As the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review for November approached, I began weighing and comparing the various books I read this month. As I am writing two Cephalopod reviews, I think will save my actual favorite for my personal blog. For the Writing Sisterhood I'm going to cheat a little and present the weirdest book of the month for me: Never Let Me Go, the strange, semi-dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
First, it's a book written by a Japanese-Brit, which is a little unusual. Ishiguro moved from Japan to the UK when he was five years old, and if this book is any indication, he thoroughly identifies as an Englishman. Ishiguro is best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a lovelorn butler, whom most of you are probably picturing as Anthony Hopkins. As with that novel, Never Let Me Go was turned into a major motion picture. I haven't seen it yet: I'm hoping the film fixes the problems I had with the novel.
Before I progress, there's no way to talk about this book without spoiling it, as mystery and slow-reveal are the driving force behind it. So if you haven't read it yet, you may not want to continue past these next few caveats: first, it's not really as sci-fi book, so ignore that description. It's not even dystopian, not in the sense you're used to. I am reviewing it as a highly-praised polemic that ultimately misses the mark; if you still want to read it, go do that. If you expect you never will, you can keep reading this review.
I read this book in less than 24 hours, so clearly I found it gripping. The setting is an modern-day English boarding school, called Hailsham, populated by "special students," which will put many people in mind of Harry Potter. But what makes these students special is left deliberately unclear, both to themselves and to the reader, for much of the book. The reader learns about what's happening roughly at the same time as the main characters, but unlike the reader, the main characters don't seem to care. And this is one serious flaw of the book: the characters don't care about their own fate.
We've gotten used to dystopian novels—especially where teens are involved—as "rage against the machine" stories where the young 'uns fight back, form a rebellion. And most dystopian novels nowadays are written expressly for a teen audience, but there is a respectable subset of dystopian novels that are written for adults, and in these, the system usually wins: the opposition is crushed or assimilated. Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Minority Report, and Brave New World are examples. Never Let Me Go seems to want to be this sort of book, although the nemesis is less speculative and more realistic than in classic dystopian works. In any event, the system appears to win in the end of Never Let Me Go. But unlike most dystopian novels, nobody even fights back in this one. As I came up to the end of the book, I began to wonder if passivity had actually been bred into the students. Humans, the real kind, have a survival instinct. Are these characters truly human? Did Ishiguro mean to be so ambiguous about that?
What drove the book forward was the unanswered question of what Hailsham is about; you don't know what's going on and you keep thinking the next page might give you the answer. So you keep turning pages. I was glued to the sofa for five hours straight. But once the majority of the questions were answered by the Hailsham's administrators (about 80% if the way through), the forward momentum was really lost for me, and I kind of plodded through the rest of it. And here it is (true spoiler alert here): Society is breeding clones for the purposes of organ transplants. The clones are informed of their purpose and know that the organ donations will result in their death; they seem all right with this. The purpose of Hailsham is not just to rear clone children, but actually to form a little rebellion: the administrators want to prove that clones aren't just vessels, but living breathing feeling human beings. Hailsham is a sort of arts school, and the art that the students produce is supposed to be a sort of Turing test: only real humans, not machines, can make art. The students dutifully churn out art, but the rebellion is quashed when something totally unrelated to the rest of the story happens offscreen, and so the school is shut down.
And so the reader is left with a big "meh." If society doesn't mind, and the clones themselves don't mind, what's the point of a rebellion? If the rebellion ends because of actions completely outside the plotline, what was the storytelling purpose of it? In the end, when the main characters "complete" (i.e., die from having given up all their vital organs) I had a hard time caring. Society didn't care about them, their protectors didn't care about them, and they don't even care about themselves. So why should the reader care? The point of the novel was not the people, but the morality tale. Morality is always a weak pillar on which to hang a story, and Ishiguro doesn't even seem clear on what his moral message is. I have to give it a certain number of stars for holding my attention, but I was left fairly unsatisfied. The whole question raised is whether these test-tube clones, raised only for their organs, are really human. The purpose of the art gallery and the whole Hailsham project was to prove the students had souls, had feelings. But do they? They seem like normal enough children and teens, but when they are asked to walk into the slaughterhouse, they don't hesitate. There's no attempt to escape. There's the barest nod to the idea that at least claiming to fall in love with another student can defer the slaughter for a few years, and the two protagonists make a halfhearted stab at this, but it's not at all convincing.
I have to say, for a book that I didn't especially love, Never Let Me Go has stayed on my mind for days and days since I've finished. Mostly I'm trying to reconcile how it was I was so gripped by the narrative and yet left so terribly unsatisfied. I felt like the novel was a long-winded way of saying, "Hey y'all, don't do cloning, OK?" Or maybe it was the more generic "Science Is Dangerous!" morality tale that much sci-fi (ironically) seems to be. If you're going to write a polemic, you'd better be very clear on your moral message and all your characterization and plot had better be in service to that message. Otherwise, please for the love of God, save us hours of feverish page-turning and just write an essay.
Did you read the novel? Have you read anything else by Ishiguro, and what do you think of his style? Are there novels with a moral message you feel work better than others, and how do they pull it off?
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