Saturday, October 7, 2017

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro / Clone alone

Kazuo Ishiguro

Clone alone

Kazuo Ishiguro fascinates M John Harrison with his subtle take on mortality and hopelessness, Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Goby Kazuo Ishiguro
263pp, Faber, £16.99
M John Harrison
Saturday 26 February 2005 18.11 GMT

The children of Hailsham House are afraid of the woods. In the days when their guardians were much stricter, the school myth goes, a boy's body was found there with its hands and feet removed. Sometimes that dark, threatening fringe of trees can cast such a shadow over the whole school that a pupil who has offended the others might be hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, forced to a window, and made to stare out at it.
When not applying peer pressure in this curious way, Hailsham children seem to have a nice life. The school places considerable emphasis on self-expression through art and, especially, on staying healthy. There are frequent, exhaustive medical check-ups. Smoking is a real crime, because of the way it can damage your body. Yet despite the care lavished on them, their world has a puzzlingly second-hand feel. Everything they own is junk. Teaching aids are rudimentary. Sometimes you get the feeling they're being taken care of on the cheap.

In fact, they are; and their fear of the woods reflects, in a distorted but fundamentally accurate way, their fate. They're organ donors, cloned to be broken up piecemeal for spares. The purpose of Hailsham is to prepare them for their future - to help instal the powerful mechanisms of self-repression and denial that will keep them steady and dependable from one donation to the next.
Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, and of the love-triangle they begin at Hailsham. Ruth is the controlling one, Tommy is the one who used to find it hard to keep his temper: they hope that love will save them. They've heard that love - or art, or both - will get you a deferral. Kathy - well, Kathy is a carer by nature as well as profession: she watches her friends break themselves against the inevitable, but never lets them go. After Hailsham, they grow from puzzled children to confused young adults. They live in a prolonged limbo, waiting for the call to donate. They're free to wander. They write essays, continue with their artwork, learn to drive, roam Britain looking for their "possibles" - the real human beings they might have been cloned from.
Their lack of understanding of the world is funny and touching. They stare into the window of an ordinary office, fascinated by the clean modern space. "It's their lunch break," Tommy says reverently of the office workers, "but they don't go out. Don't blame them either." The clones look in at the society that made them, failing to understand its simplest social and economic structures.
As readers we're in a similar position. What Kathy doesn't know, we have to guess at. This sometimes excruciating curiosity propels us along; meanwhile, Ishiguro's careful, understated narration focuses on the way young people make a life out of whatever is on offer. Nothing is more heartbreaking than received wisdom, and Hailsham students, carefully sheltered not just from any real understanding of their fate but from any real understanding of the world in which it will be acted out, have nothing else to go on.
Their sense of suspension, in a present where they neither make nor understand the rules, is pervasive. Childishly snobbish about the proprieties, they're as puzzled by what's proper as anyone else. Small fashions of behaviour come and go. Far into adulthood Kathy, Tommy and Ruth dissimulate and bicker and set teenage behavioural traps for one another.
Inevitably, it being set in an alternate Britain, in an alternate 1990s, this novel will be described as science fiction. But there's no science here. How are the clones kept alive once they've begun "donating"? Who can afford this kind of medicine, in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours?
Ishiguro's refusal to consider questions such as these forces his story into a pure rhetorical space. You read by pawing constantly at the text, turning it over in your hands, looking for some vital seam or row of rivets. Precisely how naturalistic is it supposed to be? Precisely how parabolic? Receiving no answer, you're thrown back on the obvious explanation: the novel is about its own moral position on cloning. But that position has been visited before (one thinks immediately of Michael Marshall Smith's savage 1996 offering, Spares). There's nothing new here; there's nothing all that startling; and there certainly isn't anything to argue with. Who on earth could be "for" the exploitation of human beings in this way?
Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. Beneath Kathy's flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan.
By the final, grotesque revelation of what really lies ahead for Kathy and Tommy and Ruth, readers may find themselves full of an energy they don't understand and aren't quite sure how to deploy. Never Let Me Go makes you want to have sex, take drugs, run a marathon, dance - anything to convince yourself that you're more alive, more determined, more conscious, more dangerous than any of these characters.
This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.
· M John Harrison's latest novel is Light (Gollancz)



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