Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

It's a lovely cover. As I mentioned this book has been waiting for me for some time on the bookshelf, quietly, patiently like the cover's empty boat. I'd read so much about it since it was released in 2005, bucket fulls of praise. In the end I was disappointed. Frustrated is probably a better word.

Ishiguro gives us something that might be called SH (speculative history) a variation or subgenre of SF (speculative fiction.) Phillip Roth's "The Plot Against America" also comes to mind as recent SH in which history is re-imagined, tweaked, the facts slightly altered, and the logic then fictionally played out.

SF is generally not on my reading list, but I can see the attraction of speculating on a farflung future, stretching the tendons of reality, creating imaginary worlds with all sorts of dystopic or utopic possibilities, in order to learn something about our present. But there is also something distastefully presumptive and problematic about the conceit of toying with the past for this purpose. With history, whether or not it actually happened, matters. The fact that what takes place in "England, 1999" of this novel doesn't reflect conditions of the time and place, gives the entire exercise an air of illegitimacy. I kept scratching my head, wondering why the author simply didn't just use "England 2199." But this was not my main frustration with the book.

The conditions described in the book are of a dystopic past in which a race of clones is raised for the sole purpose of having their organs harvested (called "donating.") The narrator is Kathy who is a "carer," someone who cares for donors during their convalescence before they themselves become donors. She is caring for her close friend Tommy who has made multiple donations, reminiscing about the time they spent together at Hailsham and The Cottages where they spent their childhood and adolescence with their other close friend Ruth.

Somehow, these clones can donate three and sometimes even four times before coming to "completion" (euphemism for dying,) which begs the question, are they bred with multiple organs? It's hard to imagine how the organs are harvested, and in what order, to ensure mutliple donations. In general, the system of organ harvesting, how exactly it works, how it came into being, who was behind it and how it evolved etc. is never detailed. This omission left me questioning from beginning to end, distracting me from the main story which is about the love and friendship of the trio of clones.

The fact that the main characters are questioning too is transparently part of the author's storytelling strategy. He wants us to be part of the secrecy that surrounds the young lives of the protagonists. I frankly had a hard time buying into it. The story, which goes from memory to memory, (a lot of sections start, "I should explain here...") is a drawn out affair in which the author strings the reader along, dropping hints about the background. The reader is kept more or less in the dark until the last 50 pages of the book, when one of the "guardians" clarifies the true nature of the clones' existence and the battle waged behind the scenes to save their "souls." By then, the question of whether clones have souls, which is supposed to be a crux of the book, seemed almost moot because they are portrayed as such sensitive, intelligent and articulate young people with emotionally rich lives. Quite simply I didn't believe (or, for that matter, care) that Kathy and her cohort, who by the way are well-read and creative (all part of their upbringing), would be so dim as to not realize what was actually going on, so dumb as to not understand how they are different from the general public, so blind as to accept their tragic fate, and so lame as not to try to escape, rebel, or something.

On the other hand, maybe that is precisely why they should be considered a subhuman species, because they don't seem to have any genuine and burning desire to fight for their own survival. Each of their lives is a slow excruciating smoulder which utlimately extinguishes once a letter (from some unseen, faceless institutional master) arrives telling them that it is their turn to donate until they 'complete'.

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