My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Kazuo Ishiguro’s lifelong literary project recapitulates in one oeuvre the history of the novel. First were three works of troubled realism: A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989). Each is in the first person, like the early faux-memoirs and epistolary fictions of Defoe and Richardson and the classic Bildungsromane of Dickens and Brontë; each has a historical dimension à la Scott; yet each also uses unreliable narrators to raise the questions about subjectivity and point of view introduced into fiction by contemporaries of Freud like James, Conrad, and Ford. With his fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995), Ishiguro pressed his 19th-century inquiry into fictional truth past the techniques of the unreliable narrator to create a wholly unreliable fictional cosmos, a 20th-century dreamscape made of strange and arbitrary words whose semi-intelligible subtext is the impossibility of art; here he joined the avant-garde of writers like Joyce, Kafka, and Beckett. With this philosophical demolition of realism, fiction becomes pluralistic; if words never quite reach the real anyway, there is no reason to scorn the popular genres, whose tropes and lingos can be put to a serious purpose. Accordingly, the second half of Ishiguro’s oeuvre explores these genres’ 21st-century possibilities: detective fiction in When We Were Orphans (2000), science fiction in Never Let Me Go (2005), and fantasy in The Buried Giant (2015).
His new novel, Klara and the Sun continues this itinerary: it is the author’s foray into children’s literature, though Ishiguro allows that he published it as an adult novel because his early readers said it was too depressing for younger audiences. But the novel’s fable quality, its simple language, and its adoption of its adolescent protagonists’ redemptive moral naïveté all spell YA at least, and the reviewers got the hint, with their many references to Pinocchio, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Toy Story. (What will be next for him, I wonder? A continuation of the pop genre tour—western, romance, horror, pornography? Or another massive shift, the inauguration of a new phase?)
I didn’t like Ishiguro when I first read him. I was assigned The Remains of the Day in Valerie Krips’s spring 2003 seminar on fiction and realism as explored through select British and Commonwealth novels from Defoe to Ondaatje alongside literary theory from Auerbach to Derrida, including Barthes’s S/Z in its entirety. This might be the most important class I took in college, since I’ve spent the rest of my intellectual and creative life exploring the problems it posed, but Ishiguro’s placid manner and facile themes didn’t impress me much next to the explosive experiments in theory and fiction I found in Barthes and The English Patient. It didn’t help that I read the novel on the eve of the Iraq war, a war justified with constant spurious reference to fighting evil Nazis, so what I took to be Ishiguro’s point—Nazis are bad, the English aristocracy is bad, repression is bad; yet the people subject to these ideologies lead poignant lives, and who can blame them really?—all seemed rather cheap and easy, as was his reliably unreliable narrator, next to Kip pulling a gun on Almásy after Hiroshima or Ned Kelly’s deliriously Faulknerian standoff with the authorities in Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang or Barthes’s proposal for the endlessly open text proliferating beyond all codes of control.
I wrote Ishiguro off for the better part of that decade, but then I read Never Let Me Go and began to wonder if I’d mistaken the author’s worldview. What if he wasn’t a facile liberal (though God knows he plays one in the press and before the Swedish Academy) but a disturbing, amoral nihilist? For I saw right away that Never Let Me Go—a novel whose plausible science-fictional premise might begin with the Nazis winning World War II—was supposed to be, as Ishiguro has said, “a very cheerful book” with “an optimistic view of human nature.” Its narrator, like her butler counterpart in the earlier book, serves loyally and faithfully a worthless regime, and yet we are never asked to judge her, only to see ourselves in her. “You gotta serve somebody,” as one of Ishiguro’s fellow Nobel laureates once put it, and the main thing is to lead a good life within that limit, not to waste your time questioning the social order, which you can’t do anything about anyway.
Some critics who have noticed what I’m calling this nihilistic strain in Ishiguro somehow associate it with his Asian heritage, despite his having been raised and educated in England and his claiming 19th-century English and Russian novelists and American singer-songwriters as his main inspirations. (Perhaps I am overly sensitive on this point, since I have in common with Ishiguro a difference between my ethnicity and my nationality, and the former means nothing whatever to me.) John Rothfork, for example, finds Confucian and Buddhist emphases on an anti-essentialist philosophy in which the given is not derived from Platonic forms but merely a chaotic manifold to be assembled into immanent order by graceful action and renewed by fidelity to tradition. I am not expert enough on Chinese and Japanese thought to evaluate this critical premise, though it is my dim understanding that western teleology’s arrival in Asia—in those only superficially distinct eschatologies known as Christianity and Marxism—usually spelled disaster, from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution to the Cambodian genocide.
This question brings up another painful topic: the total impossibility of the task the western left has set itself since the 1960s, that of being both progressive and multiculturalist. But progressivism is inherently imperialist and totalitarian; if you are a progressive, you know the one right way to think and to act, and, at least implicitly, you believe everyone else should follow this way, perhaps even be forced to follow it at the point of a gun. Multiculturalism, on the contrary, is inherently relativistic and nihilistic; it renounces imperial impositions of every kind and says that we must learn to live with plurality—that it’s fine if one culture practices the companionate marriage of equals while another is a patriarchy where old men take child brides and boy lovers; that it’s equally acceptable if one culture pays workers the market rate for their labor, another gives every worker a state stipend, and a third practices chattel slavery. An even more unpleasant way to put it is to say that progressivism is a global totalitarianism, whereas multiculturalism promotes a dispersion of micro-totalitarianisms. (I think of the quietly climatic exchange in one of Ishiguro’s favorite films, Ozu’s Tokyo Story: “Isn’t life disappointing?” “Yes, it is.”)
Ishiguro may truly be a multicultural author—and not only because he ends up on guilty white liberals’ patronizing lists of “writers of color” or because he writes about settings from Arthurian Britain to postwar Japan to near-future America, but because he accepts inherent moral plurality, as he accepts the pluarity of literary genres noted above, and tells his stories quiescently within that acceptance. From the progressive viewpoint, he may therefore also be the most right-wing novelist to enjoy acceptance in polite company today, far more conservative than, say, Michel Houellebecq or Cormac McCarthy, both of whom are only conservative in a progressive way as they lament the passing of the Christian promise.
Klara and the Sun reprises these themes, with a new emphasis. Set in a near-future America, the novel is narrated by its titular robot, an Artificial Friend chosen as a companion for a teenager named Josie. Josie is sick, perhaps terminally so, as a result of a risky genetic procedure called “lifting” meant to enhance her intelligence, a surgery common to the children of the affluent that has led them to monopolize educational attainment and upper-class status. Further complicating matters is that Josie’s next-door neighbor and boyfriend, Rick, hasn’t received the procedure, making their continued relationship more or less socially impossible—Rick is shut out of the college system, for one thing—even if Josie survives her illness. We slowly become aware—we always “slowly become aware” of terrible things in Ishiguro’s fiction—that Klara has been chosen not so much as Josie’s companion but as her potential replacement in the household should she die; Josie’s mother has already lost one child to the “lifting” procedure and can’t take the grief again, so she has contracted an artist named Capaldi to recreate Josie’s physical form so that Klara can act her part. Josie’s father, meanwhile, a brilliant engineer put out of work by automation, has joined some kind of vague white-separatist commune, even as Rick’s disturbed mother schemes to get him into college by calling in a favor with a former lover who sits on an admissions body.
All of these developments come to us slowly, filtered through Klara’s patient, thoughtful, and observant eyes and her stiff and awkward prose. Ishiguro mines some comedy from her interactions with the family’s European immigrant housekeeper, distractingly named Melania, who speaks in a much more vulgar and energetic broken English than Klara’s heightened version of the usual unnerving Ishiguran idiom of a narrator trying to remain calm and polite as the world collapses. (Ishiguro is perhaps pointing out liberal hypocrisy by showing that it’s permissible in literary circles to make fun of foreigners and/or servants and/or women as long as they’re white and, well, named Melania. Alternatively, maybe he’s just making fun of her.) Klara is a solar-powered device who has in consequence developed her own homespun sun-worshipping theology that leads her to petition the heavenly body several times in the narrative—with apparent, and climactic, success. As science fiction, this makes little sense, since a robot meant to be a companion for teenagers would presumably be programmed with scientific and historical knowledge, if only to help the high schoolers with their homework or carry on intelligent almost-adult conversation; but if we keep in mind the relativistic genre rules—this is a children’s fable, not a hard science fiction novel—the illogic shouldn’t disturb us.
The main contrast in the novel is between Klara’s unswerving loyalty to Josie and all the human characters’ inconstancy and lack of fidelity in love. Josie’s parents are divorced, Rick’s mother is revealed to have been a rather cruelly faithless lover, and Josie and Rick’s own apparently undying Romeo-and-Juliet devotion can’t last in their society and naturally peters out. When Klara is still in the store waiting to be bought by a family, the manager tries to explain to her that this is the way life works:
“Children make promises all the time. […] They promise to come back, they ask you not to let anyone else take you away. It happens all the time. But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.”
Much later, Josie’s father expresses his skepticism that Klara will be able to credibly replace his daughter if she dies and suggests that emotional complexity and unpredictably is the mark of the human:
“But then suppose you stepped into one of these rooms…and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart?”
This labyrinthine heart is what separates humans from robots like Klara. Capaldi rejects human exceptionality, any metaphysics or soul, in his commitment to creating machine life to replace human life. He chides Josie’s mother,
“Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that. We know that now.”
But Klara herself begins to understand what sets humans apart by observing them (“The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me”) and remarks inwardly on “the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” These maneuvers are the secret of the symbol that haunts her, a bull she sees in a field on a day trip she takes with Josie’s mother to a waterfall:
I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once, so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that the bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
This is the devouring minotaur at the center of humanity’s labyrinthine heart. Josie’s father affectionately calls her “animal,” and humans are half-animal, like the minotaur, capable of love, but also unfathomably capable of betrayal and predation and evil, forces that lead Klara to question her faith in her ideal sun-god. Klara, by contrast, is all devotion, all faith. She is, we might speculate, only inhuman because she is the human without the animal.
Superficially, Ishiguro’s moral would appear to be the one pronounced by Kirk over Spock’s photon-torpedo casket in The Wrath of Khan, speaking for those science-fiction characters and readers who have found nonhuman entities (robots, aliens) more lovable than their own kind: “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most—human.” To learn that this is not a compliment—that it’s allegorically akin to Blake seeming to praise the eponymous “Little Black Boy” for being white on the inside—we have to read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a novel that shows how measuring humanity via “humane” emotional proxies like empathy can be the alibi of oppression. (The film based on Dick’s novel, Blade Runner, beaten at the box office by the grieving Kirk and the deceased Spock in 1982—also the year of Ishiguro’s first novel—contains a line that sums up the ethos of both Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun: a character laments of the film’s replicant heroine and her truncated lifespan, “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) Yet Spock does not merit Kirk’s anthropocentric praise due to some Hamlet- or Quixote- or Ahab-like vagary—an Ahab figure is rather the film’s villain—but because he sacrifices the individual to the collective on the avowed principle, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” To be human is to refuse animal selfishness—which is to be, in Ishiguro’s novel, a robot. Sam Sacks, of all the reviewers I’ve read, grasps this aspect of Klara when he writes, “She is, in an eerie way, the apotheosis of Ishiguran humanity.” She will never let us go.
By the end of the novel, like some Beckett character, Klara narrates from a junkyard where she’s been left with her memories and what Josie’s mother calls her “slow fade.” Capaldi wanted to dissect her to find out how AI functions, given how complex it’s gotten: “They’re afraid because they can’t follow what’s going on inside any more,” he tells her, but she demurs. Just as the “lifted” characters don’t seem any smarter than the non-lifted ones, so Klara and the other robots prove as much a black box as human consciousness itself. Who can say what anyone is or why anyone does anything? Klara’s fidelity, her idealism, exceeds anything in Ishiguro, though, perhaps because of the broad strokes and bright colors called for by the genre. Our judgment is more ambiguous than ever. Was it all for nothing, for a social system she never had enough processing power to understand wasn’t worth a moment of anyone’s time? Or is she by contrast the ideal person: finding herself in a situation she didn’t create and can’t alter, she keeps faith with the commitments she’s managed to make until the end. She draws her own moral to her story, these remains of the bot in the junkyard, when her old store manager comes to visit:
“Mr Capaldi believed there was nothing inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
There’s nothing in there that makes us who we are, neither in a human friend nor an artificial one. All that matters is the connections between us and their careful maintenance in spite of every whim or desire, every change of heart or identity, every second thought or new circumstance. It’s hard to think of a message more thoroughly opposed to the mood and mind of our time—and more opposed, too, to the implicit worldview of the novel as an art form, the art form that brought our mood and mind into being, consecrated as it’s been from its modern beginning to Bildung, the endless development of the human individual.