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Never Let Me Go – If there was a clone war between Kazuo Ishiguro and George Lucas, Kazuo would win. But…

April 13, 2011

"Oh my god it's a Dalek story" is not what you'd have said if you saw this.

“Reveals” they’re called these days, I believe. In old Doctor Who – and even sometimes in new Doctor Who – they’re the stuff of cliff hangers. In old Doctor Who it was a bit different; you’d be watching a story that didn’t have the word “Dalek” in its name and you’d get to the end of the first episode and there’d be a Dalek in the final shot and – OH MY GOD! IT’S A DALEK STORY! It worked in Australia in the 70s and early 80s for the most part because there was no such thing as the internet, although given the fan culture in the UK even then I doubt it worked there very well. These days I’m surprised they bother. But they do.

There’s a good chance most people know the reveal in Never Let Me Go. In fact that chance is so high that the makers of the movie version, released in Australia a week or two ago, revealed the reveal much earlier than it’s revealed in the book – ironically enough with Ishiguro’s approval. Did he feel that movies needed to be treated differently? Has he come to an understanding since 2005, when Never Let Me Go was published (the same year new Who hit our screens, funnily enough) that the whole concept of reveals is pointless? The vast majority of people who go to see Never Let Me Go will know it is a movie about clones. Most of those who’ve read the book since 2005 will know it’s about clones. Most of those who watch Doctor Who will already know that episode three of the new series is written by Neil Gaiman. Actually that may be an exaggeration. Also, not necessarily accurate. I think it’s episode three.

Suspense can be an incredibly powerful element in storytelling, even today, even given our appetite for, er, spoilers. The latter sections of Never Let Me Go are actually quite suspenseful, and quite powerful – and moving, I’d go so far as to say. In the past on this blog I’ve given things away, but in this case I won’t.

So I’ve written nearly 400 words explaining what I think is the key weakness of the first third of Ishiguro’s novel. I probably should move on now, shouldn’t I?

Actually I’m not sure that is its key weakness. The key weakness of the first third of Ishiguro’s novel, and indeed the rest of the novel, is an element of the author’s style that I have struck before, possibly in Wyndham. It’s just that Ishiguro doesn’t do it nearly as well (Netty hasn’t read any Wyndham. Netty was annoyed by this element of Ishiguro’s technique as well. Make of that what you will). Basically Ishiguro’s (and Wyndham’s) technique is this: I’m telling you this story about something that happened at this particular point in time, but – Oops! To make this story make sense I have to tell you another story about something that happened earlier. If I’m right and this is something Wyndham did (interestingly The Chrysalids gets a namecheck from one of the critics quoted in my edition) then either he did it better or reading him so many, many times has ubersensitised me to that approach to storytelling and in NLMG it just shits me. Beginning paragraphs with phrases such as “On the particular afternoon I’m thinking of…”, or “Looking back now”, or “But let me get back to Tommy”, or “And then there was the time”, and even “But that’s not really what I want to talk about right now” … These examples come from the first four chapters. The pattern continues more or less throughout the book. Done well (as I remember, possibly wrongly, Wyndham doing it, although I don’t think he did it, if he did it at all, as often as Ishiguro) it works well. Ishiguro doesn’t do it badly – and despite what you’re thinking by now I don’t think NLMG is a bad book – he just doesn’t do it terribly well.

And no, it’s not a bad book, although it’s not the great book some people apparently believe it to be. What do I like about it? Foremost, perversely, what I like about it is what repels me the most: Ishiguro presents an utterly appalling scenario and refuses to moralise. This is one of the cleverst things he does – he can’t moralise, not really, because even though he’s writing from the perspective of someone who can very legitimately be called a victim that victim has been raised to understand that their victimhood is their destiny and quite simply a part of how the world they are part of operates. The pigs who provide the pancetta you’ll be putting in your matriciana tonight (more chilli, you pussy) don’t have a chance to think that way. They do, of course, have the opportunity to suffer the insane terror of being slaughtered in what I believe are unimaginably sickening circumstances. I eat meat, I ‘ve made no effort to find out exactly how the dead animal I eat is killed but I have no doubt it’s inhumane and yes, I am a hypocrite. So here’s the weird thing: the clones raised to be harvested for their organs to keep “real” humans alive know what’s being done to them.  AND THEY SEEM KIND OF OK WITH THAT. Ishiguro makes that believable. He can’t quite do flashbacks but he can do weird, seriously fucked-up alternative morality. Or something.

It’s arguably a sci-fi novel and certainly a novel about morality, but it’s also a novel about mortality and that, also, Ishiguro handles well. These kids are being raised so they can die in their late 20s and early 30s to keep “real” (oh, the humanity! oh, the irony!) humans alive. But the span of their lives is presented as being a reflection of our own. We think about life and death and memory and hope and regret in exactly the way these kids do. It’s possible, I suppose, that an actual human clone may think about things differently. I doubt it, and there’s the slim hope that we’ll never know. That aside, thoughts about our intrinsic value, to ourselves and our friends and the community – these thoughts and doubts seem to be standard, whether you’re an Ishiguro clone or a bogstandard inhabitant of planet Earth. This is the good stuff. This is why you should read this book.

There is, however, one last thing that bothered me: Kathy H., unreliable narrator? I first encountered the unreliable narrator in The Great Gatsby and to be honest I think Nick’s way more sympathetic than Kathy. I’m not sure that Kathy is the kittens ‘n’ roses chick she’s supposed to be. There are some seriously dubious elements to the three-sided love story presented here, points at which Kathy seems far more manipulative than Ruth, and I have to wonder if these are deliberate or if in fact Netty’s right and blokes just don’t write chicks good.

But she’ll have more to say on that no doubt.

PS: Do I think there’s a link between Doctor Who’s Daleks and Ishiguro’s clones? Hmm, let’s see. Genetic barbarity in pursuit of survival. Nah. No link there.

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