New Fiction

Finds and flops

By Joseph O'Neil

Whatever surnominal adjective Kazuo Ishiguro finally bequeaths us (Ishiguronian? Ishiguronic?), its meaning is surely settled: suggestive of an emotionally hampered, stuffily self-expressive individual—a Japanese from the imperial days, say, or a butler, or a buttoned-up British private detective—who unreliably surveys his or her personal past to tragic effect. Peeping through the lowered venetians of yesteryear (recollection as a species of voyeurism is very Ishiguro), the retrovert is privy to a series of partial visions that eventually reveal a life guided by calamitous misapprehension on his part. True, Ishiguro's fourth novel, The Unconsoled, gleefully dynamited this formula; but his fifth, When We Were Orphans, saw a return to familiar methods and preoccupations—in particular the perilous importance of nostalgia, and the loss of childhood's blissful expectancy and ignorance. As Schopenhauer put it, "In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear."

This treacherous species of good fortune is horrifically central to Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's sixth novel. Our narrator—Kathy H., a woman in her thirties—reviews the idyll that was her time at Hailsham, a boarding school for boys and girls in the English countryside. Her curiously juvenile prattle—"The way it began, it was a bit like a repeat of earlier," she begins one anecdote—and her worshipful obsession with all things Hailshamite quickly make it clear that Kathy, if not demented, is at least imperfectly removed from her schoolgirl self; and as she rabbits on, the oddness of her schooldays becomes increasingly apparent. Why are the teachers called "guardians"? Who is the mysterious "Madame" who appears from time to time to collect samples of the students' creative work? Why are there no parents to be seen? And what are we to make of Kathy's mysterious grown-up occupation as a "carer" for ailing "donors"? Something creepy is clearly afoot.

It transpires—well, here I must collude with the artist to keep his work's monstrous secret. Suffice it to say that Ishiguro serves up the saddest, most persuasive science fiction you'll read. Set in "England, late 1990s," the novel posits a technological breakthrough whose effect is to condemn the children of Hailsham to a fate that was, until this novel, unthinkable. Ishiguro's imagining of the children's misshapen little world is profoundly thoughtful, and their hesitant progression into knowledge of their plight is an extreme and heartbreaking version of the exodus of all children from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent adult world conspires to place them. We grow up—if we're lucky—in security and wonder, and afterward are delivered to the grotesque fact of our end. And then? Ishiguro's dark answer is that the modern desperation regarding death, combined with technological advances and the natural human capacity for self-serving fictions and evasions (look no further than our see-no-evil consumption of animals), could easily give rise to new varieties of socially approved atrocities; one of the many Nietzschean insights of the novel is that successful crimes produce mutations in morality. With its fantastic, inky bleakness, Never Let Me Go itself mutates the meaning of "Ishiguroish," or "Ishiguroesque," or whatever epithet sticks to this wonderful writer.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/05/new-fiction/303918/