February 2007 Archives

Library Tuesdays: Never Let Me Go

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I am supposed to be leading a bookgroup on Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, on Thursday. I thought maybe I shouldn't write an entry about it before said bookgroup takes place, because people might read it and it might influence what they think about the book, and I didn't want to foist my own opinions on others. But right now I sort of suspect that my boss Eva might be the only person in attendance on Thursday, and I trust that even if she reads these meditations prior to our meeting, she is sufficiently strong-minded to bear up under the strain. Also, if you read this entry and think I'm (a) brilliant; (b) a raving lunatic; or (c) sort of onto something but not quite there yet, I urge you to come down to CubeSpace (622 SE Grand Ave.) around 6pm, as Eva and I would love to talk with you. Really. Otherwise we will just be at work, like every day.

Originally I was a little bit leery of Never Let Me Go. I had read Ishiguro's famous The Remains of the Day and his slightly less-famous An Artist of the Floating World, both of which I thought were masterful studies of regret and the loneliness of social hierarchies, of what happens to people who are trained and/or develop into a very specific social niche or pattern of behaviors, and who are then left behind by a changing world where that niche is no longer valued or even acceptable. The delicacy of the language and the perfection of the narrative voice and careful structure of the plot were all breathtaking. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I got a little dubious when I heard that Ishiguro's new book was a kind of semi-scifi dystopian novel. It was getting a lot of attention because it features cloning, that medical-ethics buzzword on the tips of everyone's tongues. Yes, it was snobbish to assume that "current events" and "vaguely science-fiction plot" equaled "not so timeless as his other novels," but what can I say? I'm a snob.

And now I'm a humbled snob, because Never Let Me Go is fantastic. Ishiguro's characteristically restrained understatement is a brilliant counterpoint to the potentially over-the-top plot line. It makes the dystopianism all the more believable, because, as we've all been taught by Pink Floyd via that blowhard Thoreau, "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way," and Ishiguro points out that it would still be the English way even if a complex system of forced organ donation were integrated into British society.

But this was not a novel "about" a scary dystopian future. It's not a warning about what might be, not a tirade about the dangerous waters exposed by recent advances in medical science. Or, if it is these things, being so is not its primary aim. I'm really glad it wasn't the first Ishiguro novel I read, because having The Remains of the Day and Artist of the Floating World under my belt made me realize that the three novels share a concern about individuals who are used by society, who are forced or cajoled into surrendering their own fulfillment in order to serve others' needs, whether that be through a lifetime of faithful service, indoctrinated traditionalism, or being required to give up your vital organs so that someone else can live. All three novels explore the darker side of social hierarchies, of what is gained and lost by people who become invested in the myths of systems that may not be to their best interests. But all three also make the point that in order to confront the negative or oppressive aspects of a social system, people also have to compromise the images of beauty and understanding to which they have clung all their lives. In the case of The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens is heavily invested in the value of the upper-class British lifestyle and his own role within it, and he is an old man before he is able to admit his regrets or even contemplate the possibility of a different life. An Artist of the Floating World has a protagonist whose memories of coming of age as an artist are inextricably bound with the rise of militant nationalism and oppression in Japan. In Never Let Me Go, young people whose lives are also drawing to an end have to choose between believing in the idyllic childhoods they enjoyed at a prestigious boarding school, and confronting the fact that during those childhoods they were objects of scorn and fear for most people, and also being manipulated for political purposes.

The point I'm trying to make by drawing these connections between Ishiguro's novels is that Never Let Me Go is a metaphorical comment about current social hierarchies, or perhaps about the innate nature of human social hierarchies, rather than a warning about what might or might not happen at some point in the future. In every case, individuals are scarred by the ways in which society uses them as a tool rather than a sentient being, even while they also gain meaning and relevance from being so used. An Artist of the Floating World is especially interesting in this regard, since the manner in which the main character becomes a pawn of Japanese militarism takes place within a narrative of the independent artist, rebelling against parents and teachers to strike out in his own artistic direction - not a type of person that one expects to end up serving the entrenched power structures. Even so, Ono struggles between regret and self-justification about the role that he and his art have played in the leadup to the second World War, and has to reassess his place in a changing society.

Never Let Me Go takes the theme of self-examination within the larger societal context to the next level; since the main characters are facing imminent death and have no children or family members that will be left behind (as in An Artist of the Floating World), there is no easy answer to the question "Why bother to face the truth about this culture or our role within it?" There is no question that the easier path is to sink into an abyss of nostalgia, remembering happy days rather than dwelling on harsh realities. Take away the usual motivating factors for facing hard truths (it will allow you to lead a better, more honest life, or make a better life for those you love), and the novel becomes a fascinating meditation on the dilemma of seeking out the truth, versus remaining in blissful ignorance. Some characters choose one path, and others choose the other; I was left at the end of the novel asking myself if either group was really better off. My whole being rebels against the idea that striving for the right is useless because we're all going to die anyway, and I think that Ishiguro would object to this idea as well, but he definitely takes his reader through a hard and unflinching look at why one ought to search out the truth, when the usual answers don't apply.

I also think the layers of social knowledge and naivete in Ishiguro's novels are fascinating. They mostly deal with people who are operating below the surface, behind the scenes: a butler, with his intimate knowledge of how to keep a huge upper-class household in top working order; an artist, creating propaganda that bolsters a gathering political storm; a group of young people who belong to the shunned "donor" class, about whom regular citizens know very little but on whom they depend for replacement organs. You would think that each of these people would be possessed of inside information, that they could give us a glimpse behind the scenes, into the clockwork that makes society tick. And to a certain extent this is true. But to a greater extent, reading the books makes me realize that to people in their situation, the world I consider normal is "behind the scenes," and knowing more about their own realm of influence only means that there are other aspects of life about which they are naive. So, for example, the donors know very little about the prevailing attitudes towards them in the outside world, just as the English butler has trouble conceiving of a life not selflessly dedicated to service. It's an interesting revelation, that absolute knowledge resides in no one person, but is a mosaic of (often conflicting) experiences from across the social spectrum.

All of this is more fun to read than I'm communicating. Ishiguro has an amazing ability to maintain complete control of his narrative at all times, making it all seem breezily simple while juggling complicated past-and-present plots and telling the story from a very subjective, sometimes unreliable first-person perspective which never falters in its consistency. I can only imagine that for anyone who appreciates the art of novel-writing, the experience of reading one of his books is just as breathtaking as it is for me.

Promotional dirt:
Where: CubeSpace, 622 SE Grand Ave. (upstairs)
When: Thursday, March 1, at 6:00pm.
RSVP: (503) 206-3500, or just show up!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography