My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Never Let Me Go is a contemporary realist novel about a friendship and eventual love triangle among three former students of an exclusive boarding school; the novel traces the effects of their childhood and adolescence on their adult experiences as they re-enter one another’s lives and have to face their true feelings.
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian science fiction novel about an alternate present in which a class of clones is reared to serve as an organ farm for the elite class of humans. The novel focuses on three such clones from childhood through their deaths from organ donation at around age 30 and examines their increasing awareness of the true horror of their oppressed and exploited lives.
Both statements above are true. This complex truth indicates why Ishiguro is a more audacious, radical writer than you would guess from the grumbling of some of the literati upon his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year. Why not an experimentalist? Why so middlebrow? A middlebrow, complacent writer may fashionably “blend” or “mix” genres, which often does result in literary novels with insufficiently developed science fictional premises or science fiction novels that are as boring as Updike is said to be. Ishiguro, by contrast, slams genres against each other and sees what can be scried in the shards.
Never Let Me Go combines even more genres than those I have enumerated; it is, to vary my metaphor from barroom tantrums to cosmology, a black hole pulling every variant of novel into itself: it is a dystopia, a pastoral, a satire, a speculative fiction, a Gothic novel, a school novel, a realist novel, a captivity narrative, and a Bildungsroman (or Künstlerroman, insofar as its narrator, Kathy H., grows up to be the writer of the novel) all at once. The point, now to vary my metaphor from cosmology to music, is to strike all these genres against each other and watch them interfere with each other’s pattern in a chiming discord: listen as the realist novel’s ordinariness and everyday tempo wear down the dystopia’s gaudy overestimation of the “triumph of the human spirit,” but also as the science fiction and the Gothic together reveal the Bildungsroman and realist protagonist always to have been the prisoner of an inescapable social prison, now shown to be a nightmare rather than “reality,” the unmarked normative state of things. The dystopia was always too optimistic in imagining that we could be heroes, and realism was always too optimistic in allowing us to believe that our inertia was anything but tragic. Never Let Me Go teaches us that dystopia is the everyday, and the everyday is dystopia. There are no organ-rapt clones in our world, so we are forced to reflect as we read upon whose lives we are consuming or who is consuming our own.
The novel’s heroes are the perfect vehicles for such questioning because they are among the most privileged in their exploited class. We do not see much of the novel’s dystopia because we never think about more than the narrator does, and she does not think about politics and society; but it is hinted that most clones live in holding pens or concentration camps. Our heroes, by contrast, were experimentally reared in a progressive school—Hailsham House, a remote estate bounded by forest—where they were taught the humanities, encouraged to be artists, and generally given what one of the school’s officials calls their “childhoods.” It is no wonder that Kathy H., our main protagonist, grows up to be so effective at her job as a “carer,” or a kind of nurse, for other clone “donors.” Because the characters we come to care about are not the most disprivileged or victimized in their society, we might say they analogize the ambiguous politics of the middling classes, resentful that those above us exploit us but fearful that those below us will revoke what privileges we have.
The narrator Kathy H. is remarkable not so much because of her ordinariness—she is too smart and perceptive, too much the observer and writer, to be ordinary, exactly; and her best friend Ruth, the genuinely ordinary character, is her foil—but because she lacks any heroism whatever, even the negative heroism of conscious monstrosity. She wants to lead a normal life. She wants to stay out of trouble. She wants to be good at her job. She wants, at various points, to read some good books and have some fun with her friends and have some decent sex. She’s not all that nice, nor is she especially mean.
She is “decent”—Ishiguro’s hopeful term of praise for the English after Brexit—which is a passive form of goodness, the goodness that goes along with doing what one should or must without attempting to change the “should” or “must.” Her opening paragraph is a brilliant digest of the commonplaces that we would like to deplore but that at most of us really have very little choice but to live by:
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.” I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it.
Work hard. Take pride in your work. Be humble, but don’t sell yourself short. Keep your head down and get the job done, and while you’re at it, quit your bitching.
Most fictional protagonists are more extraordinary than this, more admirable if not more likable. They struggle more in their toils or seek to see beyond the wall of the world. Even Ishiguro’s probable models in the English canon for Kathy H.—Austen’s Fanny Price and Brontë’s Lucy Snowe—are fortified in their stillness by faith, models in their very plainness and inertia of a Protestant sublime. But Kathy H. lives not only after God but also after the religion of humanity that supplanted Him, a progressive faith enjoyed only in the novel by the elite class that exploits her and consigns her to the realm of the soulless. And she does not even seem to place any particular value on the claim that she has a soul, nor does she join any resistance movement to claim her human rights; she only wants life, as good a life as she can get, for herself and for those closest to her.
You could even read Never Let Me Go as a little crypto-history of the English novel. In the peregrinations of Kathy H. through the biological time of the coming inequality, it returns twenty-first century fiction to the eighteenth-century origins of the novel by reminding us of Moll Flanders’s and Pamela Andrews’s adventures in a new society without the guideposts of tradition. Along the way, Kathy H. is reared in Brontë’s England, as suggested by the Gothic or fairy-tale situation of Hailsham—
The woods were at the top of the hill that rose behind Hailsham House. All we could see really was a dark fringe of trees, but I certainly wasn’t the only one of my age to feel their presence day and night. When it got bad, it was like they cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham; all you had to do was turn your head or move towards a window and there they’d be, looming in the distance. Safest was the front of the main house, because you couldn’t see them from any of the windows. Even so, you never really got away from them.
—but lives out her adulthood in Ballard’s England, its long highways and desolate housing blocks and the ruins of modernity:
Later on, after the Kingsfield became the familiar and precious place it did, I was in one of the admin buildings and came across a framed black-and-white photo of the place the way it was before it was converted, when it was still a holiday camp for ordinary families. The picture was probably taken in the late fifties or early sixties, and shows a big rectangular swimming pool with all these happy people-children, parents-splashing about having a great time. It’s concrete all around the pool, but people have set up deck chairs and sun loungers, and they’ve got large parasols to keep them in the shade. When I first saw this, it took me a while to realise I was looking at what the donors now call “the Square”—the place where you drive in when you first arrive at the centre. Of course, the pool’s filled in now, but the outline’s still there, and they’ve left standing at one end—an example of this unfinished atmosphere—the metal frame for the high diving board. It was only when I saw the photo it occurred to me what the frame was and why it was there, and today, each time I see it, I can’t help picturing a swimmer taking a dive off the top only to crash into the cement.
This deliquescence of bourgeois Protestant heroism into the post-religious despairing vitalism of the post-human, by the way, is why it was sensible and even acute literary criticism, and not just name-dropping blurb-speak, when Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said, “[I]f you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka you get Ishiguro in a nutshell.”
Never Let Me Go is also a brilliant analysis of its status as literature or art and a satire on progressive discourses and their ineffectuality at remedying oppression. The language surrounding the situation of oppression the novel describes is euphemistic, describing an exploitative economy as a gift one, from “caring” (i.e., nursing the clones after their organ extractions) to “donation” (i.e., having one’s organs forcibly extracted). Brutality may not be all we have to fear in public life; soft and sentimental language may conceal violence. To press the point a bit further, the novel chiefly depicts institutions and discourses traditionally understood as “feminine”—nursing, early education—to imply that these may be as destructive as, say, the military or the prison system.
One purpose of Hailsham, which is a school run by women who seem to belong to the most liberal wing of the human elite, is to demonstrate that the clones have souls by instructing them in art. Ishiguro here notes how cultural accomplishment becomes a class marker, even in the eyes of those who want to “help” the lower classes. Kathy and her eventual lover Tommy are sufficiently truant pupils of this tutelage to actually become interesting artists without regard for mawkish demonstrations of “humanity.” Kathy writes the novel we are reading, which makes her as good a novelist as Ishiguro, while Tommy draws pictures of animals that illustrate the truth not only of the clones’ own situation but also that of all biological beings, including the humans who think themselves soulful:
That was when I first saw his animals. When he’d told me about them in Norfolk, I’d seen in my mind scaled-down versions of the sort of pictures we’d done when we were small. So I was taken aback at how densely detailed each one was. In fact, it took a moment to see they were animals at all. The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird.
While Kathy reads Hardy and Tolstoy as well as Daniel Deronda (a novel whose liberationist ideology amusingly does not inspire her own revolt, her clone variant on the eponymous hero’s Zionism), her favorite work of art is a cassette tape that plays the (fictional) song “Never Let Me Go,” whose lyrics she misinterprets to fit her own situation. In other words, the ideal artwork may be like the clones: a copy in itself (insofar as the song is a trashy compendium of cliché) conveyed by a technology of copying (mechanical reproduction)—but not one bit less valuable for that!
The novel’s most disturbing suggestion is humans essentially need art—we need to see our struggles embodied in objects outside ourselves—without art’s thereby being socially redemptive or revolutionary. Precisely because we require it just to live a day in our normal lives, art may never instruct us to overturn that normality, no matter how the norms oppress us. This, I imagine, is what offends the avant-garde literati, with their (our) undying Romantic dreams, about Ishiguro. It is disquieting to reflect that what the headmistress of Hailsham tells Kathy and Tommy at the end of the novel—
“But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods. […] Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing.”
—may very well be true. We’re born, we’re exploited, we die. The arts and humanities help us enjoy it while it lasts.
All theorizing aside though, remember that Ishiguro began as a songwriter. This is not a philosophical novel for the most part, but a ballad. Ideas are debated from time to time, but more importantly they are embodied in the fable and its personae. We are not told any political lessons but only shown them. Why don’t oppressed people revolt? Well, look at what the clone children do to their classmate:
I remember one night, when we were furious with Marge K.—she’d done something really embarrassing to us during theday—we chose to punish her by hauling her out of bed, holding her face against the window pane and ordering her to look up at the woods. At first she kept her eyes screwed shut, but we twisted her arms and forced open her eyelids until she saw the distant outline against the moonlit sky, and that was enough to ensure for her a sobbing night of terror.
Look at what these creatures, oppressed because considered “inhuman,” do to other non-humans:
There was a bluebottle buzzing around, and for a minute we had a laugh playing “bluebottle tennis,” throwing our hands about to make the demented creature go from one to the other of us. Then it found its way out of the window…
When there isn’t too much to do, there’s always someone or something a little lower in the hierarchy to lord it over. But this is so much our own situation that it would be absurd to sit on judgment on Kathy H. for it. As The Last Psychiatrist used to say, “If you’re watching it, it’s for you.” I would adapt that to, “If you’re reading Never Let Me Go, you are Kathy H.”
Still, there is Tommy, the novel’s holy fool and perhaps its best artist. The narrative is framed by his rage. Kathy’s recollection of Hailsham begins with his fit of anger upon being mocked by his classmates in a bit of teasing she characteristically goes along with. It ends, or nearly ends, with a similar fit upon his being told that his death-by-donation cannot be deferred. These inarticulate bursts of fury, these tremblings of uncontrollable affect that disturb the placid surface of Kathy’s text and which she is sensitive enough to pick up and transmit, intimate that no norm goes on forever, and that rage has, for better and for worse, swept away many a social order. The novel concludes with Kathy in control though in tears:
…though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.
So much of the action of this novel after it leaves the grounds of Hailsham takes place along the coast of England, the margin to which the clones have been driven, their backs to the sea. Complicit as we all our in our own and others’ suffering and fearful of the violence it would take to make a change, we could also be forgiven for asking what would happen if our tears became a flood.
* As I noted in my review of The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro has two constituencies: literary academia and a popular readership. The populace appreciates, I assume, his morally complex, stylistically simple, and emotionally wracking stories of how history and politics are refracted in the lives of ordinary men and women. Academia admires his deft encoding of politics in parable, his subtlety practically calling for the critic to elucidate it, even as its ultimate significance remains buried in the cryptic text. It should also be noted that Ishiguro anticipates or at least echoes academic concerns, with his two most famous novels serving as proof-texts for theoretical schools: The Remains of the Day‘s critique of English tradition accompanied the rise of postcolonialism in the 1980s, while Never Let Me Go‘s sorrowing clones serve as figureheads for the twenty-first century’s posthumanist turn.