Weeping for the Old Kind World
Kazuo Ishiguro holds up a mirror to ourselves
By Toh Hsien Min
Never Let Me Go
I suppose it had to happen, but I’ve reached the age where conversation with my contemporaries has begun to involve blood tests, cholesterol levels and the like. Mere weeks ago, I met a friend of a friend who had made a cold turkey switch from indulging in fried chicken several times a week to a macrobiotic diet after having done some medical tests; if your pulse is at stake, it might be a pretty good argument to eat pulses. It was equally striking, though, to hear him say that it wasn’t dying that he was afraid of; it was not dying. This statement, made just about the time the Terry Schiavo case was coming to international attention, seemed laced with a certain amount of irony, or at least of the awareness of the complex relations we have with our medical practitioners: on the one hand, he had respect enough for the medical profession to drastically change his lifestyle, and on the other, he had little faith that it could help him if his health was to go.
Wouldn’t it be a better world if we didn’t have to worry about our health because anything that went wrong with our bodies could be replaced instantly and without fuss? A premise such as this one lurks within the narrative of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro’s latest offering is set in an alternate present-day reality, one in which, it is fairly obvious fairly quickly, the world has found one solution to its medical problems in a population of human clones raised simply to provide human organs.
The protagonist Kathy H. is one of these clones, and her whole history is a recollection of her growing up with her friends Ruth and Tommy in an experimental colony wherein clones are given an education and allowed to grow up almost like ordinary children. As it happens, the school, Hailsham, reads almost like a typical upper-class boarding school where the children are aware of their own privilege, even if, coming to it from an outside perspective, it may not be immediately clear what this privilege is. Their possessions are pickings fought over at second-hand junk Sales. There are a grand total of six Walkmans in the whole school and the students take turns to listen to them for twenty seconds at a go. And their most creative art efforts get taken from them, never to be seen again.
On the one hand, Ishiguro does his usual thing of having his unreliable narrator piece the story together bit by bit as it occurs to her. One might thereby entertain the notion that this book might be Ishiguro’s contribution towards the science-fiction genre. It doesn’t take much longer for the reader to realise there’s at best only a passing nod.
Education appears to be the only innovation in the life-cycle of the clone, who upon graduating from Hailsham moves on to a half-hearted attempt at a tertiary education by research, and then to becoming carers for clones recovering from organ donations, and then, once they outlive their usefulness as carers, to becoming donors themselves. After an average of three organ donations, they ‘complete’, or outlive their usefulness.
It’s not that there aren’t opportunities to make more of the story. For example, the narrative thread on the use of art by Miss Emily, Madame and the other Hailsham teachers to prove that clones have souls could have been used to spark, or suggest, appropriate controversy. But it isn’t a brave new world of the novel that Ishiguro is interested in. He does not push any arguments for or against this world. There is no innovation in the story to advance or challenge the way we think about genetic experimentation, medical science, cloning, or human rights. In fact, it’s pretty hard to think of a more ordinary, more saliently unimaginative alternate reality.
Moreover, the science doesn’t quite stack up. The narrative requirement is for organ donations with both no certainty and some risk of ‘completing’ on each occasion, as the donors can ‘complete’ as early as their first donation, or as late as their fourth. But to my admittedly non-specialist knowledge, there are only a limited number of organs in the human body that satisfy these requirements, most obviously one kidney and half a liver, and very arguably one lung. It’s difficult to imagine dying from a cornea transplant, for example. But it’s clear that the science isn’t a priority. There is virtually no evidence in the book on types and instances of organ donation and how the donors’ lives have been impaired so as to require caring, so much so that the act of caring is almost a philosophical ideal.
Perhaps there will be a surprise at the end that will turn this whole alternate reality upside down and justify it as a story; and for large tracts of the book Ishiguro teases and hints at such a conclusion: that there is somehow some way of obtaining a deferral of the scheduled organ donations, and that this deferral would somehow make a statement on the world in which the novel unfolds. Yet when Kathy and Tommy confront their former headmistress Miss Emily about the rumours of possible deferrals, they are disappointed:
That last sentence strikes a bathetic keynote for the whole novel. The structure of disappointment is enacted in this pursuit of the truth behind the rumours. There will be no twist in the tail. However things always threaten to be significant, they are not.
Things are also puzzled over, analysed and taken halfway to being understood, but are not; and to a certain extent, the inability of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth to understand their world keeps the narrative alive and even amusing, and allows Ishiguro space to exercise his style. Yet the extent to which this could be more central to the novel than typical Ishiguro is hinted at by one of the most important set-pieces. Kathy is found dancing to ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Judy Bridgewater in a classroom one day by Madame, a mysterious and occasional visitor to Hailsham. In Kathy’s mind, the song is about a woman who is unable to have a baby and 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...’”. To Kathy’s surprise, Madame starts to sob. Kathy is distressed enough by the encounter to mention it to Tommy, who immediately relates it to their being sterile.
When Tommy and Kathy finally meet Madame again years after leaving Hailsham, Madame hears Kathy’s explanation of the episode, and then says:
There are at least two points that can be derived from this episode, after a reading of the whole novel. One is, as noted, the structure of misunderstanding, which nevertheless has already coloured the relationships between Tommy, Ruth and Kathy all through the novel, and for which this episode is epitome rather than vanguard. But the other clue is, to my mind, the reference to the “old kind world” and the equally misguided interpretation Madame has built around it.
At this point it would be illuminative to take a step back and consider the novel qua novel. My initial feeling on finishing reading it was that Never Let Me Go is an interesting but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good novel; Ishiguro has his technical skill all down pat, but it seems as though he had deliberately set out to be underwhelming. Or to put it in a writer’s view, it’s possible to come away from this novel wanting to have Ishiguro’s technique in rendering narrative perspectives, but it’s hardly likely that one would want to write the kind of novel he has written here. There is nothing in this book to quite match his previous effort, the Booker-nominated When We Were Orphans, which was memorable for its shock value. There are very few moments worth pulling out from the weave of Never Let Me Go to highlight in a review. The story doesn’t actually go anywhere, and there’s nothing on the narrative level that has unfolded by the end of the book that a reader hasn’t been able to infer at the start of it.
True, this is partly because to a certain extent the weave is the novel. Ishiguro handles the relationships between the three friends with such deft nuance and warmth that it is possible to finish this novel with an odd sensation of having been somehow moved, somehow touched where one had not, intellectually speaking, expected to be touched. This is not because of sympathy for the fate of the protagonists in this alternate world, because the world is never quite brought out to be examined beyond the sententious indignation of Miss Emily; and in that sense, Ishiguro succeeds rather in pulling the reader into the head of Kathy, for whom controversies over her mode of existence are virtually unthinkable. Her consolation consists of having had the happiness of what is ultimately true human contact.
And that’s where all the loose ends of the conventional novel start to come together; all the flaws of Never Let Me Go are material for a bigger metaphor than any that can be found solely in the weave of the novel.
We are touched because we recognise Kathy’s world more profoundly than we initially realise. Kathy’s world isn’t that much different from our world, in which we grow up in assumptions that have been defined for us, go through school, and then settle into jobs and lives that are the results of these assumptions. If we have accepted the reality in which after graduation, all we have to look forward to is forty years or so of the same old nine-to-five just to pay the bills, and then a period of retirement before we pass on, then Kathy’s world of caring, donating and completing is in fact the perfect analogy for our modern, meaning-displaced lives lived at half-pressure, and we are moved in reading this novel in the same way that Madame is moved by seeing Kathy dance. Never Let Me Go isn’t about an alternate reality after all – it’s about our own.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005