Monday, April 18, 2005

Never let me go.

I should start about by saying that I have always loved it that in The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro uses an unreliable butler to present a portrait of Englishness. By "unreliable butler" I do not really mean that Mr. Stevens is a bad butler, or that his unreliability impacts his performance as a butler. Quite the contrary: as a butler, he has been impeccable, always privileging his work, doing everything a person could--and really more than post persons could--to perform as a surperb butler. His unreliability has more to do with his general humanity: it is his emotions, his ability to make choices that most of us would judge as "good," and his narrative that make him unreliable.

Most important, though, is his narrative. And because Kazuo Ishiguro is a brilliantly subtle writer, most readers don't notice how unreliable he is until a good ways into the story--i.e., too late to start out with their guard up.

But we should be very guarded in reading his story, when he explains to us what it means to be a good butler, why his proudest performance as a butler came on the night that his own father was dying, when he aimed to fulfill his duties impeccably, even though that meant paying little attention to his father's dying. And we should not trust him, either, when he says he pulled this off, because the tale tells us that those he was serving could tell something was wrong. Where the teller tells us he was a brilliant butler because he sacrificed his own feelings and needs to his work, the tale tells us that really he did neither well.

The story takes place within and between the great houses of England, so it is not surprising that it works as a story about England itself--its history, its sense of itself, the workings of its power structure. But what makes that story exciting is that the reader's focus is always on the people who are actually making things happen, the facilitators, the enablers, the actors, the staff. But not in an Upstairs Downstairs kind of way: the point here is not just to ooh and ahh and what is happening behind the curtain, but to see how life looks from the perspective of someone who cannot help but ooh and ahh at same, even though he is the object of his own admiration.

These kinds of vaguely outsider portrait are what Kazuo Ishiguro does so brilliantly, and the characters (and especially the narrators) in his novels seem always to have this status. (I am talking less about The Unconsoled than about his other books; sure, The Unconsoled did some interesting things with its representation of perception and relationships between a person's psyche and the environment, but it did not really work for me as a novel--or else it made me immensely anxious--so I am not talking about it, so much as An Artist of the Floating World, When We Were Orphans, and The Remains of the Day.)

The narrator of Never Let Me Go is no exception, although at first past Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth seem like the standard elite English public school children who might occupy a position widely accepted as central. But they differ from that standard in some important and surprising ways—-surprising enough to lead Sarah Kerr in yesterday's Times to call this Ishiguro's take on the science fiction genre. And as she points out, the situtation of this novel figures centrally enough that it is hard to talk about it without blowing the plot. If you want the plot blown for you, you can read her review here.

But the question I want to ask does not require that plot detail, if you accept that these elite students differ from the "normal" in some important ways. What I want to ask is, what does it mean to have these normal-seeming not-at-all-normal students stand in as a vision of Englishness? As is the case for the staff characters in The Remains of the Day, the normal characters in this novel require these less normal characters in order for their lives to run smoothly, normally. And the normal prefer not to think of the sacrifices made by the not normal, even as they are unwilling to ask them to stop. What is it about English society--and maybe not just English society--that requires these sacrificial figures to function?


Nerval said...

I thought "Never Let Me Go" very boring all through Part I. I found Kathy's narration unimaginative, dull and redundant. Even though it's part of a brilliant characterization. And then, the book grows in intensity, and finally it moved me very much. It's almost unbearably sad.

Isis said...

Your read of Kathy's narrative is interesting: I wonder if your response there is like my response to THE UNCONSOLED, where you recognize there is a deliberate choice being made, but MAN is it rough going.

And I do agree with your overall sense.