Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the foremost living novelists of memory and regret. Although this was clear when Ishiguro wrote the masterpiece of reflection that is The Remains of the Day, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 1989, it was his 2005 science fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, which cemented his talent in my mind. It may strike you as odd to hear that this writer of poignant literary fiction produced a work of sci-fi, but the work is handled with no less sensitivity than his other subjects, and perhaps—given the stigma against ‘genre fiction’ in literary communities—even more courage.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Never Let Me Go, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book (or seen its 2010 film adaptation).
Never Let Me Go as Memoir:
While it is true that Never Let Me Go ceaselessly drives the reader further and further into the despairing regrets of the novel’s withering central characters, the novel does not leave the reader with nothing to strive for. In fact, the very nature of the science fiction circumstances in which the central characters exist (the characters are clones, destined to donate as many viable organs as possible shortly after reaching human adulthood) makes immediate the question of what is involved in leading a worthwhile life. And the implied instruction of the book, for it is cautionary and thus instructive, is to unflinchingly pursue interpersonal connections, or risk dying unfulfilled.
In Never Let Me Go, a subdued narrator presents as a cautionary tale a world wherein decisions have little to no effect on overall outcomes, but where they have immense effects on emotional outcomes. Thus far, the work could be a standard depiction of reality. But its priorities concerning reality, which hold that the most valuable emotional aspect of life may be relationships between people, are communicated by its apparent separation from reality. This conception is based on both the acceleration of the characters toward a human end by their science-fiction inhumanity, and the novel’s form. To see how this emphasis arises from the bleak details, further attention is required.
Ishiguro’s novel opens with no indication of fiction whatsoever, focusing instead on the realistic aspects of the life of the narrator, Kathy, and only confronting her impending organ bank death when it comes up naturally in the account of the past: “Although this horrifying practice is revealed as the narrative progresses, the text itself focuses on the everyday nature of the friendships and love affairs that grow in Hailsham, and the novel has a particularly subdued air rather than a spectacular take on the institutionalized cloning of individuals and their harvesting” (McDonald 76). This is a seemingly odd presentation decision, having the science fiction tale come across as a naturally or psychologically realistic account. But the result, aside from the obvious benefits of suspending readers’ disbelief, is an account which foregrounds the emotional effects of the characters’ status as clones over the societal effects.
The essential question of the piece is that of how best to live one’s life. First and foremost, the work toward posing this question is done by the novel’s primary conceit, that of the short-lived lives of the clones. As opposed to defamiliarizing life by looking at it on an unreal scale (by, for example, removing the sci-fi elements and instead telling the story of some people who happen to die young), Never Let Me Go does the work of defamiliarization by depicting life in its relatable entirety—including the ever-present knowledge of one’s rough estimation of eventual death—but on a scale facilitated by that conceit: “Insofar as the artificially created and controlled life of the Hailsham students is a condensed version of the normal human experience, its melancholy is also the melancholy of the brevity of ordinary life, its transience, the transience of the truest of true love” (Toker, Chertoff 178).
Never Let Me Go is not unrealistic, despite its unreality. Rather, as McDonald alleges, it is like an actual memoir of this imagined world and so should be treated by the reader as would be treated any autobiography, as a cautionary or an instructive narrative. Still, it would seem, of course, that the literal caution and instruction of the narrator is not hopeful, but bleakly resigned.
In Never Let Me Go, the reader does see a brief, linear vision of life, almost a satire of reality, but Ishiguro intends not to leave the readers as resigned as is narrator Kathy: “Through this device [of having Kathy employ Hannah Arendt’s well-known ‘banality of evil’ diction], [Ishiguro] pushes the reader not to replicate Kathy’s limitations of perspective and understanding. He challenges us to become [. . .] stirred to anger by the inequities that define and circumscribe [life]” (Whitehead 76).
Never Let Me Go closes on a vision of an unbearably tense, unsatisfied anguish which Kathy entirely internalizes. If, however, we accept the novel as a form of instructive memoir, then a proper assessment of the development of Never Let Me Go does not conclude that love should not be fought for. Nor does it conclude that decisions are meaningless because the world seems overwhelmingly predetermined and life unspeakably short. Instead, it contends that the emotive case of this melancholy girl may be one’s own if one is not assertive enough to ardently pursue the types of existentially crucial and essentially human relationships exhibited in the narrative, in spite of inhabiting a universe which, ultimately, may render those actions moot.
Ishiguro’s consistent use of the past tense, first-person singular across his works emphasizes the contingency of individual life choices, as well as their permanence once made. In this way, he puts forward the idea that such fatalism should in no way discourage striving after love, nor downplay its importance; in fact, it should revitalize one’s search for satisfaction.
Ultimately, it is irrelevant whether one’s life is ending in two months or seventy years, as love is an instrinsic good, i.e. love is worth pursuing in and of itself, even if nothing about it will yield other, lasting external benefits. No matter one’s philosophical orientation, one would be wise to pursue love in life. Never Let Me Go contains an implicit conclusion which seems (albeit subjectively) to be the majority opinion in art—however trite it sounds when summarized—that loving relationships are the most vitally satisfying aspect of an inexorable life with a fixed duration, and that not pursuing them can lead to profound regret.
McDonald, Keith. “Days of Past Futures: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go as ‘Speculative Memoir'” Biography 30.1 (2007): 74-83. Print.
Toker, Leona, and Daniel Chertoff. “Reader Response and the Recycling of Topoi in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6.1 (2007): 163-80. Print.
Whitehead, Anne. “Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Contemporary Literature 52.1 (2011): 54-83. Print.
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