I read an article recently that posits that some literary writers “slum” by writing genre fiction. It’s not a new idea. And as I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I wondered if it qualified as another example of this faux genre. This isn’t a bad book. I suppose the fairest description would be to call it a literary novel with some of the elements of science fiction. It shouldn’t be read as a work of science fiction; you’ll only be disappointed if you try.
Never Let Me Go is narrated in a recursive way by Kathy B., a carer in an alternate England. Kathy was cloned and raised to be an organ donor. She, and the other clones like her, were volunteered; they never signed up to donate their organs and die on the operating table in their 20s. This fact looms over the book. It was impossible for me to not think about this as Kathy and her friends, Tom and Ruth, grew up, fell in love, and tried to live during their short years of freedom. Their lives are poignant, but a little banal. You’d think that if you knew you probably weren’t going to see 30 that you’d try to cram as much adventure and experience into the years you had. And I would definitely think that these characters would go to great lengths to try and fight their fates. Curiously, they don’t. I have to wonder if they were engineered or brainwashed or if someone pulled some Huxley-esque conditioning on them when they were very small in order to make them so cooperative. This is ever explained in the book; it’s just not mentioned. But there has to be something to explain this gap in the book’s logic.
Kathy cares (like a home nurse) for her fellow clones as they make their donations. This whole process is shrouded in euphemism. In fact, dying the process of donations is called “completion.” The term made me shiver every time it was used. I wanted to reach through the pages and shake the characters out of their complacency. It baffled and angered me that no one was asking important questions about the clones’ rights to life.
Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth were raised in a curious boarding school. They were encouraged to create art. If you read carefully, you can understand the purpose of the art long before Kathy and her friends do. The guardians at the school and their sponsors were trying to determine if the clones were really human, if they could create something original like real humans can. It’s a poorly designed test, by any standard, and its clear that even if the clones aren’t creative, they certainly think and feel like real humans do. But because the clones have become a vital part of the world’s medical system, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to change anything–at least the way Ishiguro writes it.
Ishiguro is mostly concerned about the feelings of his clone characters. There are frequent spats and squabbles and hurt feelings and crushes and misunderstandings. Having the donations and immanent death hanging over them just makes these little emotional moments seem more important and poignant than they would otherwise. Because Ishiguro didn’t bother to fully explore the science fiction elements, it seems like that this layer of depth is really the only purpose for the science fiction stuff. I really wish that Ishiguro had stepped out of his own genre a bit more, because I was fascinated by the little clues and hints that kept turning up in the text that showed you what was going on off stage.
Even though I am disappointed in the science fiction part of the book and I find its logic pretty implausible, this book has an ending that makes it worthwhile. It will make some readers (probably a lot of readers) cry when they get to the end.