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The big uneasy

Richard Eder, former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

Dystopias provide chill but rarely sadness. Neither Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” nor Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” nor even George Orwell’s “1984,” despite its sketchy doomed romance, offers much real pity with blithely brainy or grimly prophetic forms of terror.

An implied evil lurks in the early parts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” a futuristic novel that ends, in fact, in the late 1990s (as if the future had already arrived but hadn’t shown itself yet). It is all odd puzzles and hints; then gradually the evil becomes evident and by the end chokingly visceral.

Yet all the while something else is going on. Even as the three main characters, subjects of a monstrous social technology, are reduced to laboratory victims, their humanity expands. Sorrow gradually gains on horror and finally stands with it, hand in hand.

Ishiguro’s previous novels treated worlds whose underpinnings had collapsed: Japan right after the war in “An Artist of the Floating World,” the moral squalor of the British upper class in “The Remains of the Day” and a kind of universal Kafkaesque chaos in “The Unconsoled.” The first two were brilliantly muted so as to intensify their searing implications; the third was wildly teeming. Yet in their distinctly different ways, all registered their power ultimately through indirection.

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Initially, “Never Let Me Go” gives us indirection at its most explicit. That is an oxymoron, of course, and it stands for mystification. Ishiguro has the audacity and technical mastery to wind us through a mystification as irritating as it is ingenious in a novel that may be his best, and which is certainly his most resonant and moving.

Told retrospectively by Kath, a 31-year-old Englishwoman, it recounts growing up at Hailsham, seemingly an exclusive and privileged English boarding school. That it is something quite different only gradually becomes apparent, but all along there are oddities in her account. Even at the start, introducing herself, she refers obscurely to the job she has held for 12 years and is about to relinquish as “carer” to a group of unidentified “donors.”

The Hailsham days center on a close and sometimes dissonant trio: Ruth, an imperious leader of an unstable coterie; the moody Tommy, who becomes her boyfriend and later her lover; and Kath, a compass needle oscillating between these two poles. Some of the story resembles what might be found in any boarding school novel: a brilliant if forbidding principal, devoted and temperamental teachers, student schemes and feuds.

But the oddities are quickly apparent. The teachers are called “guardians.” There are no home vacations, no families and nothing about how the students came to be there. The school is surrounded by a dark wood with an aura of the taboo. The students are pressed to create artworks, and the best of these are inexplicably taken away by a woman who alternately flinches and weeps when she comes into contact with the youngsters. Seemingly tiny incidents are cited by Kath with promises to link them with other incidents to be recounted later. The narrative is all deferred and entwined allusion that can test the reader’s patience.

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But Ishiguro periodically fragments the uneasy allusiveness. The older students are permitted, even mildly encouraged, to have sex since, we learn, they will be unable to have babies. Smoking is rigorously forbidden for reasons of health, and it will become evident what is behind those reasons when a young teacher, hearing two students talk of their plans to become actors and go to America, cannot contain herself. Don’t they know that their destiny is to become organ donors? she demands (healthy ones, of course); she is obliged to leave soon after her outburst.

Here we see Ishiguro’s artistry. There is unease but no shock. The young people live in a limbo of rumor, partly knowing, partly not knowing, partly not wanting to know their origins as part of a state cloning program for medical purposes or their fate: to be harvested repeatedly until they lapse into a vegetative state and die or, in the Orwellian term, “complete.” Certainty, probability, possibility and hopeful evasion mix in a mental and psychological miasma as they leave school, spend time in halfway houses, become carers and finally donors.

So much for the chill dystopia. It is in the individual stories of Kath, Ruth and Tommy that Ishiguro draws three extraordinary portraits, clouded and distorted but with a humanity that proclaims sorrow more universal than that of their particular grisly fates. As their ends approach, their voices grow lucid and powerful.

If the notion of massive cloning for lofty medical purposes seems like baleful science fiction, it may not be scientifically impossible. Whether it is morally impossible, in a democratic society, is not really Ishiguro’s point either.

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What he is suggesting is a larger distortion, one more recognizable in our times: the ever more insistent currents of technological and economic power that render futile the strokes of human swimmers. Through much of the 20th century, the alienation of the individual from society was a leading topic for writers, philosophers and social scientists. In the cold and outrageously grieving 21st century pages of “Never Let Me Go,” it is the alienation of society from the individual. *


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