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July 18, 2006

Never Let Me Go: JKM 1

Interesting that you should begin your post with the Kermode quote, because what I was most attentive to while reading Chapter 1 for the second time (which I did before reading your post) is Kathy's voice, something I paid little attention to the first time around, being focused primarily on 'where is this story going?'. Kathy H is intelligent, perceptive and imperturbable, but most horrifying to me (now that I'm re-reading the book and know 'the story') is the note of resignation I detected in her voice, both as to what has gone before and what lies ahead (an issue that I'm sure will be a topic for further discussion as this reading continues). I agree that the narrative tone is completely appropriate to the character of Kathy H and rather than making the novel uninteresting, makes it more interesting (particularly as the story unfolds).

A thought that has nothing to do with the book, per se (so feel free to edit this out when you post my comment): after re-reading Chapter 1 and reading your post, I decided to peruse whatever reviews of the book I could still find on-line (something that I previously avoided after one of the two reviews I did see before reading the book should have been accompanied by a 'spoiler alert'). The very first review I saw (which I re-visited) was Peter Kemp's piece in the on-line edition of the London Times (February 20, 2005), which, without giving away much of the plot, succeeded in persuading me to order the book immediately. Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post (April 17,2005) took the same approach ("Believing as I strongly do that readers must be allowed to discover a book's secrets for themselves, guided by the author's hand, rather than have those secrets gratuitously spilled by a reviewer, I shall err on the side of silence, so please bear with me."). In contrast, several other critics elected to provide a 'book report,' which gave away 'the secret' in a manner that, in my opinion, mischaracterized what the book is really about. Although a discussion of the role of the literary critic is probably not relevant to this thread, it is a subject on which I would like to hear others' views, particularly with respect to books that, like Never Let Me Go, are susceptible to summarization in a potentially misleading fashion. Are there readers, I wonder, who elected to forego Never Let Me Go because it was described by a critic as essentially a science fiction novel?

Posted by pourover at 10:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 12, 2006

Never Let Me Go: RJK 1

Frank Kermode, as I recall, regretted the banality of language in Never Let Me Go

Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro, but this dear-diary prose surely reduces one’s interest.

- "Outrageous Game," London Review of Books, Vol 27 Nº 8 (21 April 2005)

Mr Kermode's dismissal surprised me, because the cognitive dissonance that the novel sets up between that "dear diary prose" and the horrors that slowly emerge from it unsettled me deeply. The novel must be told, shall we say, by a first person, and that person can't have had the benefit of a posh education. Anything overtly literary in the tone of Kathy H, the narrator of Never Let Me Go, would break the spell forever, would reduce the novel to a bad dream - a fantasy, not a fiction.

Reading the first chapter for a second time, I'm struck by the intelligence and organization that seems native to Kathy, not to the author. The quality that I associate with Kathy is clarity - she is a clear person. She is not tormented by inner demons, as her two best friends are. Her disposition is sunny. She is, as she tells us, a good "carer." We have no idea what that means, the first time through the chapter, but now, on the second pass, I see that Kathy is taking good care of me. In her calm and unruffled way, she will unfold the the awful business in which she is mired and by which she is doomed. Gently, with as few shocks as possible, she'll get me to reflect upon my own mortality.

The chapter is divided into two parts. The second relates an anecdote that could happen at any coeducational boarding school. We're likely to gloss over the mention of "Sales" - English schools are full of mysterious rites. In the anecdote, we meet the principals, Ruth and Tommy, and we get to know them better than we think. Ruth is sarcastic and Tommy is driven. It's the first part of the chapter, however, that I want to look at closely. "Carer" is introduced right away. "Donor" follows quickly. These words don't really raise any flags; Kathy seems to be in the health-services sector, in some special line of work that entitles her to early retirement. But there's a strange note in the second paragraph: Kathy, a "Hailsham student," comes from a "privileged estate." Bearing in mind the English usage of the word "estate," which is almost the exact opposite of its American meaning, we're jarred by the juxtaposition. By the end of this part of the chapter - on the third page of text in my edition - we have also hit on the word "completing" in a context that makes it synonymous with "dying." Kathy sails imperturbably on. You could say that she makes it difficult to dwell on our misgivings. You could also say that she is careful to provide us grounds for further misgivings with the buffered regularity of a timed-release capsule.

And let's not miss the fact, heralded at the start, that the novel is set in the England of the 1990s. Whatever else we're to endure here, a dystopian vision of the future is not to be part of the experience. Mr Ishiguro has created an alternative past. That the action takes place in a past that is not our past, and does not suggest what our foreseeable future will be like, is a pre-emptive cauterization. We're being asked not to get carried away with "What if" questions. The only "what if" question that the serious reader will wind up with is this: "What if Never Let Me Go is in fact about me?"

Posted by pourover at 05:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack