ANNOUNCEMENT My housemate and I were attacked whilst riding bikes around South City on Friday night. After giving our statement to the police they told us there’s been 13 reported assaults (also my friend was robbed and my next door neighbor’s house was broken into all on Friday night). I know not all of you are St Louis based but if you are please stay safe out there folks.
Just before leaving the UK a friend of mine, a fellow foreigner (I being American, her Thai), gave me a few books that she’d read and didn’t want to take home with her when her time came. My friend she described this and another book, The Pesthouse by Jim Crace (which I will also be writing a review about), as “the kind of book that when you finish it, you want to toss it against a wall”. I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that, whether she meant she liked or disliked them so much to cause a burst of such passion but these books did evoke a strong emotional response, one in each direction (one good, one poor). Originally I was planning to do a double review both books seem to tell similar stories but I ultimately nixed the idea because I found I had too much to say about each book.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is what I call a “light dystopian” novel or a novel where the dystopian aspect isn’t entirely prominent in the story’s setting but still plays a vital role in the plot.(1) The story follows a trio of friends (Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy) from childhood in a boarding school to adulthood in a narrative that can be equally classified equally as an coming of age or mystery or love story.
The dystopia angle of this book wasn’t clear to me from the beginning as it took me until about chapter 7 (p70 – 81) to appreciate what was happening and why, however I believe that subtlety is intentional in Ishiguro’s enigmatic stream of consciousness type writing style presented in Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro’s attention to detail from the chapter lengths nearly all being a measured 10 pages in length(2) to his ability to weave extremely non-linear story without losing narrative focus is extremely impressive.
I’m going to be honest: I didn’t fall in love with this book right away but what gripped me from the beginning was Ishiguro’s drumhead tight prose and conversational style that feels so very casual, as if Kathy is just having a conversation with the reader about her memories, that a trick is played where it looks as if storytelling is an effortless endevour that anyone who’s ever told a story can embark on. However now that I’ve finished the book, in the process it wrung a pint of tears from my eyes, I realise that my reluctance to love this book didn’t come from any lack of quality or resonance but that like the characters in this book, I was holding on to previous feelings about the last book I read (The Pesthouse) and not letting myself be entirely receptive to what Never Let Me Go could offer until it was nearly over. I say this with intention of being the highest of compliments: I will be re-reading this book at least a couple more times.
- Contrast this with a “heavy dystopian” novel such as The Road by Cormic McCarthy and the distinction becomes clear (or so I hope).
- This technique adds to the subtle power of the style by reinforcing expectations for each chapter to be a specific length which when that pattern is broken in later chapters leaves an unconscious impression on the reader.
This book holds maybe more emotional value to me than philosophical weight, very likely because sometimes if I close my eyes I can still hear seabirds from when I lived on the UK west coast, but that’s not to say that the implications of the story are at all lost on me. The ideas raised in the book, mostly the ethics of cloning and organ farming, are about as subtle as the dystopia aspect of the book which is both a bold and unusual move.
In one aspect I feel like Ishiguro presents a world view in the book where there is no longer emotional or logical debate about the sanctity of life and that dampens the potential impact of a deeply concerning subject however in another aspect I feel like if this aspect of the book were more prominent the story could have fell into a ham-fisted trap that frequently plagues many other science fiction novels(1). Having the debate being over in the cannon of the story allows for the characters themselves to accept their world as it is and show us an optimistic speculative model for how clones have a reasonable quality of life but one that’s more akin to animals than being human.
The way the clones seem to be presented in the novel is that they’re simultaneously human but removed from humanity. The clones are infertile but they still have emotional and physical urges, the clones have artistic abilities but aren’t integrated into society so their art lacks any sense of “place”(2). This aspect of the art plays another interesting aspect to the story in that the students are strongly encouraged to be creative and create art as children in school and as we learn later this art is then used as “proof” that the clones have souls though this idea isn’t entirely followed through because whether the clones have souls or not it doesn’t seem to make a difference because “How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days?”(240). I suppose this is a statement on the inevitability of speciesism (in this book, clones are effectively animals or regarded as “less than human”) and can be seen as a way to support the theme of being a very small being in a world of forces bigger than the self.
Ultimately I view this book as less of a text that seeks to challenge our ideas about humanity, speciesism, or ethics and more a book about the fleeting nature of life and a realistic view on the power of love. The main plot point of the second and third parts of the book, seeking deferral from becoming an organ donor on the pretense of “true love”, demonstrates the inevitability of death and forces beyond the self when Kathy and Tommy are told that there is no such thing as a deferral even if they’re in love. This talks to me on a level that really broke my heart throughout the book from about page 223 to the end when I first began to suspect that there was no hope for the deferral but ultimately what it told me was that all we can hold on to are memories. We cannot hold on to people, places, or things because just as the characters in the novel lose their prized possessions, childhood home, and eventually each other but what we can hold onto is the memories of these. In some respects, we’re forced to accept loss but we never have to let go of what we love even if it all ends eventually.
- The plot v character driven story models.
- I believe one of the primary functions of art is expression and communication about the world around us not only physically but socially and emotionally. Creation of art is rarely, if ever, in a vacuum, however the isolation the clones are subjected to this seems like a theoretical close to “art in a vacuum”.