Sunday, September 7, 2008

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is one of those books that you can’t reveal too much about, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise entirely. This novel, and Ishiguro as an author showed up mysteriously on a few lists…I say mysteriously because there are those books that are on my collection of lists that it’s obvious why they’re on there, due to the collective opinion about a particular work (my own opinion notwithstanding). The Color Purple, for instance. I hated it when I read it in h.s., but everyone seems to agree it belongs on a list. Never Let Me Go is one of those that I missed the buzz on. It’s not really in the Canon, even of contemporary lit, or at least the Canon as I see it. It’s not talked about endlessly, featured on Oprah, that guy from the Catholic League wasn’t on TV yelling about it, etc. It was just little blips on the radar screen, and there were enough blips that I had to investigate.

The other reason why I picked up this book was the immense praise given to it by Sheila, over at Sheila Variations…She’s my favorite blogger, especially when she’s writing about films and fiction. Her post led me to a few other bloggers, all talking about how good it was, the emotional impact, etc. It seemed time to give it a try.

I like to research books that I’m reading, or going to read. This usually involves a search through the NY Times online database, Time magazine, etc. As I said above, this is a book that you shouldn’t know too much about before reading. I have found that reviews of Never Let Me Go typically have a paragraph or two describing the novel, which is followed by something like this: “If you haven’t read this book, stop reading now. I’m serious – stop reading.” Well, that’s like telling me not to press the red button. I hate surprises, and I often get more enjoyment out of knowing what is going to happen…anticipating things that way than trying to figure out what is going to happen. It’s easier on my nerves. Like the curious cat that I am, I read the reviews, not heeding the warnings…so I knew what was going on pretty early in the book. This might have been to the detriment of my enjoyment of the novel...I don’t know. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. It just didn’t have the emotional force for me as it did for others. My intent was to try to write this review without having to tempt those who, like me, can’t stop reading, even if it is for my own good, but the more that I thought about what I liked and disliked about this novel…where it took me…the more I realized that there were simply things that I HAD to bring up, and I can’t bring them up without giving stuff away. Here’s your warning: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK…STOP READING THIS. SERIOUSLY. Go pick up the book at the bookstore, or the library or off your shelf, read it, and then come back. I’ll still be here.

On to the review: Things are strange in this novel. The first paragraph introduces us to Kathy, a 30-something "carer." What the hell is a carer? Must be something British, I thought, and kept going. Then it comes out that she's taking care of people making "donations" and it's clear it's some sort of hospital work. Donations of what? Blood? Bone marrow? Kind people giving organs to relatives and strangers to save their lives? Isiguro doesn't say...yet. Then we come to learn that Kathy attended some odd boarding school called Hailsham. But it doesn't seem that there was anything external of the school for her - no parents are mentioned, no life outside the school. The adults there…they aren’t teachers. They’re “guardians.” Each of the “students” have weekly doctors visits. There doesn’t appear to be any math or science classes. They read books, and do a lot of art, but there isn’t much else. What is going on?

Kathy as a narrator has a conversational style...like you're sitting next to her at a bar one night (a very long night, in which many alcoholic beverages are being consumed). But it's not a lively night, in which there is laughing and general noisiness. No - it's not that type of bar. It's a quiet bar, where patrons can get slowly drunk and commiserate. The story unfolds slowly, though she gives you clues… “Well, we’ll come back to that when I talk about Norfolk…” You're on a downward spiral, in which in the upper part, you are given some events at several different points in time, and the further down you go, the more is filled in...What is really happening in this world is revealed so casually, that if you were sitting on the barstool next to Kathy listening to her story, you would have to say, “wo wo wo, go back – what did you just say?” The more she revealed, you might give Kathy the “ah, yeah, ok…what are you talking about?” look that you would give someone you suspect is mentally ill. But that’s because we don’t live in her world. If we did, there would be nothing out of the ordinary in her story. It’s the tale of Kathy growing up in this boarding school with her friends Ruth and Tommy, and what happens after they leave the school…to begin their work as carers and then donators – very ho hum to her. Kathy is distant to us. We don’t know her and she doesn’t show us much emotion. She tells us a sad story, but it doesn’t seem that she gets sad about it herself. She’s accepted it…but not after the fact, as in come to terms with it – it was accepted as it happened.

The creepy thing about this novel is that it takes place in a world which, on the surface, is ours. It’s contemporary Britain. This isn’t the future. If it weren’t for some of the language, which gives away that something is not really right…somehow this place is different than it should be if it really were contemporary Britain…you wouldn’t realize anything was up. The details (which are scant in the beginning) about carers, donations, the students artwork, etc.…you realize something is off. It isn’t until about 100 pages in or so that Ishiguro reveals at least part of what is actually going on. The NY Times review that said it doesn’t come across as a “cheesy set from “The Twilight Zone” but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” I agree. This was pretty much the only part of the novel that freaked me out…that it was contemporary…that it was only a little warped version of our own society. What if this is actually going on already? What if this these people are being created right now somewhere, and coming into society…and yet no one knows? It is almost like that strange fear I had of aliens when I was a kid…that they could be here, walking around, existing as our friends, or co-workers, and we could not know it. There is an inherent fear, an inherent “taken-aback-ness” about clones…especially people clones. Are they fully human? This natural fear within ourselves of that is central to the novel. To think of it abstractly, theoretically, of course a clone would be just as human as non-clones…the only difference being the way they are made. There isn’t any inherent fear about the children that result from IVF, for example. But to think about it concretely, actually that there might be a clone out there, walking around – a copy of a human as opposed to a real human (whatever that might mean)…there is a natural…disgust…almost. There’s an “Other-ness” to them…and as humans, we often don’t like “others.”

Only one part of the novel irritated me: the long explanation of the artwork at the end of the novel. It was kind of cheesy, I thought – a little stilted. It was the complete explanation of everything at the end of movies, books, etc., in which everything is laid out on the table for the protagonist to see. In The Maltese Falcon (the movie…I don’t remember if it was in the book)…when they’re all around and talking about who stole the bird from who, and who shot who, and who plunked who over the head…it works. This reminded me instead of the way everything is laid out in The Da Vinci Code…but with less italics and exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!! And better writing!!!!!!!!!!! But that’s ok. It was kind of necessary, because of the narration technique and boundaries of the novel which Ishiguro imposes. If it had been otherwise…if an explanation wouldn’t have been given, some things would have had to have been left up in the air: were deferrals possible? Why did they take the artwork? Why did Hailsham close? The novel still would have worked, but the picture would have been vaguer…because in the end, we learn pretty much that there is no hope for Kathy and Tommy. Without the explanation, it would have been fog, not blackness.

The one thing that I got confused on was the “completing.” When it was first brought up, that someone “completed” on their second donation or something, I assumed that meant that they died. But near the end of the novel, when Tommy is on his fourth donation, and he discusses “completing” it is suggested that no one really knows what happens when you complete, and that there might be subsequent donations, of which the donor is or is not aware of. Does the fourth donation take away some kind of consciousness, so that they are kept alive on life support to give other organs? There was only a paragraph in which it was discussed…and there was no more about it.

I suspect – no, I know – that there are so many other stories that could be told of this world – of Kathy’s world, from different perspectives, angles, everything, that Ishiguro (or others) could start some kind of cottage industry, like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings people have. What about the normals? The people who live their everyday lives in this world in which these donations and cloning are happening? What about the scientists, the history of this place? What about the guardians? There are other boarding schools, at which many unmentionable things occur – what about those students? Did any of the students ever try to escape – to pass as a normal? All that would be interesting. But I really respect Ishiguro for staying away from it. At my book club discussion of The Road, some clubbers were upset at McCarthy for not giving us enough details. For example, what caused that disaster? They spent, like, a half hour discussing whether it was a nuclear disaster, a volcano, an asteroid, or a variety of other possibilities. They wanted to KNOW. Well, so did I, but my opinion is that we have to work within the boundaries that the author imposes. Same thing with Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro tells his story within a specific boundary, and that’s all we get. No newspaper headlines, no TV news, no talking about what is going on outside of Kathy’s story. And Kathy isn’t telling us this story to shock us…the narrative technique assumes that we know all about this stuff…about cloning, and donations, etc. This is the world they were born into, and there is no horror in it for her...nothing out of the ordinary. Ishiguro easily could have slipped in more details, more explanations…but it would have external to Kathy’s story. Because she assumes that we’re part of her world…that we know this stuff…there would be no need to tell us about how they came into being, about why they didn’t escape, how the cloning began, etc. That story would be as unnecessary as for an WWII veteran to tell someone else why WWII started, and why America was involved, etc. And Ishiguro limited himself in that way, and I think that the outcome was a better novel than if there had been more details.

I've been keeping track since last year of men who write books about women in the first-person, and how they capture the female experience. This "research" of mine came up when I read Eugenides' Middlesex and thought that it had been a little off, but not bad...not bad like Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the portrayal, the voice of female experience was just pathetic. Ishiguro has done better even better than Eugenides, though the prose is distant and really could have been from the male perspective…it would have made no difference to the story.

I liked Never Let Me Go enough…out of the three or four novels that I was reading concurrently, this is the one I sought out over the others. The pacing was excellent, the prose more than decent, the story compelling. But I didn’t think that it was as great as other reviewers and bloggers have said it was. I kept waiting for the big emotional impact…the thing that would really draw me into it, and it just wasn’t there. This could be due to a number of factors, including the facts that I don’t heed “SPOILER! READ NO FURTHER!” warnings. It could be due to the narrator’s distance – because Kathy is so nonchalant about it all, I failed to really get involved in it. I don’t know the reason I wasn’t able to really connect. But it was good. I could see this as a book that in time, I will come to appreciate more. It would warrant a 3.5 out of 5 for me, if I was rating…but I’m not surprised that others REALLY enjoyed it.

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