Can I tell you how not to read the novel Never Let Me Go? Back to back with watching the final season of Six Feet Under on DVD. Emotionally, I'm a ruin. I may never recover.
Psychic scarring aside, Never Let Me Go is easily the best book I've read since... well, since I read one of Kazuo Ishiguro's other novels, The Remains of the Day, last year. But I'm having a hard time writing about it without giving up pretty much the entire plot. And since I don't want to ruin the book for those of you who haven't yet read it (because you are going to read it, right?), you know what that means. Spoiler tags!
You probably all know how to use spoiler tags, but for the uninitiated, all you have to do is just highlight the seemingly white space below and ta-DA! Words will appear. Spoiler tags = the lemon juice and open flame of the internet.
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro (#16)
A quick recap, in case you read this novel a while ago: the story is told from the perspective of Kathy, whom I guessed to be about thirty (a good Logan's Run-ish age, appropriate to this novel). Kathy is looking back on her life, particularly her time spent at Hailsham, a private boarding school, and more particularly her reflections on the two students she was closest to, Ruth and Tommy.
I twigged pretty early to the fact that there was something weird about this school, and sure enough, it turns out that the novel is set in the not-too-distant future, where cloning and organ harvesting are the norm. The students at Hailsham are all clones who are being prepared by their teachers for their eventual roles as carers (non-medical staff who care for donors) and, when their stints as carers are over, as donors. As donors, they will donate four vital organs in fairly short succession, and then they will "complete" (AKA die).
It's a dark, science-fiction-y story, and Ishiguro's gifts lie in normalizing the premise to make it all too believable. In fact, the story is less about the sci-fi aspect and more about the relationships between the students: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. As they enter young adulthood, Ruth and Tommy pair up, with Kathy as the perpetual outsider. The subtle tensions between the three are the focus of the story, as it becomes apparent that the real connection is between Kathy and Tommy, with Ruth keeping herself between them for her own complicated reasons.
So that seems to be the setting, the premise, and the plot. But these are just the framework that Ishiguro uses to hang his bleak exploration of autonomy and selfhood and the limitations we create for ourselves. Not unlike The Remains of the Day, in which a butler reflects on his years of unquestioning service to a class system to which he subscribes wholeheartedly, the characters in Never Let Me Go rarely seem to question their reason for being, nor do they rail at the fact that their lives are to be cut so short by the system to which they are enslaved.
I can't stop thinking about this last point. Why don't these characters rebel? They're not in prisons or chains. There seems to be no policing of them, beyond the ordinary strictures of the boarding school. As students, they're encouraged to pursue literature, the arts, and other forms of self-reflection and -expression, and, alarmingly, this seems to create no self-awareness in them. As adult carers, they're given cars and limitless opportunities to escape. And yet this notion is glaring in its complete omission from the story.
At first, I thought that maybe this is a function of them being clones. If they've been cloned, perhaps they've been genetically tampered with to make them submissive and accepting. And if so, the chilling implication of this is that perhaps they are, in fact, less than human, as the people who run the system would like to believe. But I don't think that this is the case. My limited exposure to Ishiguro's work leads me to believe that he's not a writer who is interested in relatively narrow (though still huge) issues of medical ethics.
No, I think that what Ishiguro wants us to think about is our perception of our own "freedom." We westerners have a vested belief that we are a free and independent and self-directed people. Is this really true? That's a facetious question, of course. We all know it isn't true. From birth, we're indoctrinated by our family, our friends, and the various social systems in which we participate. We can't avoid these things, and I don't think Ishiguro is telling us we must. What I do think he's telling us is that we must never, ever, ever stop examining and questioning them, and our own subscription to them.