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November 30, 2006

Never Let Me Go: RJK 3

Chapter Two of Never Let Me Go describes the character of Tommy in terms of creativity. We don't see this at first, as Kathy describes Tommy's tantrums and the ostracism that they bring upon him. But when Kathy, who has just begun paying close attention to Tommy, remarks one night, in her six-bed dorm room, that the way students treat Tommy isn't "really very fair," Ruth, whose judgment the other girls await "whenever something a bit awkward came up," observes that Tommy's attitude needs changing. What's odd is that she doesn't say anything about his tantrums - they're apparently not the problem. The problem is that Tommy

didn't have a thing for the Spring Exchange. And has he got anything for next month? I bet he hasn't.

The following paragraphs are densely packed with new information. First, Kathy explains the Exchanges. Her everyday vernacular, so deplored by Frank Kermode, proves its vital importance here. We swallow what she says about the Exchanges even though we don't comprehend it at all. It seems to go like this: the students create sculptures, drawings, even poetry, and the guardians (not teachers) decide how many Exchange Tokens each "work of art" is worth. Then, at the Exchanges, the students buy one another's production.

Looking back now, I can see why the Exchanges became so important to us. For a start, they were our only means, aside from the Sales - the Sales were something else, which I'll come to later - of building up a collection of personal possessions. If, say, you wanted to decorate the walls around your bed, or wanted something to carry around in your bag, and place on your desk from room to room, then you could find it at the Exchange. I can see now, too, how the Exchanges had a more subtle effect on us all. If you think about it, being dependent on each other to produce the stuff that might become your private treasures - that's bound to do things to your relationships. The Tommy business was typical. A lot of the time, how you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were like and respected, had to do with how good you were at 'creating.'

I quote the entire paragraph because Kathy's plausibility - her ability to make sense to us even though we don't really understand what she's talking aboutl - mirrors the plausibility of Hailsham to its students. Life at Hailsham makes sense to them because it is what it is, but they don't really understand it. They don't know what they don't know. So we pass over, for the moment, the oddity of kids enthusiastically buying their classmates' scribbles. Perhaps we imagine that Hailsham is some sort of Montessori institution, where creativity is extraordinarily important. If we do, we're not far wrong. But any inclination to get to the bottom of things is swept away by the very next paragraph.

Ruth and I often found ourselves remembering these things a few years ago, when I was caring for her down at the recovery centre in Dover.

While Ruth and Kathy talk about how strange it was (or wasn't) to have bought poetry, when one might simply have copied it down, our antennae are paradoxically numb and supersensitive at the same time. We're numb to the talk about poetry and the Exchanges, because all we want is more information about the "recovery centre." Presently Kathy interrupts her report of the conversation with Ruth and gratifies this desire. Ruth's recovery centre is "one of my favourites," Kathy tells us. She talks quite a bit about the immaculate tiles on the walls and the floors, and the author allows himself a a lovely image.

When you lift and arm, or when someone sits up in bed, you can feel this pale, shadowy movement all around you in the tiles.

But all the most autistic readers will be thinking not about tiles but about Ruth and her first "donation." It doesn't occur to Kathy to explain any of this, however, because what's on her mind is the brilliance of the tiles and the beauty of the view from Ruth's room. I remember thinking, the first time through, that Kathy was slightly daft here; now, I expect that I was meant to think so. Ishiguro's strategy, especially in the first Part, involves a great many slight irritations that scar our experience of the book, as if he meant to inform us by withholding information. What he's doing, of course, is sensitizing us to the contours of the novel's peculiar realities.

"But let me get back to Tommy," Kathy says after briefly resuming the report of the conversation at the recovery centre. "Tommy and I talked about all this not so long ago, and his own account of how his troubles began confirmed what I was thinking that night." We can't help noting that the setting of this conversation, which took place "not so long ago, goes unstated. (We might not notice that Kathy is not said to be caring for Tommy, but it's an important point as well.) I believe that any attentive reader will find this omission quite ominous, but in any case it suggests an intimacy greater than Kathy's friendship with Ruth, intense as we already know that to be.

We're now roughly halfway through the chapter. In the second half, the importance of creativity to Tommy will become explicit. (30 December 2006)

Posted by pourover at November 30, 2006 12:19 PM

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