Wednesday, May 17, 2006

BOOKS: The Prisons We Make for Ourselves

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.

The end.


Anonymous said...

OK, I didn't want to read Never Let Me Go, because the title sounds like a pop song or something, but if you recommend it this much (thanks for hiding the spoilers), well, I'll make sure it goes on the summer reading list.

In return, I very strongly recommend Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Holy cow, that is a great book. It's like every nightmare I've ever had, elegantly spun out to 400+ pages. Awesome. As you probably know already, it's the one he wrote between Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, the latter of which I really did not like. A lot of people didn't like The Unconsoled, but I do not know what is wrong with them.

Anonymous said...

I first heard of Never Let Me Go on "To The Best of Our Knowledge", here. Ishiguro reads an excerpt and discusses his interest in the subject (I haven't listened to this in ages, but I think it had something to do with imagining a full life compressed into such a short amount of time).

Tamara said...

Ooo. I loved "When We Were Children." Can't wait to pick this one up.

Marg said...

I read this last year and really enjoyed it.Highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

I read this a few weeks ago. It's seriously one of my favorite books, like, ever. So haunting.

Mike said...

wayne, don't tell the others: but I have always loved you best.

The Unconsoled is seriously one of my favorite books of all time. The dreamlike state you mention: totally. I love the feeling of unresolved tension that runs throughout the book.

Seriously, wayne: BFF.

Ari said...

Thank you for pointing this book out, I even read the spoilers and they just made me more interested. I found out my local library has one copy on their shelf and its all mine!! Mine, I say! Thanks again :)

Tammy said...

So you say you dig the "unresolved tension," Mike? Then you must get your mitts on a copy of Never Let Me Go. You MUST. You too, Wayne. I'm not kidding. Our chances of all retiring peacably together in a villa in Florence are resting on this.

In return, I pledge to read The Unconsoled as soon as I've recovered from my current Ishiguro-induced psychic massacre.

landismom said...

I totally agree with your analysis--I'd go a step further and say that I think that Ishiguro is examining something I've been very much interested in recently--what goes on in the mind of people who continue to participate, unquestioningly, in a society that is clearly putting them in danger.

Let me just say, though, that while I appreciate your spoiler tag-age, I'm expecting you to pay for my cornea replacement surgery. Ow.

Anonymous said...

And just when I was wondering what book from my imaginary brain list I should order next from Amazon.

I kept seeing this at B&N ... but probably ended up getting Lemony Snicket books or something.

Anonymous said...

No worries, Doppleganger. Mike is the one who recommended Never Let Me Go to me. So he's already in the club.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I usually love Ishiguro; the dawning realisation that crept over me while reading When we were orphans is like little else I've experienced in fiction, except perhaps in the movie Adaptation (and I can't give any more than that away to someone who hasn't read it).

But I really didn't like, or "get" Never let me go. I just couldn't get over the "glaring omission" you mentioned, and it ruined the book for me.

Tammy said...

Whoops. Yeah, sorry about that, landismom. I don't know how your computer displays highlighting, but mine is a sort of bright aqua blue, which isn't the best backdrop for white text. Just know that, since I always proofread my stuff after I publish, I'll be in the same ward as you when I get my corneas replaced.

Also, I like your interpretation that "Ishiguro is examining something I've been very much interested in recently--what goes on in the mind of people who continue to participate, unquestioningly, in a society that is clearly putting them in danger." I think my thoughts were travelling along the same path, but mine were much more muzzy-headed than yours.

Shona, does landismom's interpretation work for you at all? I can see how that question would nag at you; it did at me, but then it became my central preoccupation, in a good way, after I decided that it was exactly that issue that Ishiguro wanted to make me think about. (Jesus, that last sentence is poorly worded. I'm blaming the late night.)

And thanks for the info, Desideratum. You should come live in the villa, too. We can coax Mike to teach knitting classes on the veranda.

Anonymous said...

OK, that does it, Never Let Me Go is my very next read (I just finished David Mitchell's Ghostwritten -- very good, if uneven, but I think that was the point).

IRT Mike: The bracelet is in the mail.

Anonymous said...

Read "The Lost German Slave Girl" by John Bailey. It is a good book.

MsMolly said...

I found Never Let Me Go on sale at Target on their returns shelf for, like, $3 or something. (I have no idea why someone returned it. There's no damage to the copy that I can see.) I picked it up because I had heard people mention it positively, and I've been reading it non-stop for the last two days. It's the most compelling book I've read in a long time, and I really find Kathy's narrative voice to be very authentic. It always bugs me when people in books remember their life in perfect detail, so I find the way Ishiguro has written her to be much closer to the way real people remember their childhoods.

Melanie J Watts said...

Never Let Me Go is my recently, just read favourite book. I enjoyed THe Unconsoled and The Remains of The Day, after saw the movie. I ve been wanting to read Never Let Me Go after heararing an interview with Ishiguro on CBC . When I saw it in paper back on the shelf of my favourite bookstore I snatched it up and ran home to devour it. It was well worth it. So if you like literary novels this one is at the top of the list.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading it now and am having a very hard time refraining from highlighting your review to see the spoilers!

Anonymous said...

I know this is like a 1000 years after the fact, but I just finished reading it this morning and wanted to write about it somewhere.
I was wondering about the time the story takes place. With the constant talk about Walkmans, cassette tapes, and the Great War, I kept thinking that perhaps rather than being set in the 'not-too-distant future,' that this was maybe an 'alternate version' to where we are now. That maybe Ishiguro is showing us how not so far removed we are from actually becoming this society based on a few key decisions/moments in our own history where we could have jumped onto that track forever. Kinda like Sliding Doors, but less vapid?

Erin said...

I had an unfortunate run-in with Remains of the Day in college (I had to read it for a class and hated it), but after reading Never Let Me Go, which I adored, I sometimes think about revisiting Remains.

Anonymous said...

Never Let Me Go has haunted me for the past 3 weeks. I wish I could describe the experience of reading this book. It's like life itself; so sweet and so sad.