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Never Let Me Go is well-written. But it isn’t a triumph of language or anything. If anything, it is written very blandly – the sentence ending with “or anything” for me symbolises the sort of colloquial style in which Ishiguro’s heroine writes; it is well-written only in the sense that Ishiguro convincingly creates the narrator and her feelings.
It is surprising how strong the underwrit edge of sadness – always an undercurrent, never more, mind you – is in her reminisces about her blissful childhood, and even more surprising how strongly I feel that that edge would be there even if I tried to recount Kathy’s life.
Kathy perpetually sounds like she’s more interested in recounting her social life than her world, a fact that carries much more importance than it seems to, because it is the only way Kathy would write it; her reasons for writing the novel – revealed in an expository climax that is very unpoular with critics, but which I think worked fine because it brought together many of the book’s ideas and themes – have absolutely nothing to do with Ishiguro’s, and yet her reasons shed light on his.
Never Let Me Go is a book not only engaged in creating a world, but also in creating a world and then creating another world inside that world to augment the outside world. The inside world is that of Kathy’s social life, and in some way it is the one I too am more interested in.
I’ve always known that of all the ideas I have in my mind for novels, the one I’m most likely to write is the social novel; a novel simply and surely about hostel social life, something I’d never seen described in a book till three days ago.
And besides, it’s only the third or fourth novel I remember reading almost exclusively because a good friend loved it; my interest in the social aspects of this novel is of course enhanced by the fact that I’m reading it for social reasons, and in a room five steps away from the social reason’s.
Back to the book, an angle of it which stands out for me very strongly is a sort of refusal of existentialism. While the existentialist asks what the point is of living a life without any ultimate purpose, Never Let Me Go asks what the point is of living, as in really enjoying, a life with one.
Simple question, powerful refutation.
James Wood at The New Republic Online has a rather more colourful way of expressing the same sentiment. I don’t recommend reading the whole essay before the book, because I think it reveals too much, but the following passage is certainly worth it. Note especially how he unwittingly contradicts the end of the first paragraph with the whole of the second.
But Never Let Me Go … could probably not give much final consolation to those who talk about protecting “a culture of life.” For it is most powerful when most allegorical, and its allegorical power has to do with its picture of ordinary human life as in fact a culture of death. That is to say, Ishiguro’s book is at its best when, by asking us to consider the futility of [their] lives, it forces us to consider the futility of our own. This is the moment at which Kathy’s appeal to us — “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham …” — becomes double-edged. For what if we are more like Tommy and Kathy than we at first imagined? The … children are being educated at school for lives of perfect pointlessness … Everything they do is dipped in futility, because the great pool of death awaits them. They possess individuality, and seem to enjoy it (they fall in love, they have sex, they read George Eliot), but that individuality is a mirage, a parody of liberty. Their lives have been written in advance, they are prevented and followed, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer. Their freedom is a tiny hemmed thing, their lives a vast stitch-up.
We begin the novel horrified by their difference from us and end it thoughtful about their similarity to us. After all, heredity writes a great deal of our destiny for us; and death soon enough makes us orphans, even if we were fortunate enough, unlike the children of Hailsham, not to start life in such deprivation. Without a belief in God, without metaphysical pattern and leaning, why should our lives not indeed be sentences of a kind, death sentences? Even with God? Well, God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it: the writing may well be on the wall anyway. To be assured of death at twenty-five or so … seems to rob life of all its savor and purpose. But why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it? The culture of life is not such a grand thing when seen through these narrow windows.
All this is there, but none of it is why I cried at the ending. Rather, all of it is why I cried at the ending, but only a part of why I cried. Okay, that’s not true either. Let’s say: I cried at the ending because of the philosophical implications, but all my concern was filtered through my relationship with Kathy.
This amalgam of personal and abstract emotion is rarely achieved; by all logic, I should treasure this book for e’ermore. But I don’t see myself doing that. I don’t know why, but my memory of the book, less than an hour after finishing it, is strangely ambivalent. Yes, it was very good and very powerful, but I didn’t love it, or something like that; while I can’t bring myself to say anything but good things about this book, I just don’t see myself putting it on a list of all-time greats along with Coetzee and Dostoevsky and Bao Ninh and god knows who else. Or maybe I’ll love it and my love is going to increase as a slow burn. Let’s see.
I think I’ve realised why I had misgivings about the book. It has to do with the fact that there are both personal and philosophical arcs that are supposed to end at the same time.
The personal arc is about the question of whether the main character lives are worth enjoying and whether they have any souls and so on; and the philosophical is what Wood points out in the second paragraph of the quoted passage. While the personal arc has an emphatic resolution, the philosophical one is pussyfooted in pointing at us and saying everything Wood says; whatever Wood and I felt about the book pointing to us, it didn’t come to me enough from the book itself even though it was very obvious, which makes me feel as if the book is somehow incomplete.