Customer reviews: never let me go

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (Knopf; $24) is a novel about a young woman named Kathy H., & her friendships with two schoolmates, Ruth & Tommy. The triangle is a standard one: Kathy is attracted to Tommy; Tommy gets involved with Ruth, who is also Kathy’s best friend; Ruth knows that Tommy is really in love with Kathy; Kathy gets Tommy in the end, although they both realize that it is too late, and that they have missed their best years. Their lives are short; they know that they are doomed. So the small betrayal leaves an enormous wound. As is customary with Ishiguro, the narrator, Kathy, is ingenuous but keenly desirous of telling us how it was, the prose feels self-consciously stilted and banal, và the psychology is not deep. The central premise in this book is basically the same as that in the book that made Ishiguro famous, “The Remains of the Day” (1989): even when happiness is standing right in front of you, it’s very hard lớn grasp. Probably you already suspected that.

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It is always a puzzle lớn know where Ishiguro’s true subject lies. The emotional situation in his novels is spelled out in meticulous, sometimes comically tedious detail, và the focus is entirely on the narrator’s struggles to lớn achieve clarity và contentment in an uncoöperative sầu world. Ishiguro is expert at getting readers choked up over these struggles—even over the ludicrous self-deceptions of the butler in “The Remains of the Day,” the hopeless Stevens. But he is also expert at arranging his figurines against shadowy & suggestive backdrops: post-fascist Japan, in “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986); an unidentified Central European town undergoing an indeterminate cultural crisis, in “The Unconsoled” (1995); Shanghai at the time of the Sino-Japanese War, in “When We Were Orphans” (2000). It seems important lớn an understanding of “The Remains of the Day” that the man for whom Stevens once worked, Lord Darlington, was a Fascist sympathizer. But it is not particularly important khổng lồ Stevens, who has no political wisdom, và who is, in any case, preoccupied with enforcing his own regimen of emotional repression.

The shadowy backdrop in “Never Let Me Go” is genetic engineering và associated technologies. Kathy tells her story in (the novel says) “England, late 1990s,” so the book seems lớn belong khổng lồ the same genre as Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” counterfactual historical fiction. Conditions in this brave-new-world Britain, và exactly how Kathy and her friends fit inlớn them, are all spooky authorial surprises, and (as is the case with most things) when you’re reading the novel it is best khổng lồ begin without too many prior assumptions. Kathy is a “carer”; her patients give sầu “donations,” occasionally as many as four. Inch by inch, the curtain is lifted, and we see what these terms mean và why the world is this way. The strangeness, lượt thích the strangeness in Ishiguro’s most imaginative sầu novel, “The Unconsoled,” is ingeniously evoked—by means of literal-minded accounts of things that don’t quite add up—& teasing out the hidden story is the main pleasure of the book. In “The Unconsoled,” the story is never fully sorted out; at the end, we remain in the hall of mirrors. Unfortunately, “Never Let Me Go” includes a carefully staged revelation scene, in which everything is, somewhat portentously, explained. It’s a little Hollywood, & the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over inlớn science fiction, & this is not, at heart, where it seems khổng lồ want lớn be.

But where the novel does want to lớn be is even less obvious than usual. Ishiguro is praised for his precision and his psychological acuity, và is compared khổng lồ writers lượt thích Henry James & Jane Austen. In fact, he says that he dislikes James và Austen. He also says that he has never been able lớn get beyond the first volume of Proust; it’s too dull. On the other h&, although his novels are self-consciously “mix,” they are not historical novels, & the facts don’t seem to lớn interest hlặng very much. Ishiguro was born in nhật bản, but his parents moved to Englvà with hyên ổn when he was five sầu. He cannot speak Japanese very well; he has not expressed any particular admiration for nhật bản or its culture; và he mix his first two novels in Japan without revisiting the country. He appears lớn have sầu done some retìm kiếm for “When We Were Orphans”; but in “Never Let Me Go,” even after the secrets have sầu been revealed, there are still a lot of holes in the story. This is not because things are meant lớn be opaque; it’s because, apparently, genetic science isn’t what the book is about.

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Ishiguro does not write like a readanh sách. He writes lượt thích someone impersonating a reamenu, và this is one reason for the peculiar fascination of his books. He is actually a fabudanh mục và an ironist, và the writers he most resembles, under the genteel mask, are Kafka & Beckett. This is why the prose is always slightly overspecific. It’s realism from an instruction manual: literal, thorough, determined to lớn leave nothing out. But it has a vaguely irreal effect.


Beckett’s subject, too, was happiness, and, though Ishiguro’s characters seem so earnestly respectable, they have the same mad, compulsive, quasi-mechanical qualities that Beckett’s bởi vì. There is something animatronic about them. They are simulators of humanness, figures engineered to lớn pass as “real.” What it means lớn be really human is always a problem for them. Can you just copy other people? Would that take care of it? “I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills,” Stevens explains at the kết thúc of “The Remains of the Day,” “but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have sầu done.” Genetic engineering—the idea of human beings as products programmed khổng lồ piông chồng up “personhood skills”—is a perfect vehicle for a writer lượt thích Ishiguro.

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For reasons that belong to the story’s secret, the characters in “Never Let Me Go” all feel obliged to lớn create works of art. Tommy is slower to lớn develop creatively than his schoolmates, and when he starts to lớn make drawings they are pictures of animals. He finally shows them lớn Kathy:

**: .break one ** I was taken abaông chồng at how densely detailed each one was. In fact, it took a moment to lớn see they were animals at all. The first impression was lượt thích one you’d get if you took the baông chồng off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive sầu precision, và only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird. . . . For all their busy, metallic features, there was something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them. **

The passage almost certainly derives from Henri Bergson’s famous definition of comedy: the mechanical encrusted on the living. The creatures Tommy draws are imagined versions of himself. They are funny and pathetic at the same time, because people behaving lượt thích wind-up toys, even when they can’t help it, even when it makes them fall down manholes, make us laugh. This is why Beckett is a comic writer, and it’s why Ishiguro’s novels, though filled with incidents of poignancy & disappointment & cruelty, are also, weirdly, funny. His sad characters can’t help themselves. ♦


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Louis Menvà, a staff writer at The New Yorker, teaches at Harvard University. His most recent book is “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.”
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