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The New Republic Online
Thursday, May 12th, 2005


 

Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Human Difference

A review by James Wood

Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured — Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.

Never Let Me Go is a fantasy so mundanely told, so excruciatingly ordinary in transit, its fantastic elements so smothered in the loam of the banal and so deliberately grounded, that the effect is not just of fantasy made credible or lifelike, but of the real invading fantasy, bursting into its eccentricity and claiming it as normal. Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous.

The novel is narrated, with punitive blandness, by a woman named Kathy. It begins: "My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for eleven years." It maintains this tone of pristine ingenuity for almost three hundred pages. Kathy's story is about a private boarding school she attended called Hailsham, in the English countryside, and in particular about two close friends, Ruth and Tommy. It becomes clear enough that although the novel is set in the late 1990s, it inhabits a world somewhat adjacent to the one we know. Kathy refers to "donors" (her present job as a carer seems to involve looking after these donors); the school she is reminiscing about does not seem to have had teachers but "guardians." These guardians appear to be human beings like you and me — they are referred to by the pupils as "normals." But the children they look after are not normal: the girls, for instance, will never be able to have babies, and all the pupils appear to be destined not to join ordinary life when they graduate, but to become "donors" and to lead abbreviated, highly controlled adult lives.

Reviews of this singular novel have tended to stress the first-stage detection involved in reading it; whereas Ishiguro, as ever, is interested in far foggier hermeneutics. That is to say, in this novel of exquisite occlusions, the question of who these children are and what their function is in modern society is never very deeply withheld. By the hundredth page or so, even if we had not divined it much earlier, we realize that Hailsham is a school of cloned children, created in order to provide top-notch organs for donation to normal, uncloned British citizens. At the age of sixteen, the children will leave Hailsham, spend some time in an intermediate establishment, and then get "called up." All will first be chosen to be carers, their task to look after an assigned donor; some, like Ruth and Tommy, will be swiftly requested for donation: perhaps a kidney or a lung will be removed. In the course of their fourth donation they will "complete"; they will die.

To be sure, Ishiguro wants to ration the pace at which we receive this terrible information, but that is because his real interest is not in what we discover but in what his characters discover, and how it will affect them. He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours. The children at Hailsham live in a protected environment. They know that they are different, but their guardians are cryptic about this difference. Gradually, through tiny leaks on the part of these guardians, the children gather a burgeoningly complete picture of their fate. By the time they leave school, they know the essential facts. So what might it mean to learn, as a child, that one will never bear children, or hold a meaningful job, or sail into adulthood? How will these children interpret the implications of their abbreviation, the meaning of their mutilated scripts?

Much of the success of the book has to do with the way Ishiguro renders the normality, even tedium, of the world of Hailsham, and then inserts into it icy slivers of menace. Hailsham is like any other school, and if the children feel different, then they are merely like the privileged students of any happy, self-regarding private establishment. The first third of the book chronicles the squabbles and jockeying and jealousies of ordinary schoolchildren. Kathy is clearly in love with Tommy, who seems to be a troubled boy; but Tommy chooses Ruth, who is dismayingly mercurial in her feelings toward Kathy, supposedly her closest friend. There is much rivalrous power play, of a kind familiar from books and films about school days, between Ruth and Kathy.

Kathy's pale narration represents a calculated risk on Ishiguro's part, since it means that his novel is almost entirely written in what Nabokov once called "weak blond prose." Kathy's diction is relaxed into colloquialism and cliché. A teacher "loses her marbles"; a rainy day is "bucketing down"; students about to get into trouble are "for it"; students who have sex are "doing it." She is fond of the supremely English word "daft," and uses woolly intensifiers — "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham the guardians were really strict about smoking." Ishiguro has always enjoyed ventriloquizing English voices: the upholstered butler in The Remains of the Day; the narrator of The Unconsoled who sounds like those hysterically calm captions on Glen Baxter cartoons; the narrator of When We Were Orphans, whose fiddly, precise English resembles a parody of Anthony Powell. Kathy's voice is like an expository writing paper by a not very bright freshman; it pushes to new extremes Ishiguro's interest in the studied husbanding of affect:

We were in Room 5 on the ground floor at the back of the house, waiting for a class to start. Room 5 was the smallest room, and especially on a winter morning like that one, when the big radiators came on and steamed up the windows, it would get really stuffy. Maybe I'm exaggerating it, but my memory is that for a whole class to fit into that room, students literally had to pile on top of each other.

But Kathy is somewhat anxiously ingratiating, and her habit of addressing the reader as if the reader were the same as her — "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham ..." — has a fragile pathos to it. She wants to be one of us, and in some way she assumes she is. The very dullness of these children, their lack of rebelliousness, even incuriousness, is what grounds the book's fantasy. They seem never to want to run away from their school, to throw over the commanded lives they must eventually lead. Full comprehension of who they are and why they were created makes them sad, but only resignedly so. This is the only reality they have ever known, and they are indeed creatures of habit. Ishiguro shakes this banality every so often, as the terribleness of what has been done emerges. For example, the children's artworks are collected every month by a woman known only as Madame, and taken out of the school to a gallery. (We later learn that this is an attempt to see if the children have souls.) Ruth senses that Madame is frightened by the children, even repelled, and they decide to test their surmise one day by rushing her as a group and watching her response. They are right:

I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we'd walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn't been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.

Kathy goes on to say that the "first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it's a cold moment. It's like walking past a mirror you've walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange."

In another episode, which lends the book its title, Kathy remembers becoming obsessed with a song called "Never Let Me Go." She would play this song again and again:

I just waited for that bit that went: "Baby, baby, never let me go ..." And what I'd imagined was a woman who'd been told she couldn't have babies, who'd really, really wanted them all her life. Then there's a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: "Baby, never let me go ..." partly because she's so happy, but also because she's so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her. Even at the time, I realised this couldn't be right, that this interpretation didn't fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn't an issue with me.

This is an acute rendition of how any young girl might misread the lyrics of a song; and it is shadowed, of course, by the actual facts of this girl's life. One day, Kathy is dancing to herself, holding a pillow in her arms and crooning along to the song, "Oh baby, baby, never let me go." She looks up and in the doorway Madame is watching her: "And the odd thing was she was crying ... she just went on standing out there, sobbing and sobbing...."

Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth eventually leave Hailsham and are billeted at a place called The Cottages, where they have much more freedom, and join a group of older teenagers. But it is a freedom they barely exercise. They borrow a car and drive through Norfolk. On one such outing, to the coastal town of Cromer, friends of the trio are sure that they have seen what they call "a possible" for Ruth:

Since each of us was copied at some point from a normal person, there must be, for each of us, somewhere out there, a model getting on with his or her life. This meant, at least in theory, you'd be able to find the person you were modelled from. That's why, when you were out there yourself — in the towns, shopping centres, transport cafés — you kept an eye out for "possibles" — the people who might have been the models for you and your friends.

The friends follow the woman whom they consider Ruth's possible, or original. But the longer they watch her, the less like Ruth she seems, and the excitement of the surveillance fizzles. Only then does it become apparent that Ruth is terribly disappointed. She bursts out, bitterly:

"They don't ever, ever, use people like that woman.... We all know it. We're modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren't psychos. That's what we come from.... A woman like that? Come on.... If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that's where you'll find where we all come from."

The entire episode testifies to what is strangely successful in this book: the way it rubs its science fictional narrative from the rib of the real, making it breathe with horrid plausibility, and then the way it converts that science fiction back into the human, managing to be at once sinister and ordinarily affecting.

Ruth and Tommy break up, and Kathy becomes a carer and Tommy a donor, and Kathy takes Ruth's place as Tommy's lover, as she had to, and the novel's title begins to vibrate with premonition, for we know that Tommy has made three donations, and is thus only one operation away from death. The novel is weakened by a didactic ending, in which the spirit of Wells or Huxley bests the spirit of Borges. Kathy and Tommy manage to track down a former guardian, Miss Emily, and Madame, and these now-aged ladies apologize to the cloned couple for what they have done to them, and attempt to exonerate themselves by claiming that they always had the best interests of the children at heart. Madame admits to Kathy that when she saw, all those years ago, the little girl crooning to the song, she cried because she saw "a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go."

The novel hardly needed this preaching, partly because it has already so effectively dramatized the horror of what has been brought about; and partly because of course the cloning of human beings hardly needs denunciation. The book wobbles into treatise here, and doubtless commends itself to the President's Council on Bioethics, whose chairman handed out to colleagues a copy of Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark," in which an arrogant scientist attempts to rid his wife of what he sees as a disfiguring birthmark, and in doing so kills her.

But Never Let Me Go, while certainly a dramatized attack on cloning, could probably not give much final consolation to those who talk about protecting "a culture of life." For it is most powerful when most allegorical, and its allegorical power has to do with its picture of ordinary human life as in fact a culture of death. That is to say, Ishiguro's book is at its best when, by asking us to consider the futility of cloned lives, it forces us to consider the futility of our own. This is the moment at which Kathy's appeal to us — "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham ..." — becomes double-edged. For what if we are more like Tommy and Kathy than we at first imagined? The cloned children are being educated at school for lives of perfect pointlessness, pointless because they will die before they can grasp their adulthood. Everything they do is dipped in futility, because the great pool of death awaits them. They possess individuality, and seem to enjoy it (they fall in love, they have sex, they read George Eliot), but that individuality is a mirage, a parody of liberty. Their lives have been written in advance, they are prevented and followed, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer. Their freedom is a tiny hemmed thing, their lives a vast stitch-up.

We begin the novel horrified by their difference from us and end it thoughtful about their similarity to us. After all, heredity writes a great deal of our destiny for us; and death soon enough makes us orphans, even if we were fortunate enough, unlike the children of Hailsham, not to start life in such deprivation. Without a belief in God, without metaphysical pattern and leaning, why should our lives not indeed be sentences of a kind, death sentences? Even with God? Well, God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it: the writing may well be on the wall anyway. To be assured of death at twenty-five or so, as the Hailsham children are, seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it? The culture of life is not such a grand thing when seen through these narrow windows.

Ishiguro's novel has no need to be didactic about cloning, because it is allegorical about it instead. At its best, the book is seamlessly allegorical, generating meaning without strain. It is here that it becomes reminiscent of Kafka (a clear influence on The Unconsoled), and Beckett, whose Hamm, in Endgame, yells: "Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth, there's no cure for that," an earth that Tess, in Hardy's novel, calls a blighted star, and which Hardy again calls blighted in his poem "When Dead":

This fleeting life-brief blight
Will have gone past
When I resume my old and right
Place in the Vast.

So this curious, surprisingly suggestive and tender novel forces us, finally, to send Kathy's apparently naïve appeal back to her, in a spirit of horrified allegiance: "I don't know how it was where you were, but here in this fleeting life...."


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