thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

DARK SECRETS, Genre, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

In adaptation, dystopian literature, Film, spoilers, technology, Uncategorized on July 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Sarah S.

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.

  1. Thanks for the mention. You are too kind.

    I wish I had your experience reading this without knowing the twist beforehand. I’m rarely one who cares about spoilers, but this is one case where I can see the hidden reveal actually significantly changing my experience (which also means I agree with you on the reasoning for delaying the reveal of the science fiction setting).

    Personally, I’m always reluctant to specify a conscious “why” as to the way “literary” authors use/ genre (with the exception of Atwood, who I do love, because she is so transparent about it). Despite working in genre, I am also skeptical as to the real tenability of the divide between literary/genre these days, at least in terms of all fiction not consciously just being repetitive genre fiction like Eragon or the like. I do feel taxonomy and descriptors are fine, but in gradations with adjectives and comparatives and such rather than encompassing statements as “x is y.” Ishiguro incorporates the SF premise so well here that it works totally as part of the art of the book. It’s not a disavowal or clumsy appropriation of genre. It’s a really great book (and crap movie).

    • Nightwork, I agree with you about the use of terms. Personally, I like what “speculative fiction” evokes, the way it can encompass various genres (science fiction, fantasy, etc.), and how it implies that all fiction is always already “speculative.”

      I suppose I should refrain from “why” Ishiguro does what he does to asking what effect does it have. Clearly, I think the effect works brilliantly because it makes the book so much more uncomfortable, awkward, tantalizing, symbolic, and heart-breaking the way it unfolds. Have you taught it? Apparently, our LA-bound colleague is planning to this next year.

      And I cannot be too kind. Those ideas were yours but have influenced my thinking so the shout out is merely a way to avoid plagiarism. 🙂

      • I’ve not taught it. It would be a good addition to the genre course I’ve done in Intro to Fiction . . . if I had more than 10 weeks to work with. It’s difficult enough to get through the basics of works that are obvious examples of genre in that time without adding something that uses but isn’t quite fully genre. It would work great in an upper-level course on dystopia.

        Thanks to this post, I actually reread the book quickly this weekend. I’ll probably post a few thoughts on it soon.

  2. Great discussion! I actually bought the novel shortly after it was published kind of because it had been spoiled for me, I think in an offhand remark from a Whedon interview about how genre had become destigmatized: he called the book “The Remains of the Clone,” I think, which is pretty clever.

    When I read it, I wondered if the setting of the novel–it’s present is “the late 1990’s” (for a book published in 2005)–was a way for Ishiguro to pretend that he wasn’t writing genre fiction? Or perhaps to trick the audience, so that we wouldn’t expect the twist when it came? The subject matter so easily lends itself to the typical ‘not so distant future’, so having it take place almost a decade before it was published seems a little sneaky, in any case.

    I really like the idea that [e]u- and dis- topias are judged relatively to our own contexts and ideologies. One of the more troubling aspects of *Never Let Me Go*, I think, is that the outside world (what few glimpses of it we see) is neither particularly awful or amazing. People live much longer, but you’d never know it: the ‘miracle’ seems to have not changed people’s lives, or work, or how they treat each other at all! This is kind of horrifying, because at least in the wasteland we have some kind of a moral to give us comfort, a theoretical way to avoid our fate (don’t burn up the ozone layer! avoid totalitarian linguists! etc). Here, everyone just queues up for their free organs or to be harvested because, hey, why not, that’s what people do.

    • I think the alternate history route (with most of the history left out) is to mislead the audience and minimalize the audience and withhold the SF setting, which adds to the build-up and horror of the slow reveal.

      Your last point is one of the things I struggle with in this book. Despite how much I like it, I get a little frustrated by the lack of resistance on the part of donors (esp. Kathy at the end). This is also the reason I’d say it has a dystopian setting but is not exactly a dystopian story (a dystopia without rebellion?). I get that the lack of a “why” for their resignation to this fate is just part of what Ishiguro does, but I want a slight hint at conditioning or mental tampering to explain it. On a side note, this is actually one of the reader’s guide questions at the back of my edition.

  3. […] friend recently published a smart review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.   You should go read it.  Her review and questions, along with my less-than-clear […]

  4. So, the film adaptation, which I saw previously and recently watched again. I’m not so disappointed with the performances or the reveal What bothered me was the rush through the childhood years and the developing of complex relationships (done after 20 min). And especially the need to focus early on the love triangle that is delayed in the novel. We know that a Kathy/Tommy possibility is a thing in the novel, but Kathy is so reluctant to let us in on it that it is painful to watch her embrace the hope that it comes with. In the film, their love is so foregrounded that everything else poignant about the relationships and situation is lost.

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