Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005

the thirty‐sixth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Joel Borgen

I was amused to discover that when I did a search on “opposite of dramatic irony”, most of the results were people asking, “What’s the opposite of dramatic irony?”  Most of the answers rambled on about limited omniscient viewpoints and betrayed a misunderstanding of what the askers actually wanted to know.  Dramatic irony is a gimmick wherein we in the audience know something the characters don’t, giving events an extra layer of significance.  We know that Juliet is only sleeping, so when Romeo kills himself over her, his death is doubly horrific because we know how needless it is.  The opposite would therefore be for the characters to all know something that we in the audience do not, depriving us of a full appreciation of the significance of what we are witnessing.  “Hmm, why doesn’t Mrs. Hutchinson seem happier about winning the lottery?”  What is that called?

Those who did get that this was the question lamented that there was no name for this and that there really should be one.  However, I did find that a phrase has been coined for something close: the “tomato surprise”, which dates back to at least 1979, when George Scithers of Asimov’s used the term in a newspaper interview to refer to twist‐ending stories in which “the writer has failed to give the reader all the facts”.  Apparently sci‐fi magazines were deluged with stories in which we learn at the very end that the evil invading aliens are actually humans!!—​the author having chosen not to mention until then that all the action was taking place on a faraway planet.  Now, Never Let Me Go is not a tomato surprise story, exactly.  Right from the start we know that this version of “England, late 1990s” is not exactly the same as ours, as the first paragraph is full of references to “carers” and “donors” that are elliptical to us out here in the real world but whose meaning the narrator, Kathy H., takes as a given.  As she goes on to describe growing up at an odd boarding school where the students (who all have initials in place of surnames) seem to spend all their time doing untutored art and receiving lectures from the “guardians” about how smoking is much worse for them than for other people, it quickly becomes clear that some sort of major revelation about the nature of this world is in the offing.  Kathy already knows what it is, and Ishiguro could easily just have her blurt it out at any point.  Instead she keeps using cryptic phrases (“completing at the second donation”) and obvious circumlocutions (“in light of what happened later”), raising the question of whether there’s anything to this story except the eventual revelation of the big secret.  We know it’s coming, but there’s a lot of fingernail drumming in the meantime, dotted with scenes in which people have strange reactions that we know would make sense if only we knew what they knew.  Call it tomato suspense.

As it turns out, spoiler spoiler, the big revelation is that this is a world in which human cloning was perfected right after World War II, and Kathy and all her schoolmates are members of a whole social stratum of clones who are raised to young adulthood and then chopped up for parts.  The ones we meet in the novel had the fortune to be created in the 1960s, when liberals had begun to ask whether the clones couldn’t be treated more humanely—​to at least be given pleasant childhoods instead of being reared in cages at government dark sites.  A few subversives even thought that demonstrating the clones’ capacity to create sculptures and compose poetry might convince the public that the clones are indistinguishable from naturally born people, not just subhuman bags of replacement organs for cancer patients.  And so a select few find themselves at these boarding schools, playing soccer and listening to cassettes.  Call them the free‐range chickens of the clone world.  It also turns out that these schools are short‐lived, as before long a scientist starts up a Gattaca‐like program to create genetically superior offspring for paying clients.  This freaks out the public and starts a backlash against clone rights, ensuring that only this one generation will escape the cages.  Here is the one bit in this book I flagged in my Kindle:

“I can see,” Miss Emily said, “that it might look as though you were simply pawns in a game. It can certainly be looked at like that. But think of it. You were lucky pawns. There was a certain climate and now it’s gone. You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.”
“It might be just some trend that came and went,” I said.  “But for us, it’s our life.”

As I’ve mentioned in other articles, this is quite possibly the single thing I am most interested in: how the subjective experience of our lives, the intensely personal feeling of each moment, is shaped by history.  Consider another lucky generation, the middle‐class American Baby Boomers who grew up in houses that their families could afford on a single blue‐collar income, and who went on to attend tuition‐free public universities, graduate without debt, and immediately get good jobs of their own in a robust economy.  That widespread affluence turned out to be a trend that came and went, a brief interregnum between two Gilded Ages, made possible by the social‐democratic economic policies instituted in response to the Great Depression.  But to a lot of people my parents’ age, this was their life.  (And the reason it isn’t ours is largely that they decided that they didn’t like paying the taxes that had made that life possible.)

It also turns out that there was a point to the tomato suspense beyond just giving us something to keep us turning the pages.  Near the end of the novel, we learn that how much to tell the students about their inevitable fates was a topic of much controversy among the faculty of the boarding school.  Most of the “guardians” agreed that the happiness of their charges depended on their being sheltered from a clear understanding of what the future holds for them.  But it only takes one rebel to break the news.  “The problem, as I see it,” Miss Lucy tells the kids, “is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.”  And that’s how we finally learn the secret, as Miss Lucy continues, “You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle‐aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do.”  This comes as no real shock—​with all the talk of “donations” and “recovery centres”, it seemed like it had to be something like that, though I personally wasn’t sure exactly how fanciful this novel would turn out to be, and had entertained the possibility that the students might be donating dreams, or skills, or some sort of abstract life force.  But, no, it’s just kidneys and livers and pancreases and things.  Why doesn’t Ishiguro, through Kathy, just say so right from the start?  So that we, too, are told and not told, and experience for ourselves the same stages of understanding that the clones go through.

I called the boarding school students the free‐range chickens of the clone world above, and it seems worth noting that it’s hardly even a joke, considering that the livestock industry actually does raise billions of creatures, often in conditions of great suffering, in order to chop them up.  But even if we restrict ourselves to the plight of humans, I’m sure that many have pointed out how what the clones go through is not so very different from what most of us go through.  The clones fantasize in vain of someday working at a supermarket or an office, but in a way that’s just a more drawn‐out version of what life already has in store for them.  Because while those of us who work for a living don’t literally surrender our hearts and lungs and brains to the rich, much of the effort those organs put forth from one day to the next does end up in the service of those who own the companies.  The world of Never Let Me Go may have bioengineered a permanent underclass, but our world has an underclass as well, and it’s labor—​the 99% from the Occupy chants.  Even the clones’ stolen years have a parallel in our world, as (at least in the U.S.) the difference in life expectancy between the top and bottom of the wealth distribution curve currently stands at fifteen years.  Which brings me to another point that I’m sure has already been put forward by everyone who’s ever written about this book.  Put politics and the clones’ status as an underclass aside for a moment.  Part of the horror of Never Let Me Go, as Miss Lucy highlights, is that Kathy and her classmates will all be strip‐mined for body parts “before [they]’re even middle‐aged”.  But not every regular human makes it to middle age either; 2/3 of my siblings didn’t.  Even if you do make it to middle age and beyond… who says that dying at 25 is a tragedy but dying at 100 isn’t?  One’s the blink of an eye, the other’s four blinks of an eye—​same difference, ultimately.  Lasting to a hundred may seem like a nice long life, but that’s just what we’re accustomed to; if people lived in good health to the age of, say, five thousand, then dying at 100 would be a life cut tragically short, and the question of 25 vs. 100 would be academic.  Much of this book is about how to live as normal a life as possible knowing you’ll be dying soon.  But we’ll all be dying soon, for what in the long run are not significantly different values of “soon”.  How do we do it?

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro, Alex Garland, and Mark Romanek, 2010

Though it received no particular accolades, when I learned that a movie had already been made of Never Let Me Go I thought I’d check it out.  It’s a pretty good example of why stories basically need to be recreated in the translation from prose to film, or vice versa.  See, much as in the postapocalyptic novel On the Beach, in which the Australians who will soon be dying of radiation poisoning continue to attend schools from which they will never graduate and plant gardens that will never grow, the clones in Never Let Me Go respond to the revelation of their semi‐imminent deaths by making some uncomfortable murmurs and then carrying on much as before.  Much of the novel is consumed by describing the minutiae of what this consists of—​of Kathy’s life at the boarding school and then at “the Cottages” where she lives with other adult clones waiting for their donation notices to arrive.  But the movie zips right through this.  I think there are three main reasons why.  First, film can convey massive amounts of information in parallel—​sights and sounds, foregrounds and backgrounds—​while text has to do it all in serial.  Building up a picture of Kathy’s world therefore takes up half the book, while the film establishes it quite firmly in a few minutes and can move along to other things.  On the flip side, the book consists largely of Kathy giving us a detailed analysis of how the tone of each line she ever spoke to her frenemy Ruth contributed to the ups and downs of their relationship, and that’s something movies just can’t do—​we can hear the tone of each line, but doing a play‐by‐play through voiceovers or something would be unworkably awkward.  And then finally there’s the simple fact that the school section requires that the main characters be played by child actors rather than by the actual stars.  I actually preferred the kids, but I suppose that if you’re luring people into the theater by putting Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan on the poster, you can’t keep them offscreen for an hour.  And so this version of Miss Lucy ends up announcing the secret, right out of the blue, in one of the movie’s first scenes.

(For what it’s worth, I’m on her side.  I understand the argument that if the goal is to give these poor creatures a few years of innocent happiness, it is necessary to shelter them from the truth.  But I have come to be convinced that people deserve to know what world they’re living in.)

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