage. I think in the end Harrison’s reading is actually more interesting than the novel. Ishiguro’s prose only really captures the voice of his protagonists as teens, not earlier or later, which is perhaps appropriate because his characters remain in a state of arrested development. I can see no justification to their placid, bovine nature though. This seems to be a novel about disengagement from the world. Ishiguro has created a world he has no interest in and has explicitly declined to render it plausibly. He has then populated it with characters who are divorced from humanity but are incurious about this fact. I fail to see the point of such a novel. Perhaps, as Harrison suggests, the novel’s purpose is simply to cause the reader to rebel against its sterility.
The Guardian Book Club