Monday, March 07, 2005

Never Let Me Go: first thoughts

Have finished Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Immediate reaction was one of slight disappointment, mainly with the "let’s sit down and explain things" climax, which really doesn’t suit this author’s style. (One of the online reviews I read likened it to a James Bond villain explaining his devious plot, but that’s going way too far.) But already, less than 24 hours after finishing it, I find my appreciation for it growing. I’ve experienced this feeling with Ishiguro before, especially with his more oblique narratives. His two most direct, linear novels were An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day, both of which I appreciated almost immediately; when I reached the end of those books, I closed them, turned them over in my hands for a few seconds (as I always do when I finish a book) and said to myself "Now that was a good, satisfying read." But it wasn’t the same with Ishiguro’s more surreal work - A Pale View of Hills, The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans. I was dissatisfied to varying degrees when I finished reading those, but then, over the course of the next few days something strange happened: I found I couldn’t get them out of my head. Little fragments would keep coming back to haunt me, I’d get a disjointed, kaleidoscopic sense of the themes the author had been hinting at through his often-frustrating narrative structure. And eventually I developed a much deeper relationship with those books than with the straightforward ones.

Having said which, I’m unsure how exactly to categorise the narrative structure of this strange new novel. Here’s the problem: on the one hand, it’s set in a world that isn’t recognisably ours - it’s England in the 1990s all right, but what we have is an alternate, possibly dystopian, society. (I won’t go into more detail here, even though the central plot revelation is made around page 70; so it isn’t strictly speaking a secret). But on the other hand, once you’re given and accept the rules of this alternate world, the narrative itself is a completely straightforward one - in the Remains of the Day/Artist of the Floating World category. So how does one classify it? It feels like a completely different level of surrealism from that we encountered in The Unconsoled and A Pale View. An ostensibly realistic narrative, but one that serves the function of allegory.

Having decided not to disclose the premise of the story in this blog (though I think I’ll have to when I write the review), I find myself a little constrained when discussing "what it’s about". Of course, any Ishiguro novel is about many different things and it’s up to you as a reader to pick your theme. That ponytailed polymath Shamya Dasgupta - now a TV celebrity on Headlines Today - postulates here that The Unconsoled is "about a man's time that is constantly, constantly, unfailingly, tampered with. It's all about a man's mind - his body clock and his physiology - being beaten to pulp with a hammer". It’s probably relevant somewhere that Shamya was very recently doing physiology-numbing graveyard shifts in his new job.

Likewise, I have topics that have special relevance to me, and accordingly one of the things I think Never Let Me Go is about is how our lives are pre-designed for us, how the paths we take are predetermined by a number of factors, even when there’s the illusion of free will. It’s also very particularly about formal education and the role educational institutions play in inuring us to the horrors, the unpredictabilities of life. About how, going to school every day as children, we never get an actual sense of how whimsical, random, even pointless, life might turn out to be.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. But I have a 1500-word review to do on this book, so I’ll stop here for now. Meanwhile, here’s a key passage from the final section, the words of a former schoolteacher:

"Sometimes we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we even fooled you. I suppose you could even call it that. But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods...Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?"


  1. Hmm, I experienced something rather similar with 'The Unconsoled' and 'Whan we were orphans'. I haven't gotten around to reading 'Pale view of the hills yet' but you have my curiosity piqued. I'll probably get to 'Never Let me Go' even before I get to pale view.

  2. Time and memory. Time and memory and art. Time, memory, art and how nothing lasts - the full bleakness of that thought had me in tears several times when I read this book. The key passage for me came quite early on, when one of the teachers tells Tommy that he doesn't have to be 'creative' - you sense the narrator agreeing, seeing Tommy as such a vivid character that his life is as valuable as another person's art. (But then, what's left of his life? But then, what's left of the art?)