Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, New York: Knopf, 304 pages, $24
The summer of 2005 offered any number of entertainments to the American public, from the latest (and, one hopes, last) Star Wars movie to Johnny Depp as a weirder-than-Jacko Willie Wonka. Not exactly overlooked, but certainly drowned out, in a frenzy that included the release of the sixth Harry Potter book and the Michael Bay sci-fi thrill fest The Island was a slender novel, released a few months earlier, that disconcertingly combines elements of both J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular series and Bay's latest film.
That book is Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and if it doesn't reach a Potter-sized audience, that won't be because it doesn't deserve one. Formally a science fiction story about people who are cloned to serve as sources of spare parts, thematically Ishiguro's book draws much more from a different literary genre: the British boarding school novel. Never Let Me Go's antecedents include Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days and Rudyard Kipling's Stalky and Company, books about the formation of character in the context of a boarding school, where the social framework is largely constructed by children acting on their own. Something similar can be said about the Harry Potter books, although it was Rowling's innovation to give the boarding school drama a fantasy twist.
Ishiguro takes the form into even newer territory, and not merely by providing a science-fictional backdrop. Where he goes much further than Rowling would dare is in his focus on the extent to which the formation of character is a kind of indoctrination–and an insidious one at that.
On the surface, Never Let Me Go's premise isn't too terribly different from that of The Island. Imagine a science fiction story in which people are cloned in order to provide spare parts for the wealthy. The clones who are to become transplant donors will be raised in some idyllic environment, and then at some point they will realize that the entire purpose of their existence is to be carved up for medical use by some other, more privileged class of human beings. If you saw the trailer to the Bay film starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, then you more or less knew what was in store for the characters: The cloned transplant candidates suddenly discover their fate and spend the rest of the movie striving to escape.
For Ishiguro, as you might expect from the author of The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World, what's intriguing about this scenario is something far more internal: the question of what these cloned donors tell themselves about their role in the world. The result is a story lacking the explosions and chase scenes of The Island and the thaumaturgic comedy of Rowling, a story more focused on how human beings, even when steeped in a horrific reality, will find ways to rationalize the horror and squeeze some semblance of life from whatever constrained existence they are allowed.
The cloning aspect of Ishiguro's novel is almost tangential to exploring how his cloned but nonetheless fully human protagonists accommodate themselves to their hideously unfair–and implicitly bloodthirsty–world. Indeed, even a casual reader of Never Let Me Go can see how little the author (who has become known in his other work for painstaking craftsmanship) cares for whether this whole cloning-for-spare-parts scenario is politically or scientifically credible. The story is mostly set in the United Kingdom of the 1990s, but it's a U.K. that is only roughly parallel to that in our own world–similar enough to have Woolworth's department stores but different enough to enable the almost cannibalistic policy decision to create, educate, care for, and eventually destroy the farmed human beings who are the story's protagonists. It's unclear why one would need to develop full-fledged human beings to use in this way; surely a sufficiently advanced cloning technology would allow for spare parts to be grown separately, or at least for the cloned donors to be kept mercifully free of any poignant inner life that they will some day have to surrender.
Nevertheless, the story is emotionally credible, and here's why: When you listen to these characters talking about themselves, lying to themselves (mostly in small ways), accommodating uncomfortable truths, rationalizing their grim fates, you hear voices that eerily evoke people as they really are, not people as the heroes we might hope they'd be. The book offers no hope of a revolution overturning the oppressive order, ? la Logan's Run, nor is there any hint of the kind of cathartic epiphany that Chuck Heston was so good at channeling in Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. But then this is, after all, an Ishiguro novel;he's interested in showing us how we are, not in making us feel better for having shelled out five bucks for the large popcorn.
We see this reality in the discussion, late in the book, between Tommy and Ruth, the two closest friends of Kathy, who narrates the story. They're discussing how well each of them fulfills the two roles–"carer" and "donor"–that all clones must play when they've left the confines of the schools where they have been carefully raised. The meaning of "donor" is obvious; a "carer" is a clone who cares for transplant donors as they recover from their operations, and who won't become a donor until his or her career as a carer is done. Here's a snippet of their conversation:
[Says Tommy:] "I'm a pretty good donor, but I was a lousy carer."
No one spoke for a while. Then Ruth said, her voice quieter now:
"I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it?"
It sharpens the poignancy of this remark to consider that, in Ishiguro's story, becoming a donor means you'll likely be dying sooner rather than later.? There is no hint that donors, all of whom must donate four organs before they "complete," ever survive "completion."
These are the voices of characters who are not merely resigned to their fates but who have found a way to be proud of their ability to sacrifice themselves. The passage reminded me of an American soldier I know, one who is extremely critical of his government's decision to invade and occupy Iraq but who nonetheless is proud of the job he's doing there, even though he knows it may kill him.
At the same time, however, Ishiguro also shows us that at some fundamental, animal level his characters can't always fully bear the hand life has dealt them. You see it in their willingness to invent little private mythologies that give them the hope of a life just slightly richer than the ones to which they are in fact condemned. (We're told at the beginning of the novel that Kathy is 31, and we're given the impression that she has already lived a longer life than most of her schoolmates can hope for.) Ishiguro's characters spontaneously come up with fantasies about not dying, or about delaying death for love. A long-running example of this is Ruth's concoction of a special exception to the rules for clones that would allow clones to forgo becoming donors for a few years–two or three maybe–when they can demonstrate to their overseers that they're genuinely in love. It's a ridiculous fantasy on its face–why would those who have created these clones to use as spare parts care whether or not the spare part donors had a chance to love?–but it nevertheless becomes a thin reed for Ishiguro's characters to cling to.
Whether Ishiguro intends the connection or not, it's worth noting that this fantasizing is a nice metaphor for religion. Indeed, maybe it really just is religion–the time-honored practice of creating a metaphysical justification for our suffering and loss, one that gives us enough meaning to endure at least a little longer.
Just as important, the author paints a picture of how subtly and almost painlessly indoctrination can work–creating a worldview that accepts monstrous cruelty, and does so at such a fundamental level that it does not occur to anyone to question it. (We later discover that even those who take advantage of the cloned are trapped in their own mind-sets–they occasionally have some qualms about what they are doing but don't seriously question or challenge the whole setup.)
In this respect, Never Let Me Go invites a comparison to Ishiguro's best-known work, The Remains of the Day. In Remains, the central conceit is that the butler narrator is so focused on playing his proper social role that he cannot fully see what is happening in the souls of the human beings around him–from the woman who might have loved him to his employer, who lurches into British fascism. In Never Let Me Go, by contrast, none of the characters is truly blind to what's going on; they can recognize the horror of their situation, but it doesn't matter.
It is perhaps because the cruelty of Never Let Me Go is so blandly observed by characters who are unwilling to challenge it that some reviewers have fretted so obsessively about whether it is "science fiction." Consider James Wood's not entirely backhanded compliment in The New Republic: "Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous." Wood goes on to characterize as a "thin elite" those science fiction writers "who succeed on literary terms." H.G. Wells and Karl Capek make the Wood cut, but hardly anyone else does. Thanks a lot, Mr. Wood, and science fiction doesn't need you either. Calling the book "science fiction" gives some reviewers a way to pigeonhole it–to avoid its uncomfortable truths.
More important than the novel's genre is whether it enables us to see things about ourselves that we might not have seen so clearly before. Never Let Me Go, like all good fiction, meets that test. It shines a light on the extent to which we are all somewhat proud of our ability to adapt ourselves to what history may later judge a monstrous state of affairs, telling ourselves that this–where "this" may be glib tolerance of dehumanizing poverty, the heedless degradation of our biosphere, or even the invasion of Iraq–is, after all, "what we are supposed to be doing, isn't it?"