Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why 'Never Let Me Go' isn't really a 'science novel'

I have just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. What a strange book. First, there’s the tone – purposely amateurish writing (there can’t be any doubt, given his earlier books, that this is intentional), which creates an odd sense of flatness. As the Telegraph’s reviewer put it, “There is no aesthetic thrill to be had from the sentences – except that of a writer getting the desired dreary effect exactly right.” It’s a testament to Ishiguro that his control of this voice never slips, and that the story remains compelling in spite of the deliberately clumsy prose. That s probably a far harder trick to pull off than it seems. Second, there are the trademark bits of childlike quasi-surrealism, where he develops an idea that seems utterly implausible yet is presented so deadpan that you start to think “Is he serious about this?” – for instance, Tommy’s theory about the ‘art gallery’. This sort of dreamlike riffing was put to wonderful effect in The Unconsoled, which was a dream world from start to finish. It jarred a little at the end of When We Were Orphans, because it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book – but was still strangely compelling. Here it seems to be an expression of the enforced naivety of the characters, but is disorientating when it becomes so utterly a part of the world that Kathy H depicts.

But my biggest concern is that the plot just doesn’t seem at all plausible enough to create a strong critique of cloning and related biotechnologies. Is that even the intention? I’m still unsure, as were several reviewers. The situation of the donor children is so unethical and so deeply at odds with any current ethical perspectives on cloning and reproductive technologies that one can’t really imagine how a world could have got this way. After all, in other respects it seems to be a world just like ours. It is not even set in some dystopian future, but has a feeling of being more like the 1980s. The ‘normal’ humans aren’t cold-hearted dysfunctionals – they seem pretty much like ordinary people, except that they seem to accept this donor business largely without question – whereas nothing like this would be tolerated or even contemplated for an instant today. It feels as though Ishiguro just hasn’t worked hard enough to make an alternative reality that can support the terrible scenario he portrays. As a result, whatever broader point he is making loses its force. What we are left with is a well told tale of friendship and tragedy experienced by sympathetic characters put in a situation that couldn’t arise under the social conditions presented. I enjoyed the book, but I can’t see how it can add much to the cloning debate. Perhaps, as one reviewer suggested, this is all just an allegory about mortality – in which case it works rather well, but is somewhat perverse.

I’ve just taken a look at M John Harrison’s review in the Guardian, which puts these same points extremely well:
“Inevitably, it being set in an alternate Britain, in an alternate 1990s, this novel will be described as science fiction. But there's no science here. How are the clones kept alive once they've begun "donating"? Who can afford this kind of medicine, in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours?

Ishiguro's refusal to consider questions such as these forces his story into a pure rhetorical space. You read by pawing constantly at the text, turning it over in your hands, looking for some vital seam or row of rivets. Precisely how naturalistic is it supposed to be? Precisely how parabolic? Receiving no answer, you're thrown back on the obvious explanation: the novel is about its own moral position on cloning. But that position has been visited before (one thinks immediately of Michael Marshall Smith's savage 1996 offering, Spares). There's nothing new here; there's nothing all that startling; and there certainly isn't anything to argue with. Who on earth could be "for" the exploitation of human beings in this way?

Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle… This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.”


John Whitfield said...

I thought NLMG was a beautiful book - I think I enjoyed it the most of the Ishiguro book's that I've read.

I agree it's not particularly about cloning, or science, but I don't think that matters. It's probably best if you don't know the kids' fate before you read it, and it's never really made clear, it kind of emerges, and not even in a particularly horrific way - it's just one of those things.

What it seemed to me to be 'about' was taking people who seem marginal, and worthless, and banal, and giving them a voice, and an inner life. The writing might have been flat, but it was also beautiful and moving, and warm, in the way the characters sought out their own comforts, and made their own domesticity. I agree with the 'why we don't explode' reading.

(As an aside, the other KI books I've read seem to involve people looking back on lives that seemed solid and purposeful at the time, but on reflection turned out to be neither. NLMG sort of does the reverse.)

Phil said...

I don't know. As I wrote here, I think it does get into the ethics of cloning, & utilitarian greater-good-of-society arguments in general. But I also think that's a secondary theme. Really it's about death, and memory, and art, and the way time destroys everything.

"Throughout the book, Kathy muses - brightly and not very reflectively - on what it’s like to remember someone who’s not there any more; what it means to leave something that you’ll be remembered by; whether it matters if you haven’t left anything to be remembered by, providing that you live on in people’s memories; and whether even that matters in the long run, since after all those people won’t be around forever - and in any case you won’t be there to know about it.

In other words, Kathy shows us life as framed by death - the same life we all live, albeit for most of us with a much longer timespan."