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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SOME NOTES ON NEVER LET ME GO BY KAZUO ISHIGURO

[First, a warning: don't read this if you haven't read Never Let Me Go and you intend to, or think that you may. This is a book that can be spoiled, and should not be. Go away. Now.

For those who are left, an explanation of why I say this. It's not that the big "reveal" on page 81 is a terrific surprise -- there had been enough clues earlier for alert readers to have guessed something like it -- but part of the experience Ishiguro intends is for you to be puzzled while reading the first eighty pages, to have the growing awareness that something about this seemingly mundane narrative doesn't quite fit. Likewise, the emotional impact of the ending will be substantially diminished if you know what it's going to be beforehand. (I could write a post about spoiler warnings in general, but now isn't the time.)]

1. This post has been a long time coming. I first read Never Let Me Go several months ago, and found it harrowing. I knew that I wanted to write about it. But to write about it meant reading it again, and I didn't want to put myself through that immediately. One of Ishiguro's other novels is called The Unconsoled, but Never Let Me Go really is a book which offers no consolation either to its characters or the reader. So I put the book aside temporarily, other things intervened, and it wasn't until a few days ago that I went back to it.

One thing in particular made the book's ending so emotionally devastating for me. I haven't read Ishiguro's first two novels, but the three books prior to this are all have narrator-protagonists whose reactions to the events in the book are in some way inappropriate. The main character of The Remains of the Day is so absorbed in being the perfect butler that he fails both to notice what is going on around him and to morally evaluate his employer's project which he is so proud to be a part of. (I read the book several years ago, so apologies if I've gotten something wrong). In The Unconsoled, the inappropriateness of the narrator's reactions goes much deeper. In fact, his reactions make no sense if one takes the book to be realistic. It's only when we realize the book follows the logic of a dream that we can understand his reactions and behavior. When We Were Orphans at first seems more straightforward, but various anomalies in the main character's reactions make us realize that this book, too, follows dream logic.

For most of Never Let Me Go, the book appears to be another study of a narrator whose reactions are inappropriate. Though Kathy is in a situation which any of us would regard as terrible, she appears not to be unhappy about it, but to take it for granted. We may even be seduced (as I was) into thinking that as long as Kathy herself isn't unhappy, maybe she her situation isn't that bad after all. In the latter portions of the book, there are hints that the acceptance Kathy seemingly displays isn't the whole story, particularly when we realize that Kathy really wants the deferral as much as Tommy, though she's less demonstrative about it. But it's only with the confrontation with Madame and Miss Emily near the end of the book that I realized that I'd been completely wrong. Kathy didn't take her situation for granted at all. She'd been keeping a stiff upper lip, but she'd been aware of the horror of her situation all along.

As I say, I found this realization emotionally devastating. And looking back onwhat had come before with this realization in mind, I myself recognized the full awfulness of the clones' adult lives as I hadn't before: forced, as "carers," to assist in the "harvesting" of their fellow clones, a job so emotionally draining that many seem actually to be relieved when they become "donors," which means that the rest of their brief lives will be spent recovering from their previous "donations," until the fourth "donation," which is certain death. (The ephemisms Ishiguro has invented for his society are horrible in just the right way.) Their pathetic dreams only underline the horror of their plight: "dream jobs" as office workers or truck drivers, or the hope, not even of escaping "donating," deferring it for three or four years. And after the confrontation with Miss Emily, Kathy's narration no longer obscures the horror.

2. Some reviewers have treated the book as a warning of the dangers of cloning. I don't believe this was Ishiguro's intention, but if it was, he failed. There's no likelihood of Britain, or anybody, cloning adult humans solely to harvest their organs, and if there was, we wouldn't need a novel to tell us it was bad. And if Ishiguro's point was that any experimentation with human cloning will put us on the slippery slope to the stiuation in Never Let Me Go, then he should have, and surely would have, provided at least some information on how this slippery slope had been descended. The fact that Ishiguro set his novel in the late 1990s rather than the future is further evidence that he didn't intend it as a warning.

Never Let Me Go is about the present, not the future. Nobody in the real world is bred to have their organs harvested, but there are millions of people regarded by those with power as disposable objects, and nearly all of us tolerate this state of affairs. Those people, though, live in the third world, and are culturally vastly different from the middle-class first worlders who are Ishiguro's likely readers. Cloning in Never Let Me Go is an estrangement device: it enables Ishiguro to depict a class of people who think like his readers and live within a first world society, but who are treated solely as objects. And the end-of-book confrontation with Miss Emily reveals the inadequacy of those efforts at compassion that are made. On the one hand, we learn of their political weakness, as Emily describes how Hailsham was swept away so quickly and easily. On the other hand, Emily unconsciously demonstrates how even at its best, Hailsham wasn't enough, though far better than the alternatives available to the clones. Even the guardians, the only non-clones who treated the clones as human, were unable to see them as fully human: "'We're all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I'd look down at you all from my study window and I'd feel such revulsion . . .'" (p. 269; ellipsis Ishiguro's). And she's blind to the actual lives of her students. Urging Kathy and Tommy not to be too disappointed that there are no deferrals, she tells them "I hope you can appreciate how much we were able to secure for you. Look at you both now! You've had good lives, you're educated and cultured." (p. 261) They haven't had good lives. They've had wasted lives, as the reader knows.

3. One thing that struck me as odd when I first read the book was that the majority of its pages were devoted not to the "big issues" of cloning and organ harvesting but to the tangled relations between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. Moreover, much of this latter material seems trivial, especially in comparison to these "big issues." (It occurs to me as I write this that I had a similar reaction to Kafka's The Castle.) True, one can say that this reflects Kathy's own priorities; but then why did Ishiguro choose a protagonist like Kathy? It would be nice if I could present a full justification for this choice of Ishiguro's, but I don't have one. I can point out, though that the personal material is not as disconnected from the "big issues" as one might at first think. Kathy and Tommy's loss at the end of the book has a greater impact if what they lose -- their relationship -- has only been found after long delay and in the face of obstacles. And there are thematic links between the two "sides" of the book. The revelation of evil on a societal level is prepared for the the portrayal of personal evil in the form of Ruth, though she repents in the end. (In fact, when I reread the book, the part I most dreaded coming to was not the final confrontation with Miss Emily, or anything to do with the "donations," but the scene when Ruth betrays Tommy by telling him of Kathy's joining her in laughing at his animal pictures.) And the first Hailsham scene, where the boys humiliate Tommy by leading him to believe that he will be included in their football game and then excluding him, foreshadows the final confrontation with Miss Emily, where Kathy and Tommy learn that the guardians, the only non-clones who regarded them as fully human, really didn't. (And Tommy goes into a rage after both scenes.)

Another way to look at it is, again, to compare Never Let Me Go with Ishiguro's three previous books. In the earlier books, the protagonists all devote themselves primarily to public life (Stevens vicariously through his employer), they all believe that they've satisfactorily integrated their public and private lives, and they all turn out to be wrong in this. One might take from this the implication that they would have done better to concentrate on their private lives. (It's been a while since I read any of these, so I may be wrong here.) But Kathy, Ruth and Tommy do concern themselves solely with their private lives. And "public life" broadly speaking -- that is, what society has done and will do to them -- contaminates and poisons their private life. This is most obvious in Tommy's debilitated state when he and Kathy become lovers and switching carers when his fourth "donation" is impending. But the awareness that they're pariahs shadows the clones throughout. And we can, perhaps, theorize that Ruth's self-hatred as a clone, which bursts out in her "'We're modelled from trash'" speech (p. 166), is the cause of her determination to be the center of attention at all costs, which is the unifying thread running through most of Kathy's narrative of Hailsham and the Cottages.

4. The prose in Never Let Me Go generally doesn't call attention to itself, realistically so given that Kathy is supposed to have written it. One exception I noticed was Kathy's description of the dying Ruth in pain: "It was like she was willing her eyes to see right inside herself, so she could patrol and marshal all the better the separate areas of pain in her body--the way, maybe, an anxious carer might rush between three or four ailing donors in different parts of the country." (p. 236)

As is usual when writing about a work I think is excellent, I feel that what I've written here is pathetically inadequate. Certainly the power of the final confrontation with Miss Emily, for one, is not reducible to what I've said. But as I say, I've been sitting on the idea of this for several months, and I might as well put up what I have.

UPDATE: I have some more recent thoughts on Never Let Me Go here, here, andhere.

Comments:
This is a really nice analysis. Thanks.
 
I believe that in order to understand the meaning behind the song, you must first step into Kathy's shoes. Kathy, as the narrator of the novel, writes with a deep sense of nostaglia which presents itself up until the bitter end. The clones had no hope for the future; there's no hope in death. All that's left is memories. This point is made opaque in almost every page and scene of the novel. The reason why Hailsham was seen as so glorious is because the memories stored and shared by the Hailsham students paled in comparison to that of other cloning communities. This explains many ideas and confusing parts of the novel, including the first scene when Kathy's donor begs her to share of her childhood at Hailsham, the various conversations at the cottages with those who obviously viewed Hailsham students as more privileged. For this reason also, Miss Emily and Madame saw themselves as heroes at the end rather than life-destroyers. They were at least able to culture and educate the "students" giving them some memories to have and look back on with joy before their completion. But most importantly, it gives a new meaning to the title of the novel and the song Kathy loved so dearly, "Never Let Me Go." She adored the memories she held and abhorred the way Ruth, Tommy, and other Hailsham students pretended to forget about them. There was no hope for the future; all that was clear, but there was no reason that the memories shouldn't live on. Despite death, Kathy hoped that time would never let her memories die with her. At the closing scene of the novel, I could almost hear her scream out to the world, "Never Let Me Go." Her future was gone and she would soon follow it to the grave but Kathy's one desire was that no one would ever forget Hailsham and the memories she had there.
 
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