[BOOKS] Kazuo Ishiguro's novel really is chilling
- 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 assumethough
it's never statedthat 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 grantedas slavery was onceby
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 '80sclose 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 realisticthe 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 lovesTommy, 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 organshelp for an afflicted sibling, for
instancethe 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 thempain, mutilation, deathmay 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 headto
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 daydreamsmaybe 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.