Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Ishiguro Test

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.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Cat's Cradle

A history of human stupidity. 

I am not about to write such a thing, but the idea is amusing.  Sadly, the book would be too long to read in a lifetime—and that is assuming you were just reading the abridged version. 

But, we have the next best thing: Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle.  It’s nominally fiction, but fiction of the sort that says something truer than non-fiction.

This is Vonnegut’s fourth novel.  As I have noted in this space before, thanks to the Library of America publishing all of Vonnegut, I embarked on reading him in order and it all makes so much more sense now.  I had read this novel before, and when I finished it, I had no idea what I just read and thus I promptly forgot the whole thing.  But now, after reading Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, the novel was perfectly sensible.   What is curious about this fact:  Cat’s Cradle is in no way a sequel to the previous two books other than being the intellectual sequel—Vonnegut could only have written this book after writing the previous two. 

Insofar as there is a thesis in this book it is this:  History is just one stupid human act after another and in the end we all die and it was perfectly meaningless.  Yet,  this is no cause for despair.  Because, when you look at it, when you really look closely at it, when you press your eyeball right up against history and stare as intensely as you can at it, then you see that all this human stupidity is really quite funny.  You just have to stop taking everything so seriously.  You have to stop striving for some Big Think overarching narrative story that makes sense of the whole thing in terms of Grand Causes or Grand Cosmic Ends.  Just chop up reality into really tiny parts (this book is 183 pages long and has 127 chapters—you do the math) and look at each part on its own and realize that each part, which follows from what went before and leads to what comes after, each part individually is just another senseless act of stupidity in a long string of actions of senseless stupidity all leading to yet more acts of senseless stupidity.  In the end, we all die.  But, don’t get all worked up about that either—even our death is just one more small little bit of human stupidity following inexorably from what came before.  So laugh.  Really, just laugh. 

This is a brilliant book.  Wrong, of course—there is a Grand Overarching Cosmic Narrative—but wrong in a useful way.  For example—take this moment.  (Whether that means the moment the following is being written or the moment the following is being read is irrelevant, but it will be more amusing to consider the latter).  I want to, and truth be told, you Dear Reader also want to, imagine that this moment is larger than it is, that there is some Great Purpose to this moment, that this moment cannot be stripped out of eternity and held up like a 1.44 page chapter as an entity unto itself and laughed at.  I (and you) want to believe that there is some larger meaning to all this, that I am not simply adding to the chronicle of human stupidity by writing this and that you are not adding an even greater stupidity by actually reading this.  (Who’s the more foolish: the fool or the fool who follows him? (If you don’t know the soruce of that, I weep for you.))  We, you and I, Dear Reader, want to weave this moment into something meaningful.  Yet, is it?  Can I honestly say that by writing these rambling semi-coherent reflections I am adding to human wisdom?  I am rehashing a book which I said up front was a book I read before and promptly forgot because it seemed so purposeless and now I am calling it brilliant because I found some purpose in a purposeless book and you are reading my second-hand reflections on the book hoping to discover…what?  What, Dear Reader, did you really hope to attain in the few moments you read this blog post?  Did you honestly expect to become more wise, to lessen the amount of human stupidity in history by charging forth after reading this to revolutionize the world?  Did you really believe that by reading this blog post you would make the world would a better place?

I just opened Cat’s Cradle at random.  Chapter 98.  We read in that chapter:
“I agree with one Bokonist idea.  I agree that all religions, including Bokononism, are nothing but lies.”
Is that Bokonist Idea the truth or a lie?  That of course is the Joke.    As the Cretan said, “All Cretans are liars.”  The apostle Paul (or should that be Saint Paul?) said that.  Now Paul was writing to Titus when he said that and Titus was ministering to the people of Crete and Paul used that joke to remind Titus about the sort of people he was serving.  Paul wasn't kidding—as he said, “that statement is true.”  Paul has a sense of humor too.  So, opening up Cat’s Cradle at random, truly at random, I suddenly found Vonnegut and Paul sharing a joke and then I wrote about it, and you Dear Reader, read about it, and what did we all, you, me, Vonnegut, and Paul, just accomplish?  This paragraph is 2000 years in the making, and we just advanced humanity…how?

So, while I believe in the Grand Cosmic Narrative, while I believe there is a teleological point to human existence, it is hard to escape the Vonnegutian Perspective.  Moment by moment, history sure does seem like just one stupid thing after another.  Momet by moment, those acts of stupidity are pretty funny.  I am very amused that you are actually still reading this, Dear Reader.  At what point did you miss the cue that there is nothing here worth reading?

Page 47.  I just picked that page number at random.  (Was it truly random?  Why 47?  I have no idea.)  I am about to turn to page 47 and will transcribe a sentence from that page.  I note this to give you fair warning.  Do you really believe there is any possibility that something on page 47 of this book will generate an observation which is worth your time, Dear Reader?  Think of this as the Rorschach test moment.  If your answer to that was “Yes,” then what, Dear Reader, gives you any hope that a sentence on a random page from a random book on a random blog written by Your Humble Narrator will have meaning?  And, if your answer was “No,” then why are you still reading (that isn’t a rhetorical question)?

From page 47: OK.  I’ll admit it, this is really quite eerie.  The first thing on page 47 is the end of chapter 32:
But all I could say as a Christian then was, “Life is sure funny sometimes.”
“And sometimes it isn’t,” said Marvin Breed.
Here is the part I find seriously troubling.  I really did just pick the number 47 at random, wrote the preceding paragraph and then turned to page 47 and there it was.  I did not rewrite the preceding paragraph in any way after turning to page 47.  I, of course, have absolutely no way to convince you, Dear Reader, that this was, in fact what happened.  Indeed, I suspect you think this whole thing is rigged.  Honestly, if I was reading this blog post I would think this whole thing was some lame attempt to make a point.   I can’t think of anything the author could write that would convince me otherwise.  But, as the writer of this blog post, I know something you, the Reader, don’t know.  It really did just happen   It wasn't made up.  I am troubled.  This is just too strange for my tastes.  I mean I get that God has a sense of humor too, but to orchestrate things so that I would turn to that page at the end of this blog post and find those two sentences right at the top of the page…well, that is just a bit too much Grand Cosmic Narrative for my tastes.  I am seriously troubled.  (Really, no joke here.)