Rereading Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

Posted: July 30, 2012 in Dystopia, Literature
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A friend recently published a smart review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.   You should go read it.  Her review and questions, along with my less-than-clear recollection of various aspects of the book, led me to revisit it this weekend, and what follows are some loosely-organized critical thoughts on the book.

Everything after this assumes the reader has read the book, which has a major plot element withheld in the beginning chapters.  This thing is probably better left unknown if you are reading it for the first time, so don’t read this if you are planning on picking it up.  Also, what follows will  not be a proper review with any attempt at synopsis or the like, so don’t expect that you’ll follow if you haven’t read it.

Not sure about that “Gothic” in the NYT blurb, or the goofy font, but I do like this cover image better than the one on my edition.

Because Ishiguro is one of the most revered “literary” authors working today, this book’s premise and dystopian setting apparently threw some of the narrow-minded, pearl-clutching literary critics off.  I mean, how could a guy this talented be slumming in what is obviously popular, genre fiction?  In a review for the New York Times, Sarah Kerr writes:

The setup is so shocking — in such a potentially dime-store-novel way — that it’s hard to believe at first that it issued from Ishiguro’s desktop. Has one of our subtlest observers gone to pulp? The novel is the starkest instance yet of a paradox that has run through all Ishiguro’s work. Here is a writer who takes enormous gambles, then uses his superior gifts to manage the risk as tightly as possible. The question is what he’s gambling on. Is he setting up house in a pop genre — the sci-fi thriller — in order to quietly upend its banal conventions, as he did with the manor-house elegy in ”The Remains of the Day” and the detective yarn in ”When We Were Orphans”?

I’m not going to spend a lot of time analyzing this elitist nonsense (a more encompassing rant on this topic is something I’m sure I’ll do another day), or go into debating the dubious “thriller” label she uses.  And Kerr obviously quickly defends and recasts the novel in a typical (dare I say, generic?) NYT way that allows her to preserve her divide between high/low art based on formal characteristics, themes, and tropes while still praising a book that uses those from the low, genre pool.  However, given the number of “literary” authors who have worked in or incorporated elements of genre by the time this book was published in 2005, and the fact that many of what are considered the most important works of literature are quite obviously genre fiction, this stupid belittling of genre should be called out every time some snob trots it out.  The book is really, really good, but so are a lot of full-on, unapologetically genre books.

And there are plenty of lousy, formulaic literary novels too.

That said, I want to upend a bit of the genre classification usually applied to this this book.  It’s an alternate history taking place in the “late 1990s,” and the setting is one where cloned people are raised for the purpose of harvesting their organs for “normal” people.  So it is obviously operating as a science fiction novel.  Yes.  But is it really also a dystopian novel?  This is less cut-and-dry.

Now, genre classification shouldn’t be a simple, checklisty kind of thing; it is merely a tool for talking about how a work fits or breaks with earlier texts that have similar traits and concerns.  So I’m not saying it isn’t a dystopian novel; you can certainly call it that.  However, it lacks a certain element we generally encounter in a dystopian plot: the rebellion of the protagonist(s) against the dystopian order.  This plot point is crucial to why I’m so interested in dystopias, so maybe I’m just being sensitive about it, but if you think of the works that you’ve read or seen and you would call dystopias, they probably all fit this.  Never Let Me Go does not.

In Ishiguro’s novel there is no real rebellion.  We don’t hear about donors running off, much less fighting back against a system that uses them as spare parts for sick normals.  Tommy’s enraged fit in the field near the end of the book, or Miss Lucy’s outbursts and firing, are as close as we get to anything of this sort.  The former is touching and pathetic rather than some reassurance of the power of the human spirit in the face of horrible circumstances.  The latter comes across as the idealism of youth at odds with an established orthodoxy.

This lack of rebellion, despite frustrating me a bit both times through the book, is one of the things that makes the book so unsettling and tragic if you can work through your own feelings of disappointment at the characters.  The reason for the utter resignation of the donors to their fate isn’t really explained, and it might be read as a commentary on human nature and our need to go along with what is expected of us by society. This is, to my mind, a deeply pessimistic view of our species.

The door is also left open to conjectures about heavy-handed conditioning or tampering in a manner not unlike what goes on in Brave New World.  This is just speculative and not supported by the text itself, but it is hard to believe that there would be no rebellion without some apparatus for quelling it.  Alternately, the clones could be chosen from “docile” genetic stock (though Tommy’s fits seem anomalous then).  So, the absence of any hint at a means of assuring compliance creates a conundrum for a reader like me . . . largely loving the book, but unable to reconcile this view of people quietly going along with their horrific fates.

Of course, this isn’t what Ishiguro is concerned at getting at here.  The whole novel is largely a meditation on interpersonal relationships and mortality done with a shortened life-span.  The cloning/donation aspect is primarily a device to get to something else rather than the central theme itself (though it certainly does care about questions of medical ethics).  And the dodging of full explanations and details is a move away from what we usually expect from similarly set-up dystopian (and science fiction) novels.

Among the details omitted is the nature of the donations themselves.  Even in the scenes where Kathy is caring for donors, the exact operation is withheld and the symptoms in after-care are not very specific.  It is only clear that organs are being harvested, and the number of donations a single subject gives varies between one and four before “completion.”  But this raises a couple questions for me.  First, what three organs could one donate and live long enough for a fourth donation?  Kidney, gallbladder, spleen?  Even with (again, withheld) medical advances, this seems to verge beyond the general tone of realism of the novel.

Likewise, why keep a donor alive after donating just one organ?  If one assumes, as I do, that upon completion/death all remaining organs are harvested, why not do the logical thing and donate everything all at once on the first (and last) donation?  Obviously the possibility of surviving longer after a first donation is a source of hope for the donors, but, given their compliance, is it even necessary?  Or can we ascribe the single organ donation plan to the more-humane movement embodied by Miss Emily and Madame and Hailsham?  It isn’t mentioned when Tommy and Kathy meet with Madame (and Miss Emily), but the harsh treatment of clones as less-than-human described there as now prevailing would certainly make it a possibility.

These questions around the donation process, along with the lack of rebellion, distance the book from the norms of dystopian storylines.  While there are often hidden and unexplained elements in a dystopia, the crucial innerworkings and logic behind how the state subjugates or uses people are usually fully explained, if only as a last-minute “aha!” moment (“Soylent Green is people!”).  So while the story incorporates a dystopian setting and concerns, it has a more tenuous relationship with the genre as a whole, which is what those stuffy critics see as a reason for saving it from becoming pulp/genre/etc.

To me, this is a load of nonsense.  I can’t see the overall effect of the story diminished, much less ruined, if some hint at the reason for donor compliance was given.   Likewise, a feeble effort at rebellion on Kathy’s part would probably only make readers more sympathetic to her.  I’m not saying Ishiguro should have done it differently, but that the effect could have been just as strong while more fully utilizing elements of the genre he is drawing from.  There is no reason that a fuller embrace of genre would wreck this, or any other, book.  This is obviously in some contrast to the above reviewer’s perspective.

Finally, on this last point of reader sympathy with characters, I have to mention what felt like a lack.  One of the things that struck me about the book is how I felt so distanced from all of the characters.  I sympathized with their plights, and found the story sad, but I had trouble identifying with and really liking them.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t.  I’m not entirely sure if I can chalk this up solely to my problems with their resignation and compliance.  I can’t help but wonder if Ishiguro is estranging the reader from the donors to make us complicit in the ascendant and victorious argument behind the closing of Hailsham:  that they are soul-less and sub-human and should not be encouraged to lead fulfilling lives beyond their use value.  Not that we readers agree with this exactly, but we are capable of similar logic and I think Ishiguro might be reminding us that we should be wary of it.

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