Thursday, January 13, 2011

the last book I read

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kathy is a late-twentysomething or early-thirtysomething with some sort of job in social work, medical care, something like that, reminiscing about her schooldays. Nothing so strange or out of the ordinary about that, right? Well....

The school in question is Hailsham, a full-time boarding school where Kathy spends her time hanging out with close friends Ruth and Tommy, and just doing the normal things that kids do. Well, apart from the slightly creepy things that seem to be going on that probably weren't where you and I went to school: the regular intrusive medical exams, the encouragement of the kids to produce artwork which is then taken away for a mysterious "gallery" somewhere, the extreme fear and paranoia about the outside world. And why does the mysterious "Madame" who periodically comes and collects the pupils' artwork seem to view the kids themselves with such barely-suppressed revulsion and horror? And why is there never any mention of the parents?

As the children grow towards adulthood the answers to these questions gradually emerge: they are genetic clones who are being raised to adulthood solely to act as a source of organs for transplants. Eventually they will be called upon to become "donors", and, when enough of their organs have been harvested, they will "complete", i.e. (just in case you're not keeping up) die. In the meantime some will be trained as "carers" who provide help and support to those going through the various stages of the donation process.

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham and are assigned to the less regimented surroundings of The Cottages, a former farm where they co-habit with other future donors. Most of these have grown up in places other than Hailsham, and it soon becomes clear that for all Hailsham's slightly oppressive creepiness it's probably nicer than most of the alternatives. So much so in fact that a hopeful rumour goes around that if a young couple should be able to prove their love for each other they may be able to appeal to the governing authorities at Hailsham and win a three-year "deferral" of the start of the donation process. Incidentally, by contrast with the stringent rules prohibiting things like smoking (got to keep those organs fresh and juicy), there is a fairly permissive attitude to sex and lots of pairing off occurs, most notably Ruth and Tommy.

Eventually the time comes to move on again: Ruth and Tommy are both called up for their first donations, and Kathy becomes a carer, a job she is naturally well-suited to, so much so that she is granted the rare privilege of being able to choose her donors. Naturally she chooses to remain in contact with Ruth and Tommy, and it's on an outing in the car with the pair of them that we see the brutal reality of the euphemistically-sanitised "donation" process: Ruth is weakened and in constant pain from a recent donation (she has trouble bending over to negotiate a barbed-wire fence) and during the car journey back to the clinic suggests that, since she isn't going to be around for much longer, Kathy and Tommy should try to secure a deferral for themselves. She then reveals that she knows how they can contact "Madame", which, a while later after Ruth has "completed", they do, only to discover that there is no magical enchanted kingdom with cake and lemonade and ponies, and that the appointed order of things will play out as it always does, even for them.

All of which provides another opportunity to ask the question I asked after reading The Road - is this science fiction? More importantly, does the categorisation even matter? For what it's worth I would answer "yes, a bit" and "no, not at all" respectively. There's a sense in which Ishiguro has taken an inherently science-fiction-y subject and then taken great pains to deliver it in as un-science-fiction-y a way as possible: it's written in a matter-of-fact, slightly breathless, faux-naïve way, as if it were a young girl's journal (which is what it essentially is, after all), and there is a conscious avoidance of providing any sort of scientific context to what's going on, which is fine, but raises a load of unanswered questions in the mind - assuming you have that sort of mind - like: why are all the clones infertile? what organs are they harvesting that allow you to survive three or four goes before "completing" - surely if you're next on the list and someone needs a heart transplant then you're pretty much restricted to one "donation"? what about tissue rejection? what's the social and political context for all this, given that a) it's set in a broadly recognisable UK and b) it would be unthinkable at the moment? has there been some sort of revolution? a war? or what?

Scientific and political plausibility aside the most important question is: why don't any of the prospective donors make a run for it? They're allowed plenty of leeway and autonomy in terms of being able to roam about at will (the central three characters and a couple of others from The Cottages pile into the car and head off to Norfolk on a whim at one point) once they've left Hailsham, and it's not as if you can identify a clone just by looking at them. There's a sort of bovine acceptance of their fate which, while perfectly plausible in a society where they're institutionalised not to imagine that there is any alternative, makes you think: surely someone must have just snuck off and never shown up when they got the letter telling them to report to the liver-extraction unit?

Clearly the intention here is that we don't get too hung up on the sciencey stuff and focus instead on the human story. A story which, in a twisted sort of way, is quite optimistic - as much as it's about accepting your fate, it's also about making the best of the time available to you in the face of the certain prospect of it all eventually ending in a big smear of pain and fear at a time not of your choosing. Which, if you think about it, applies to all of us, though hopefully we might carry on a bit longer, and avoid the organ-harvesting death squads. We all get it in the end, though.

This is the first Ishiguro I've read (though I do have a copy of The Remains Of The Day on my shelves which I have yet to get to) and I thought it was excellent, though I would have liked some context just to anchor the whole thing in the real world a bit more. Those quibbles aside, though, the gradual revelations are nicely done without getting all Basil Exposition on our ass, and it's pretty short (280-odd pages in my film tie-in paperback edition, but print it in a sensible-sized font and it wouldn't be much more than 200), so I recommend giving it a go. It's basically a more literary treatment of some ideas that crop up in all manner of other places: the central plot device is not dissimilar to that of The Island (which was a bit silly - well, it's a Michael Bay film - but did feature Scarlet Johansson in a white jumpsuit), the no-one living past 30-ish element was similar to Logan's Run (which was a bit silly and looks dated now but did feature Jenny Agutter in a curtain), and there are bits that will be familiar to anyone who's read either The Handmaid's Tale, The Chrysalids or Brave New World.

Here's the obligatory lists and awards round-up: Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005, as was The Accidental (John Banville won that year for The Sea); it also appears in Time magazine's list of 100 best novels of the 20th century, as did Blood Meridian, The Catcher In The Rye, The Corrections, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Watchmen.

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