Quiz time. It’s multiple choice, so don’t get too worried—unless you are one of those people who habitually panics about multiple choice tests, in which case, since you have a preternatural obsession and are going to worry no matter what I suggest, go ahead and worry.
What is the title of the novel whose plot is summarized in the following paragraph?
The narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is an emotionally reserved adult reflecting on the past. The reflections have a high literary flair, which is presumably because Ishiguro can write so well, but which is not quite in keeping with how we would expect the narrator to write. The emotionally reserved part is fine, but one wonders how the narrator learned to write so incredibly well.. That is a minor problem however—indeed, the book has such high literary merit it is easy to overlook. The novel starts at a moment when the narrator has cause to reflect on the past and then immediately starts jumping back into autobiographical mode, with enough breaks in the autobiography to remind you of when the narrator is writing. As the story unfolds, there are a number of small surprises and one Big Surprise. But, in every case, there was such extensive foreshadowing that the surprises never actually surprise. By the time the Reveals happen, the overriding response is, “Well of course that is what was going on.” This is clever writing, by the way—it would not be easy to write a book in which the surprises just gradually emerge in a manner that the reader is never surprised by the surprise. Despite the fact that the narrator continues to live past the point in which the novel ends, there is a sense of completeness here. The arc of the narrator’s Life has ended despite the fact that the narrator will continue to live for a time, probably relatively short, past the end of the novel. All in all, the novel is extremely good, in part because Ishiguro writes so incredibly well, but also because the story has some intrinsic interest, taking on a matter of contemporary relevance.
Here is the quiz.
The novel described above is:
a) Remains of the Day
b) Never Let Me Go
I’ll pause while you decide.
Time’s up. It was a trick question. The summary above fits both novels. This leads to a strange phenomenon—on the surface, these two novels are completely different. In one, we have an English butler as a narrator. In the other we have a 31 year old woman who used to live in a boarding school. Yet, underneath the structure, underneath the Big Surprise (which will be discussed shortly—it is impossible to discuss these books and keep the surprise hidden—so if you are averse to knowing what happens in these books, you’ll want to stop reading now—then again, neither surprise is really all that surprising by the time you get to it), underneath the storylines, the novels have the same structure written in the same way by a person with exactly the same sense of emotional reserve.
I read The Remains of the Day a year or so ago. I thought it was amazing. Vastly better than Never Let Me Go. What I have no way of knowing is whether if I had read these novels in the other order, I would have liked Never Let Me Go more. (For example, decades ago when I read Ludlum a lot, I liked The Aquitaine Progression the best—it was the first one I read, and I suspect I liked it the best because once you have read one Ludlum novel, you have read them all.) That being said, I suspect the tale of the English butler is a superior novel. There is vastly more subtlety to the whole thing. It is an extended reflection on the idea of decorum and loyalty in an world in which such things are breaking down. Is it wrong to maintain standards when one discovers the English Lord whom you serve is a Nazi?
Never Let Me Go got high praise all around. It certainly deserves praise, but I did not think it was anywhere near as gripping as The Remains of the Day. The problem: once you realize that the narrator is a clone, being raised for the sole purpose of being a medical donor to those in need of donations (the science of the donations is never made clear), then the rest of the novel just feels like it is running out the course. The Remains of the Day stayed intriguing until the end. But, I found myself, just waiting for Never Let Me Go to get around to announcing what was already known and then wrapping up. Perhaps my problem was that I found the narrator personally more interesting in one novel than in the other.
But, I have this nagging idea that Ishiguro was also simply going through the motions in crafting this novel. He had an idea—let’s discuss cloning in a way which will get people thinking about it, really thinking about it (more about this anon). Then, needing a way to tell that story, he thought he might as well rehash the structure of his greatest novel. If so, then he was partly successful, but Never Let Me Go needed a bit more work to bring it to full success.
The cloning idea does merit thought. Imagine science does develop the ability to clone humans. Do the clones have a soul? Are they people with Natural Rights? Or, since they have been created, are they best considered no different than the biological agents used to make vaccines? It would seem rather important to settle this matter before we start cloning humans, but of course, we won’t. Someday we will be faced with exactly the sort of question which lies at the heart of Ishiguro’s novel. I expect this is the reason for much of the praise of this novel—people who have never thought about this issue would find themselves suddenly pondering a deep moral question in a novel they picked up having no idea that is what it contained.
On the surface, Ishiguro’s novel is an argument for the humanity of the clones. Yet…I have another nagging succession. Is the novel more nuanced than the first reading would suggest? The clones…well, as I think about them, they aren’t entirely convincing as people. Maybe this is just the emotional reserve of the narrator, but maybe the emotional reserve is a clue to that something on which I cannot place my finger that makes me suspect that on a rereading, maybe the clones won’t seem so human after all. Therein lies the real question about the Greatness of Ishiguro’s book. If the matter of whether the clones are fully human, complete with souls, is ambiguous in this novel, then it might just be a Great Book. If the novel does not support debate on this question, however, it will be a period piece, worth your time if you enjoy nicely crafted sentences. Then again, if you just want that, I’d suggest reading the Remains of the Day instead—that one has serious Great Book potential.
The song is obvious Judy Bridgewater’s Never Let Me Go: it is the song from which the book gets its title. But, here is the funny part. Judy Bridgewater doesn’t exist. The album from which the song comes in the novel doesn’t exist. Ishiguro made up the song when writing the novel. But, I just included a link to a YouTube video with a version of a song which does not exist being sung by a person who does not exist. Gotta love the modern age.