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[BOOKS] Kazuo Ishiguro's novel really is chilling

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  • chiayuan25
    Brave New World Kazuo Ishiguro s novel really is chilling. By Margaret Atwood Posted Friday, April 1, 2005, at 4:25 AM PT Chilling me softly Never Let Me Go is
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2005
      Brave New World
      Kazuo Ishiguro's novel really is chilling.
      By Margaret Atwood
      Posted Friday, April 1, 2005, at 4:25 AM PT

      Chilling me softly

      Never Let Me Go is the sixth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the
      Booker Prize in 1989 for his chilling rendition of a bootlickingly
      devoted but morally blank English butler, The Remains of the Day.
      It's a thoughtful, crafty, and finally very disquieting look at the
      effects of dehumanization on any group that's subject to it. In
      Ishiguro's subtle hands, these effects are far from obvious. There's
      no Them-Bad, Us-Good preaching; rather there's the feeling that as
      the expectations of such a group are diminished, so is its ability to
      think outside the box it has been shut up in. The reader reaches the
      end of the book wondering exactly where the walls of his or her own
      invisible box begin and end.

      Ishiguro likes to experiment with literary hybrids, to hijack popular
      forms for his own ends, and to set his novels against tenebrous
      historical backdrops; thus When We Were Orphans mixes the Boys' Own
      Adventure with the '30s detective story while taking a whole new
      slice out of World War II. An Ishiguro novel is never about what it
      pretends to pretend to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form.
      You might think of it as the Enid Blyton schoolgirl story crossed
      with Blade Runner, and perhaps also with John Wyndham's shunned-
      children classic, The Chrysalids: The children in it, like those in
      Never Let Me Go, give other people the creeps.

      The narrator, Kathy H., is looking back on her school days at a
      superficially idyllic establishment called Hailsham. (As in "sham";
      as in Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, exploiter of uncomprehending
      children.) At first you think the "H" in "Kathy H." is the initial of
      a surname, but none of the students at Hailsham has a real surname.
      Soon you understand that there's something very peculiar about this
      school. Tommy, for instance, who is the best boy at football, is
      picked on because he's no good at art: In a conventional school it
      would be the other way around.

      In fact, Hailsham exists to raise cloned children who have been
      brought into the world for the sole purpose of providing organs to
      other, "normal" people. They don't have parents. They can't have
      children. Once they graduate, they will go through a period of
      being "carers" to others of their kind who are already being deprived
      of their organs; then they will undergo up to four "donations"
      themselves, until they "complete." (None of these terms has
      originated with Ishiguro; he just gives them an extra twist.) The
      whole enterprise, like most human enterprises of dubious morality, is
      wrapped in euphemism and shadow: The outer world wants these children
      to exist because it's greedy for the benefits they can confer, but it
      doesn't wish to look head-on at what is happening. We assume—though
      it's never stated—that whatever objections might have been raised to
      such a scheme have already been overcome: By now the rules are in
      place and the situation is taken for granted—as slavery was once—by
      beneficiaries and victims alike.

      All this is background. Ishiguro isn't much interested in the
      practicalities of cloning and organ donation. (Which four organs, you
      may wonder? A liver, two kidneys, then the heart? But wouldn't you be
      dead after the second kidney, anyway? Or are we throwing in the
      pancreas?) Nor is this a novel about future horrors: It's set, not in
      a Britain-yet-to-come, but in a Britain-off-to-the-side, in which
      cloning has been introduced before the 1970s. Kathy H. is 31 in the
      late 1990s, which places her childhood and adolescence in the '70s
      and early '80s—close to those of Ishiguro, who was born in 1955 in
      Nagasaki and moved to England when he was 5. (Surely there's a
      connection: As a child, Ishiguro must have seen many young people
      dying far too soon, through no fault of their own.) And so the
      observed detail is realistic—the landscapes, the kind of sports
      pavilion at Hailsham, the assortment of teachers and "guardians,"
      even the fact that Kathy listens to her music via tape, not CD.

      Kathy H. has nothing to say about the unfairness of her fate. Indeed,
      she considers herself lucky to have grown up in a superior
      establishment like Hailsham rather than on the standard organ farm.
      Like most people, she's interested in personal relationships: in her
      case, the connection between her "best friend," the bossy and
      manipulative Ruth, and the boy she loves—Tommy, the amiable football-
      playing bad artist. Ishiguro's tone is perfect: Kathy is intelligent
      but nothing extraordinary, and she prattles on in the obsessive
      manner touchy girls have, going back over past conversations and
      registering every comment and twitch and crush and put-down and cold
      shoulder and gang-up and spat. It's all hideously familiar and
      gruesomely compelling to anyone who ever kept a teenage diary.

      In the course of her story, Kathy H. solves a few of the mysteries
      that have been bothering her. Why is it so important that these
      children make art, and why is their art collected and taken away? Why
      does it matter to anyone that they be educated, if they're only going
      to die young anyway? Are they human or not? There's a chilling echo
      of the art-making children in Treblinka and of the Japanese children
      dying of radiation who nevertheless made paper cranes.

      What is art for? the characters ask. They connect the question to
      their own circumstances, but surely they speak for anyone with a
      connection with the arts: What is art for? The notion that it ought
      to be for something, that it must serve some clear social purpose—
      extolling the gods, cheering people up, illustrating moral lessons—
      has been around at least since Plato and was tyrannical in the 19th
      century. It lingers with us still, especially when parents and
      teachers start squabbling over the school curricula. Art does turn
      out to have a purpose in Never Let Me Go, but it isn't quite the
      purpose the characters have been hoping for.

      One motif at the very core of Never Let Me Go is the treatment of out-
      groups, and the way out-groups form in-groups, even among themselves.
      The marginalized are not exempt from doing their own marginalization:
      Even as they die, Ruth and Tommy and the other donors form a proud,
      cruel little clique, excluding Kathy H. because, not being a donor
      yet, she can't really understand.

      The book is also about our tendency to cannibalize others to make
      sure we ourselves get a soft ride. Ursula Le Guin has a short story
      called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, in which the happiness of
      the many depends absolutely on the arranged unhappiness of the few,
      and Never Let Me Go could be read as a sister text: The children of
      Hailsham are human sacrifices, offered up on the altar of improved
      health for the population at large. With babies already being created
      with a view to their organs—help for an afflicted sibling, for
      instance—the dilemma of the Hailsham "students" is bound to become
      more general. Who owns your body? Who therefore is entitled to offer
      it up? The reluctance of Kathy H. and her pals to really confront
      what awaits them—pain, mutilation, death—may account for the curious
      lack of physicality of Kathy's descriptions of their life. Nobody
      eats anything much in this book, nobody smells anything. We don't
      know much about what the main characters look like. Even the sex is
      oddly bloodless. But landscapes, buildings, and the weather are
      intensely present. It's as if Kathy has invested a lot of her sense
      of self in things quite far away from her own body, and thus less
      likely to be injured.

      Finally, the book is also about our wish to do well, to attract
      approval. The children's poignant desire to be patted on the head—to
      be a "good carer," keeping those from whom organs are being taken
      from becoming too distressed; to be a "good donor," someone who makes
      it through all four "donations"—is heartbreaking. This is what traps
      them in their cage: None of them thinks about running away or
      revenging themselves upon the "normal" members of society. Ruth takes
      refuge in grandiose lies about herself and in daydreams—maybe she'll
      be allowed to get an office job. Tommy reacts with occasional rage to
      the unconscionable things being done to him, but then apologizes for
      his loss of control. In Ishiguro's world, as in our own, most people
      do what they're told.

      Tellingly, two words recur again and again. One, as you might expect,
      is "normal." The other is "supposed," as in the last words of the
      book: "wherever it was that I was supposed to be going." Who
      defines "normal"? Who tells us what we are supposed to be doing?
      These questions always become more pressing in times of stress;
      unless I'm much mistaken, they'll loom ever larger in the next few

      Never Let Me Go is unlikely to be everybody's cup of tea. The people
      in it aren't heroic. The ending is not comforting. Nevertheless, this
      is a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a
      difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.

      Margaret Atwood is a novelist, poet, and odd-job person. Her latest
      novels are The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake; her latest works of
      nonfiction are Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing and
      Writing With Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983-2005.

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