Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I finished Never Let Me Go (2005) a few nights ago, and was expecting to be hard hit.  A friend had said the ending would “Really f. me up,” which fueled a quick turn of the pages.  Strange impetus, right?

But I think I would have been riveted anyway.  The bizarre flatness of the narrator (Kathy) and the parceling out of small details about the predicament of Hailsham students (who attend a school that prepares them for a “unique” future) drive the novel, as well as the increasing ominous sense that something is wrong, despite such a controlled setting with near-constant predictability.

I wasn’t hard hit by the ending initially.  I’d been expecting at least a poor night’s sleep.  But after a trip to London that involved a somewhat bizarre class-related experience, I started thinking about Kathy’s voice again, and the final scene of the novel.

And now the impact has finally settled in.  Took me a few days, but I think I see what Ishiguro might be implying, especially in light of the themes in The Remains of the Day.  I have a feeling that the sense of being disturbed is just starting.

A NYT Book Review reveals that Ishiguro was born in post-Nagasaki Japan, and later worked (in England) with the homeless as a social worker for three years.  Finding this out, and that he was eventually disheartened by this work, gives Ishiguro further credibility for his rather bleak outlook on the plight of some individuals in society, as well as the poignant existential trouble he must have faced when working with some of the most vulnerable of all groups.

One of the issues Ishiguro raises is that of prescribed and ascribed meaning in our lives, especially the latter. Since humans are inherently meaning-making creatures, we will do so under any circumstances, as illustrated by his characters.  But does this meaning actually hold in the end?

In other words, aren’t we just deluding ourselves?

What makes this question all the more brutal (a term that seems unavoidable, also admitted by the Times reviewer) is that Ishiguro’s characters don’t descend into cynicism, bitterness or nihilism, at least not permanently.  A refusal to “go gently into that good night” might infuse the novel with some degree of fire and the spirit of human rebellion, but the seemingly polite acceptance of the students’ fate is the most horrific element of the novel.  One keeps expecting retaliation, and there are hints of this, but nothing on the scale to which one would expect.

“You poor creatures,” one guardian (a teacher/parent sort of role at Hailsham) says.  “You poor, poor creatures.”   Poor indeed.  But are our lives really so separate from the “creatures” of Hailsham?

(Spoiler alert–stop reading here if you intend to read the novel.)

The other question Ishiguro raises is “Can humans be so easily controlled?”  In Ishiguro’s dystopia, the answer is a resounding “Yes,” despite the lack of true humanity of Hailsham students.

What then, defines humans exactly?  Is it the existence of a soul?  The sense of choice?  The ability to love and to feel compassion? Are there those, in the real world, who exist simply for one purpose, to fulfill a certain role, who will die after having served that term?

Not only does Ishiguro imply that humans (or a human clone) can be easily controlled, but that those with full human desires might be born into a set fate which renders that sort of fullness and the dream of happiness delusional, and any sort of hope for dignity embarrassing and foolish.

So how many of us get to be fully human?  Is this right reserved for a select group?   What does it mean to be fully human, and what defines an absence of humanity?

I wonder how much Ishiguro’s experience of moving to England after the age of six influenced his sense of the class structure in England.   One can’t help but wonder too, if this isn’t what the novel is about, at least in part.  Yes, the questions about humanity are unavoidable, but given the British class issues in Remains of the Day, perhaps it’s the case that class and social hierarchy allow portals to such larger questions about humanity.

There have been times, like yesterday, in leafy Marylebone, when I feel like I am conversing with a differently-formed creature, a creature born on another planet with an entirely different view of the world, due to our class differences.

The solution to my current predicament was solved, in his mind, with a few swift measures, thereby rearranging all the players and all of my options.

“There,” he seemed to be saying, as if setting a throw cushion on a sofa, finishing the new arrangement of a living room.

In the world of the upper class, it’s true; things can be changed or manipulated.  In the world of the working class and the quickly-deteriorating middle class, there are usually zero options, or a few risky ones. One’s learning curve is how to choose the least worst path of action.

No one is literally in the same situation as the Hailsham students of Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro’s metaphor did, in the end, f. me up.

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