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Book Group: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro [Apr. 27th, 2006|07:36 am]
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With The Unconsoled Kazuo Ishiguro moved away from the period naturalism that made his name. In doing so he lost the critics. He also lost me. I was a great admirer of his wonderful early novels but for fickle reasons to do with thickness and reviews it sat on my shelf unread. He returned to period naturalism with When We Were Orphans which received good but muted notices and joined The Unconsoled on my unread pile. Now with Never Let Me Go he has moved more firmly away from this to produce a science fiction alt history. The book enjoyed an excellent critical reception, was shortlisted for the Booker and firmly re-established his name as a hot property. I'm not sure whether this attention was deserved however.

I recently read K.A. Beford's Eclipse and in my review complained about the amount of infodumping. I was particularly affronted by the opening sentence:
My name is James Robert Dunne. I joined Eclipse when I was twenty-one years old, a fresh graduate from the Royal Interstellar Service Academy in Winter City, Ganymede, and I was ready to join the crew of Her Majesty's Starship Eclipse for my first three-year hitch of active space duty.
Never Let Me Go starts:
My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. (1)
Now it would be impossible for Ishiguro to write as badly as Bedford but he does suffer from a similar problem. Kathy is telling the story of her life and the first third of the novel is given over to a description of Hailsham, the boarding school she grew up in. Since the students of the school are not your average student these differences have to be explained and the way in which Ishiguro does this is rather clumsy. A typical aside runs:
I should explain about the Exchanges we had at Hailsham. (15)
Everything is direct to the reader and the text is constantly interupted by such asides. The one thing Ishiguro doesn't explain is exactly what a carer is or what a donor is. This is partially to give the book a climatic revelation and partly because the concepts are decidedly ropy and best kept off stage for as long possible. As a novel of revelation, though, the book is a failure. We are never interested in this revelation and nor it seems is Ishiguro. The whole of Chapter Twenty Two is given over to a fill-in-the-blanks session that is not only ridiculously implausible but very crudely delivered:
"What was this Morningdale scandal you keep mentioning, Miss Emily?" I asked. "You'll have to tell us, because we don't know about it." (258)
As is now traditional Adam Roberts misrepresents the book to serve his point in his annual Clarke takedown. This not withstanding Roberts is bang on the money in his dissection of the novel's main flaw. Allow me to condense his review:
That's what's missing in Ishiguro's treatment: comedy. Wit. Irony. Or, indeed, human warmth of any kind... Moreover, everything happens in a weirdly dissociated climate of affluent seclusion; one amongst many elements lacking is any context for the experience of cloning as Ishiguro represents it... This isn't to say it's badly written, exactly; but only that it is so carefully written, its prose is so neurotic about putting a single foot wrong, that it becomes bloodless... The representation of banality need not itself be banal; and, indeed, SF has greater need than most genres of the understanding that most of life is trivial, that banality is a major force in life. But Ishiguro is so allergic to melodrama that he's gone too far the other way: he's purged his drama of any music at all, save (perhaps) a thin atonal melody playing very distantly in the background.
O brave new world that has such boring bastards in it. Kathy is more an observer of her life than a participant in it. Reading Ishiguro is always an exercise in reading between the lines but as we read between the lines of Kathy reading between the lines of her own life it is hard not to wonder if there is anything there. John Mullan suggests this is a novel "shaped by all that it leaves out" but does Ishiguro leave anything left to give it shape? As in The Remains Of The Day the desires of the character's hearts are hidden and repressed but here there is no societal reason and character motivation is not so much mysterious as non-existant. Why does Kathy not attempt a relationship with Tommy? Why does she remain friends with a poisonous bitch like Ruth? So much is left unsaid that the love triangle is implausible and Ruth's deathbed confession when it comes rings hollow.

Other critics have read this more charitably. Mullen goes so far as to suggest Ishiguro makes a virtue of both his and his characters' lack of interest in their world. In his review M. John Harrison says:
It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. Beneath Kathy's flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan.
I'll admit I missed this "unexpressed" rage. I think in the end Harrison's reading is actually more interesting than the novel. Ishiguro's prose only really captures the voice of his protagonists as teens, not earlier or later, which is perhaps appropriate because his characters remain in a state of arrested development. I can see no justification to their placid, bovine nature though. This seems to be a novel about disengagement from the world. Ishiguro has created a world he has no interest in and has explicitly declined to render it plausibly. He has then populated it with characters who are divorced from humanity but are incurious about this fact. I fail to see the point of such a novel. Perhaps, as Harrison suggests, the novel's purpose is simply to cause the reader to rebel against its sterility.

All NLMG quotes London: Faber & Faber, 2006.

The Guardian Book Club

1) John Mulllan on ommissions
2) John Mulllan on restrictions
3) Kazuo Ishiguro on inspiration
4) Reader responses

[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2006-04-27 02:31 pm (UTC)
My first book group comment. Let's stop for a moment so someone can take a picture. ::sniffle::

Everything is direct to the reader and the text is constantly interupted by such asides.

Is it an interruption, though, if that's how the entire book is written? The reader's put on notice, as you say, by that very first sentence, and the book keeps coming back to it over and over again: this already happened, this is being remembering, this is being told.

(To who? may be a question, but eh, I'm not sure that I care.

I agree that the books fails if it's the revelation is point. But...if the revelation is the point, it fails so spectacularly that I have to think the revelation _isn't_ the point. That it's incidental to what the book is really on about.

(This bugged me less than it may have bugged others because I came pre-spoilered for the revelation and so I was reverse-engineering the story as I read instead of trying to figure out what was going on.)

Perhaps, as Harrison suggests, the novel's purpose is simply to cause the reader to rebel against its sterility.

Philosophical differences time! Is that really a simple thing?

The interesting thing to me (and the thing that I think may speak to your comments about the characters) is--how thoroughly the kids accepted not just their fate but everything. And how aware it makes the reader (just me?) of wanting to be active in the world.

I'm with Harrison's second-last paragraph more than his last.
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[User Picture]From: ninebelow
2006-04-28 07:21 am (UTC)
Philosophical differences time! Is that really a simple thing?

Maybe not but I am just boggled that anyone would think this is a good idea. It seems like saying Westlife are as important as The Sex Pistols because they cause a reaction. This is lauding Ishiguro for being delibrately bad which is something I deeply weird. If I needed him to remind me I am alive (which I don't) having a bunch of non-humans imitate the living dead is not the way to do it.
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[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2006-04-28 06:39 pm (UTC)
First things first: hee!

I'm not sure, though, that I see it as being deliberately bad. Or bad at all. It's definitely not good in the ways that are often considered good. But--I was utterly sucked in and fascinated, instead of feeling (more often a problem for me) bored and quitting on the book. Which strikes me as evidence of a very skilled juggling act indeed.
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[User Picture]From: swisstone
2006-04-27 07:51 pm (UTC)
I think your identification of clumsy infodump is probably the same phenomenon K comments upon.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-04-27 08:35 pm (UTC)
The whole of Chapter Twenty Two is given over to a fill-in-the-blanks session that is not only ridiculously implausible but very crudely delivered:

Yes. And it's not only implausible, it's not necessary--the book works much better when everything is kept vague. I think I referred to this somewhere as bringing the monster on stage, because I think NLMG is functionally quite a lot like a horror novel.

As in The Remains Of The Day the desires of the character's hearts are hidden and repressed but here there is no societal reason

No societal reason except, er, being brought up and groomed to be that way?

My review from way back when here.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-04-27 08:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, and I will say that I think the comparisons with Spares are baffling. The two books have almost nothing in common, and are trying to do completely different things; I don't see much point in comparing them.
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[User Picture]From: i_ate_my_crusts
2006-04-28 10:31 am (UTC)
I think the comparison is solely because the primary setup is carers plus clones in both cases, basically. They do head in astoundingly different directions, as you say.

I'm still pondering my response to V for Vendetta and Mortal Love, let alone Never Let Me Go
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[User Picture]From: ninebelow
2006-04-28 07:11 am (UTC)
No societal reason except, er, being brought up and groomed to be that way?

Of all the things that are hidden from them sex is not one of them and they are very much equals; class, propriety and the like have no impact on them. In this I do think they are in a very different situation.

You are right that any comparison to Spares is meaningless.
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[User Picture]From: frandowdsofa
2006-04-28 12:21 pm (UTC)
First thing to say is I enjoyed reading it. Kathy seemed to me to be an accurately voiced character - although I agree she's mostly surface, I didn't get any of this unexpressed rage.

Reading the reviews and comments, something came bubbling up from my past, which covers a similar time-frame to Kathy's, that I've finally sorted out in my head, about the willing acceptance of fate.

I did teacher training around 1981, and had a placement at a secondary school somewhere near Birmingham. There was a local airport, but not much other work left. The teenagers I taught were mostly in a situation where Dad was unemployed, Mum had a part-time job in a service industry (usually something to do with the airport), and the children themselves expected to get no qualifications, never have a job, and spend the rest of their lives sitting around. Girls often skipped school because someone had to be at home to make Dad's tea, fetch his fags, etc. There didn't seem to be a high rate of pregnancy or drug abuse, but there was quite a bit of petty theft and minor vandalism. These kids weren't stupid, but the world had assumed that they were worthless a long time ago.

Did they riot? no, or at least not locally - they might have joined some summer riots in nearby cities. Did they rebel in any way - dress, music, make-up, even, let alone political activity? no. They went on coming to school pretty much most days, for no apparent reason. Their graffitti was artistic rather than political, their poetry about washing-up or watching TV. They didn't even seem passionate about sport.

Kathy and her fellow students were subjected to years of specialist education and social conditioning devoted to making sure they knew enough to keep themselves entertained and not cause trouble, without giving them the skills to question their role, break out and get away. This had happened to my lot as well, at the same time, and I'd like to think not by design. Although I wouldn't swear to it.
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[User Picture]From: despotliz
2006-05-01 12:06 pm (UTC)
I think you're a little bit harsh on the writing, and it does a decent job of showing these characters who are molded from birth, hidden and repressed as you say. It's one of those books that I can see people might really like and feel for the characters, but I don't.

The other reason for this is that the science fiction aspects of the book are so poorly done, and it hamstrings the whole book. Keeping all the details vague and mysterious until the last-minute infodump only works if you're not keeping all the details vague and mysterious because they don't actually make sense. I have big problems with the clones and the donations - I start wondering whether they have clones for everyone in the country, how and why you would donate your organs in stages, why the rest of society has no problems with this vast army of clones. I realise the worldbuilding is really not the point of the novel, but when it seems to have had so little thought put into it, it distracts me from the rest of the book.
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-05-06 10:36 am (UTC)
You said to let you know when I'd read it, because you wanted to post about it...
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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-05-06 10:36 am (UTC)
(Just finished reading the book).

I liked this book much more than you, it seems. For me, the prose is deliberately sterile, it mirrors the life these people are brought up to lead. At school, every time they come close to a truth or a discovery, they shy away from it; in adulthood, carers have several donors to look after that "visitor" would be a more apt description of their function. Even sexual relationships are lived out without any real passion or significant emotional commitment. So the prose, beautiful, spare and cold, reflects exactly the lives of the protagonists.
I felt that the infodump near the end was a little clunky, but really not so bad. It was necessary to show the difference between the way that Tommy handled the news (first with rage, and then by turning away from Kathy and embracing his short future as a donor), and the way that Kathy did (which was much more in line with that same disturbing calmness that characterised most of the clones' lives). Throughout the book, Tommy is the only one who really ever shows any passion at all - and then it is only through a perceived loss of control. The children are trained into a ovine acceptance of their lives. Kathy and even Ruth manage this, Tommy is the exception, and he suffers for it.
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