Friday, November 16, 2007


I'll wrap this series of posts up with some general reflections. The first two parts are here and here.

First, is Never Let Me Go a realist novel or not? Remains of the Day, Ishiguro's breakout novel, was a realist work. The Unconsoled, the novel following Remains, was emphatically not realist. When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's next novel and Never Let Me Go's immediate predecessor, began as if it were a realist novel, but as the book continued the reader encountered things inexplicable in realist terms.

Of course, Never Let Me Go is not realist in the sense of imitating the real world. But it might be realist in the sense that most science fiction is realist: starting out with a world different from ours (or quickly introducing an entity or event not found in our world), but having events unfold as they supposedly would in real life, given that starting point. When I wrote my first post on Never Let Me Go, I believed it was realist in this sense. So did a number of reviewers, including some who criticized it as being bad SF because its extrapolation wasn't plausible: i.e. it was failed realism. I now think I was wrong. Instead, Never Let Me Go is a book which, like When We Were Orphans but more subtly, conceals a non-realist intent beneath a realist facade.

As one instance of Never Let Me Go's implausibility, several critics have cited the absence of resistance or escape attempts on the part of the adult clones. Originally, I saw no problem with this. Kathy M. is writing for her fellow clones, and just like a realistic narrator, doesn't tell them things they already know (unlike much SF, which contrives ways to have characters convey information which, in the book's world, everyone would already know). So it's perfectly reasonable to deduce that there's a security apparatus which Kathy doesn't discuss because her readers would know all about it.

I would still go along with this up to a point. But as I reread the parts of the book which take place in "regular society" -- the Norfolk expedition, and Kathy and Tommy's quest for Madame -- I realized that it just was too implausible for the security apparatus to be unobtrusive enough to not even be mentioned in these scenes, given that clones are visually identical to non-clones and that carers are allowed to drive, and apparently live, without supervision.

Another issue is the surface normality of Hailsham life. Is it really believable that everyone's reaction to learning that they will be murdered by having their organs removed would be so subdued? I do think it's plausible that many, perhaps most, would respond this way. But would there really be nobody who would freak out upon hearing Miss Lucy's speech? And when Lucy tells them: "you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand" (81) -- something Kathy affirms -- well, I have a hard time seeing how you could tell a child that when she grows up her organs will be cut out and have her "not understand." (I'm pretty sure what my reaction would have been.) And Ishiguro is deliberately vague about how this "telling and not telling" would work.

Another thing Ishiguro is deliberately vague about is the sequence of donations. Kathy frequently reminds us that a "donor" will, if all goes well, make four "donations" in sequence, of which the last is invariably fatal. The first two would presumably be one kidney and one lung, but there is no obvious third "donation" which would not be fatal. There are possibilities, such as transplanting part of a liver; but Ishiguro's choosing a non-intuitive number of donations and never explaining it may be a clue that the book is not to be taken as realist.

Finally, there's the whole concept of a parallel society of "carers" and "donors" extending throughout England and existing in the same space as "normal" society, but only glancingly interacting with it, except for those few "normals" who deal with clones as part of their jobs. While this is not impossible, it's something one would expect to find in Kafka (think of the omnipresence of the "court" in The Trial), rather than Tolstoy.

Of course, one could also interpret all these points as indicating, not that Ishiguro did not intend the book as realism, but that he failed at realism. But given his clear interest in non-realist fiction, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt.

I understood the book better on this reading than on previous readings, but I don't understand everything, by any means. As I said, in an earlier installment, I don't understand the significance of the song "Never Let Me Go"; nor do I understand Miss Lucy's breakdown. When I reread the first post I wrote on the book, I think that at that time I only partially understood the book. I had grasped one important aspect -- the victimization of the clones -- but missed another, even more important one: the psychological imperatives that led them to collude in their own victimization. It may be that when I reread this series of posts after another reading of the book, they will seem equally partial.

(Speaking of donations, something occurred to me after I posted my previous post. The nightmarish rumor Kathy describes -- to which "even the doctors had no certain answers" -- that "maybe, after the fourth donation, even if you've technically completed, you're still conscious in some sort of way ... there are more donations, plenty of them, on the other side of that line ... there's nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off" (279) is not completely clear, but seems to be the clones' idea of an afterlife. If so, how horrible that this is the afterlife they imagine.)

Hey great analysis of this novel. I am a student about to take a literary exam partly on this novel. I was bewildered at the fact that you didn't understand the significance of the song "Never Let Me Go", however. The sight of Kathy dancing to the song and pretending to be holding a baby, made Miss Lucy break down because she realised how these clones would never experience a "normal" life. That all of them in the end are merely lab rats that have had a comfortable early life. The song itself is not significant but Kathy's interpretation of the song is. She related the song with the thought of a clone becoming a mother and the baby having to never let her (the mother) go. (Which would be an interesting plot for a possible sequel to the novel haha)
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