If you have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I recommend that you go out, pick it up, and read it immediately. Better still, if you do not know the underlying premise or “twist” of the novel, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now. Which is to say, this post contains spoilers and, while I acknowledge that anxiety over “spoiling” may be overrated in many circumstances, I really believe that Ishiguro designed his exquisite novel so that the twist be revealed with agonizing slowness and that you’ll enjoy the novel more if you don’t know. I didn’t know. I knew that the novel focused on three students who had grown up in a seemingly idyllic, British boarding school that had a DARK SECRET but I had no inkling what said DARK SECRET was. If you are similarly ignorant, please, stop reading this post and go read the book.
Phew. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Never Let Me Go features Ishiguro’s achingly beautiful and slow style as likewise exhibited in The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World (one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read). But what particularly fascinated me about Never Let Me Go was its mingling of genres. On one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, about growing up and accepting one’s place in the order of things—albeit with a bleak, postmodern twist. On the other hand, and much to my surprise, Never Let Me Go is science fiction of the dystopian/utopian variety (see footnote below).* Or, if you prefer the more literary term, “speculative fiction” that asks “what if?” in order to question our current cultural trajectory.
The narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy H, is a clone—born and bred for her vital organs and other relevant parts, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy and every student at their boarding school, Hailsham. The clones’ existence creates a disease-free golden age for all of the world’s “normal” people. In the book, however, the reader only discovers this fact in bits and pieces scattered throughout the novel; indeed, Ishiguro forces us to work for the information, to read into and around what scraps Kathy gives us as she relates her story.
Kathy, as a narrator, is a brilliant creation. In trying to make sense of her existence, she frequently gets ahead of her story, so to speak, only to back up before returning to each subject alluded to in its appropriate time. This creates a sensation in the reader of always being turned back from the truth, of being perpetually thwarted, teased, tantalized, and egged on to continue with Kathy and her story. This first person narrator also assumes that you, the reader, already know the world she is living in and this allows Ishiguro to unravel the novel’s science fiction base with calculated reluctance.
The movie version, however—which I watched to complement this post—tells the audience right up front that our protagonists are clones and that this story qualifies as science fiction. It’s beautifully shot but the characters are woefully flattened. It also makes Ishiguro’s methodical pacing merely boring. Many of the most significant scenes are changed without obvious reason or presented without explanation or apparent sense. Last, Carey Mulligan, who plays Kathy, and Andrew Garfield, who plays Tommy, are great. Keira Knightly, in contrast, seems like a good fit to play Ruth but either the script or the director gives too little to her limited strengths and she instead seems out of her depth. In sum, read the book and don’t watch the movie (unless you’re wanting an excuse to nap).
However, here is my primary question for you, dear friends and readers: why does Ishiguro shroud in secrecy the science fiction of his novel? Does it make it a stronger, more interesting post-modern deconstruction of various genres and conventions? Or does it reveal Literature’s (capital “L”) longstanding discomfort with “genre fiction”—such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.—a discomfort that, arguably, creates such bait-and-switch terms as “speculative fiction”?
It’s probably obvious that I think the slow reveal strengthens the novel. You feel like you’re reading one kind of novel (Bildungsroman with a DARK SECRET—sexual abuse? religious fanaticism?) and the realization that you’re also reading a science fiction story makes the novel more surprising and, in the end, darker than you imagined. With this twist, Ishiguro denies you the potentially voyeuristic experience of reading about someone else’s horror and turns the novel into a symbolic mirror, reflecting back disturbing ideas about our own lives. That’s my defense anyway: what say you?
And for a nerdy discussion among those who’ve read the book or seen the movie, two thoughts:
1-When Tommy and Ruth visit Madame, they also discover Miss Emily, now bound to a wheelchair. Is the novel implying that Miss Emily has refused clone-based medical treatment as part of her ethics/politics?
2-Clearly, Madame and Miss Emily are in a lesbian partnership. Is Ishiguro commenting, somehow, on the interaction between groups deemed less-than-human in some way?
*I need to give a shout out to Nightwork with whom I’ve not only had many intriguing conversations about science fiction (and its synonyms) but who has also pointed out the problematic use of the terms “dystopian” and “utopian”; in sum, he argues that just because something seems “dystopian” to us, a la Huxley’s Brave New World for example, it only qualifies as such if the people in the world see it that way. Thus, from the perspective of most of the folks in Huxley’s novel, they are living in a utopia. This tension is very interesting when considering Never Let Me Go.