Monday, September 05, 2005

The fine cloning of art

Kazua Ishiguro's Never Let me Go.

At the heart of Ishiguro's new novel Never let me go is the idea that even a clone can be a real human being - sharing DNA with someone does not mean that you can't grow up to be your own person. It's ironic that the same thing could be said of Ishiguro's novels - they all have more or less the same DNA, yet they manage, somehow to be novels in their own right.

It's a testament to Ishiguro's talent as a writer that it's hard to condemn him as a formulaic writer, but it's a tag that is difficult to ignore. The Ishiguro recipe is simple. First, take a setting that is at once familiar and alien, an imagined world that dwells just under the surface of the real one. Next, choose a character who is humble, self-effacing and committed to serving others. Don't choose someone who is always on the fore-front, always the first to know what's going on. Rather, choose someone who'll be the last to find out - who will in fact be unable to see the truth through the layers of self-delusion he / she has created, long after that truth has become shockingly obvious to the reader. Garnish this brew with a wealth of achingly beautiful detail, with impeccably imagined and deeply human scenes. Finally, pour this mix into the shape of something about the real world that you want to say.

In Never let me go Ishiguro plays this out again, only this time with a science fiction twist. The setting here is an alternate world where human beings are been cloned to serve as sources of organs after they grow up. The story, told in first person by one such clone (who is currently serving as a 'carer' to others of her kind who are making donations), follows the narrator and her group of friends through their early years at a special school through the Cottages (a sort of quasi-college) and on to the outside world. The plot progresses in careful, measured steps, one scene leading to the other, the whole thing woven together with an almost magical sense of memory.

It as at once a triumph and a failing of the book that this science fiction angle never really takes off. This is not an exciting new direction for Ishiguro, it is old wine in a new bottle - vintage Ishiguro in the transparent packaging of a science fiction fantasy. On the one hand, it's amazing that Ishiguro manages to make so alien a world seem so familiar - matching the character's quiet acceptance of their lot as 'natural' with a similar acceptance from the reader. The novel I was most tempted to compare this to was Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but while Atwood's book is about the human spirit crying out to be released from a hellish nightmare of denial of the self, Ishiguro's is about a group of people living their quiet, unprepossessing lives in a different, but somehow understandable world. There is great sadness here, but there is almost no sense of wrong, at least not against the fact of the children being used as donors. But this calmness is also one of the key reasons that the book feels like it has very little new to offer. Oh, it's a beautiful read, but is it really that different from, say, Remains of the Day? As the narrator goes on long lonely drives into the English countryside, thinking about the past and the quandary of her present relationships, regular readers of Ishiguro will almost certainly experience a strong sense of deja vu.

That said, it is a beautifully written book. Ishiguro's language, like the characters he portrays, has an incredible ability to humble itself, to retreat unobtrusively into the background and serve the scenes it describes with exemplary fidelity, taking pride in the clarity with which these come through. The writing is deceptively simple, the tone quiet but exact. Some of the scenes in this book (such as the final scene where the narrator stands by a barbed wire fence next to the sea, staring at the rubbish that has caught on the wire) are pure poetry.

So how is the book different from Ishiguro's previous work? On the whole, I think Never let me go is the most plastic of Ishiguro's novels [1]. This is interesting because it means that it is the novel that has, perhaps, the most to say about the essential drabness of human life, of the way in which most of us "lead lives of quiet desperation". At the heart of the book is the idea that we are brought up to believe in (and manage to invent for ourselves) a number of foolish, idealistic dreams, which are never borne out in the real world. All our visions of being great, pure souls are false, we shall live our ordinary and somewhat confused lives, the world shall use us for its own ends, and we shall die, not knowing what to feel or whether we have failed. In this sense, the clone children are not unique, their reality is merely an allegory for the reality of all our lives (an allegory brought home by the way in which at every stage the life of the clone children, though very different in actual detail, seems eerily parallel in every other way - teenagers, Ishiguro seems to be saying, are teenagers, whatever the circumstance). From this starting point, Ishiguro asks two interesting questions - one, is it better to live in ignorance of the pointlessness of it all, or is it better to know and come to terms with it; and two, whether a life that does not achieve these high ideals, which does not receive a deferral or reprieve of some sort, is still meaningful and beautiful if one has lived fully and with a keen awareness of culture and the good things in life. There's a scene where the narrator and two of her friends go to see a boat that has been stuck in the marshland - because the boat is surrounded by bog they are not able to get right up to the boat, but get to see it for themselves from a distance. The friends agree that it was a pity that they could not get to the boat, but still it was worthwhile having come. That, in a nutshell, is Ishiguro's view of all our stranded lives.

While so clear a delineation makes this perhaps Ishiguro's most thought provoking and accessible work, it also seriously detracts from one of Ishiguro's finest gifts - the subtlety of his writing. Many of the scenes (most notably the final revelation of the truth about the special school the narrator and her friends attended) seem contrived, almost forced. From any other author, these may have been acceptable, but coming from Ishiguro they are a serious let down. There's a scene early in the book, for instance, where the narrator is dancing in a childish reverie with a pillow and looks up to see herself being watched by an outsider to the school, who cries to see this display of girlish innocence. This in itself is not too bad, but when both parties to the scene meet up some twenty years later and both still remember the scene clearly, you have to begin to wonder at so forced a contrivance.

Bottomline: Never let me go is a beautifully written, if slightly contrived masterpiece in the true Ishiguro tradition. It is an intriguing and thought-provoking book, but the overall sense is one of quiet resignation rather than of forceful debate - passion is either understated or entirely absent here. If you've never read Ishiguro before, this could be a good read. If you have read all of his previous books and enjoyed them, you probably should read this one too - but it can probably wait until you've finished some other stuff, because there's really very little that's new here.

Should it make the Booker short list? Yes, I think so. Should it win? No - it isn't unique enough.

P.S. On Never let me go, see also a good review by Jabberwock (that I mostly agree with) at:


Blogger drogidy said...

Wow. I'm impressed. Your critique of the book is art in itself. I've taken up reviewing a few books that amused/annoyed me on my Book Bash site, but my skills at review are rudimentary. Actually, that's why I called it a book Bash.
Your critique is inspirational.
Thank you.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Drogidy: Thanks. Glad you found it useful.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Larry Ayers said...

A fine review; I say that because I agreed with your conclusions! Very well-written as well.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Neela said...


A late comer to the party. In addition to all you have said (I disagree with the 2 people remembering a scene as contrived, btw), I was impressed by the typeface of the novel (us marketing types!). It seemed to match the prose very nicely - quiet, restrained, oddly clinical.I wonder if the novel would seem that way if the font were something else - a Times New Roman for example.


P.S the note at the back of the book said "Bembo font"

2:07 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Neela: Didn't really pay that much attention to the font so will take your word (however scripted) for it.

My point about the scene being contrived is that it's incredibly unlikely that two people would remember exactly the same scene twenty years later - specially given that nothing really happens. I can imagine the narrator remembering it, but why would the other women - she must have seen hundreds of such scenes.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Neela said...

Maybe she didn't (see too many of those scenes that is) and that's exactly why she would remember it. The point is that they remember the scene for two different reasons- one because she was the central character in it, the other because it was so unusual or because she remembers the strong feelings associated with watching that scene.

The only thing that I could agree with you on is that the fact taht they remember the identical scene in all its details might be contrived. Its more likely that while they do remember the scene, their memories are different or each remembers different details. Shall check up the marketing/psych literature - am sure there is a ton of stuff on reconstructed memories.

I also got faintly annoyed with the way he kept introducing little bits of cheap suspense ("but that was before what happened that day" or "that was when the Big Fight that ruined our lives occured" kind of thing). The fact that I noticed this is a bad sign - it means it was heavy-handed enough to be quite transparent even to someone like me who doesn't really read a book except for the story. I'm surprised you or Jabberwock didn't comment on that.


6:24 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Neela: Hello, woman - you want to make point about book, write your own blog. You can't always get other people to make your points for you.

Agree with you, though - I think the first few times it was actually well done, but after a point it got too repetitive.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Karthik said...

Finally got around to reading the book, and then your review. I agree with most of what you say. Great point about Ishiguro picking a peripehral character to narrate his books - between this and DoZ's review, you guys've isolated the Ishiguro algorithm. But he is such a brilliant writer - anything he writes will be a good read.

What Neela says about "suspense", I considered it as an innocent device for non-linear narration. Many times it is the important events that come to mind - you have to retrace your thoughts a little bit to set the stage for an audience. Did he overuse it? Maybe, but it wasn't too jarring to me.

8:35 AM  

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