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Review: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is a science fiction story about three young people, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, grappling with their emerging awareness of the disturbing social destiny they were born for. It may be one of the best written novels I have ever read, which makes it interesting that it's not better reviewed by readers: Goodreads gives it 3.8/5 stars, Amazon 4/5, not bad to be sure but not world class. I'd argue that this slight disconnect with many readers (evident in written reviews as well as ratings) reflects precisely why it is important that Ishiguro wrote this book. The novel challenges our blindness to how our own social indoctrination works. It asks us to face realities we not only don't wish to but have genuine conceptual difficulty with. This is not to say some criticisms are not valid, but they pale, in my view, next to the book's achievements.

Most of this review will talk about ideology and indoctrination, but that is not all the book is about, and I want to be sure to mention a couple of other ways in which it excels. It is one of the most realistic and subtle portrayals I have read of how deep friendships (often) operate: the good, the bad, the habituation, the ability to read each other, the passive-aggressive patterns, the maturing and evolving, the joy, the hurt, the power plays, the mutual support, the altruism, the mess of it all. Though the characters’ trio of best friends does not externally resemble my primary relationships at all, I saw my relationships everywhere, so much so that I fantasized about contacting the friend who’s severed ties with me and saying, “Read this book. This is about us.” The book is also about facing death, and apart from the story’s particulars, which I’ll come to, there’s an extent to which this is everyone’s story: we are all faced with our ending, with the years flying by and the likelihood of decrepitude and dependency and the loss of loved ones before a possibly physically painful ceasing to be. This is also very well captured.

As to the rest, spoilers follow… but honestly, the book is not a mystery and the big spoiler is very heavily implied, though not explicitly spelled out, from very early on, so unless you detest spoilers under any circumstances, I wouldn't worry too much about reading on. Okay?

So our main characters are part of a segment of society in an alternate history late-20th to perhaps early 21st century Britain who are created to be organ donors. They are allowed to grow up, and then in their twenties or, at the latest, early thirties begin to donate vital organs through successive operations until it kills them. The book follows the first-person reminiscences of Kathy H., currently working as a carer for donors and destined to shortly become a donor herself. Beginning with fond recollections of her childhood in the upscale boarding school Hailsham (an institution for raising these cloned individuals), she describes her relationships with Ruth and Tommy over the years, circuitously bringing us up to the present, creating a portrait of the entire, brief life of a clone.

The most disturbing part of this disturbing situation is how everyone more or less accepts their lot. There is no great social movement to liberate clones (though there have been movements to treat them better). There is no revolt among the clones to circumvent their fate, no great cry for justice. This not because the clones are not human beings and don't feel the weight of the horror in store of them. They are and they do. As the years go by, there's a mounting sense of desperation at the brevity of life, the passing of opportunities, the looming void of pain and incapacitation that will culminate their being operated on to death. But there's no revolt.

This is something that throws a lot of readers. Some say they tuned out because of this: they couldn't suspend disbelief for the idea that the clones would just accept their fate. Some say the characters just lack personality and/or are unsympathetic because of their weird docility and lack of imagination. Some argue that the clones aren't quite like "us" normal humans, in that they are probably engineered to be docile. As far as I saw, the book does not imply this, and it's worth noting that this "they're not quite human" explanation is exactly what the dominant society in the book deploys to justify raising clones for sacrifice.

Still, I feel the legitimacy of these critiques to this extent: there probably would be some clones who try to revolt (given the diversity of human personalities), and their attempts probably would come across the radar of the clone population in general, which is not imprisoned or barred from reading newspapers and the like. And beyond literal revolt, there would probably at least be a fair amount of daydreaming about it. So, yes, the fact that this isn't even around as a possibility in Kathy's or her friends' minds is probably unrealistic. But I think, at worst, it's an omission of realism in the cause of a larger realism: that by and large we accept our indoctrination, we accept the systems we live in. In modern Western culture, we don't like to believe this is true. We love Rebel without a Cause and identify with the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars and in America, we pride ourselves on being the descendants of revolutionaries…. But it is true.

On Goodreads, one question thread asked why the clones didn't revolt, and one poster responded pithily in Latin: de te fabula naratur: "the story is told about you." I couldn't put it better.

Why didn't they revolt? Well, why did it take hundreds of years to outlaw enslaving black people? Why have women en masse never banded together in real life to end war as they did in Lysistrata? Why do I drive my car almost every day though climate change terrifies me more profoundly than anything else I could imagine? Knowing that we need to switch thirty years ago to a low/no carbon economy, why did I take a plane to New Zealand on vacation… and then Japan? Why do I contribute to the destruction of my own home town in California that way? Why don't the local homeless people come knocking on our doors, politely asking how it's okay that they're left out in the street to freeze in winter and if we don't have a spare couch or spare food? Why do we accept factory farming when none of us—not one of us—wants to eat chicken that's been tortured from birth and then tortured to death? Why were so many voters in America’s recent presidential election willing to overlook their candidate’s sexism and racism in exchange for the promise that he will return jobs that US that will allow them to spend twenty or thirty years standing in an assembly line in a factory for eight hours a day in exchange for somewhat livable working class pay? How did this scenario become the best that many American voters can imagine hoping for?

That's why the clones don't revolt. Because what we're habituated to is normal. Because we repeat the stories we’ve been told. Because the path of least resistance is staying within the pattern of our daily lives. Because much of that pattern isn't bad: just like Kathy H., we have friends, we have lunch, we watch TV, we have chats, we read a bit, go for a hike, get a coffee. Because true revolt involves fighting a battle every day: be it against police, imprisonment, poverty, ostracism, against one's own desire to just have a home and a bed to go to. Jesus revolted. He was a beggar on the street who was tortured to death.

Now, I fully believe that revolt is worthwhile, indeed, necessary to pulling us out of our social hells. And certainly the whole point of Never Let Me Go is that sometimes the status quo should not be acceptable. Jesus was a good role model. Very many people gave their lives so that slavery in America could end, and it ended. But revolt isn't easy. It isn't the default. It rarely happens as a natural consequence of being human. And the first step to resisting social ills is to recognize what needs to be resisted. It's rarely whatever Big Bad the latest Hollywood action hero is fighting. It is almost always our own complicity in our own oppression and that of others.

So in the interest of putting off the blinders, I'm going to suggest some revolutions I think we can—we need to—achieve. Some pie-in-the-sky dreaming, if you will, of a world where no clone has to die to give anyone organs again. (My politics will be on full display here, and I'm not making any conjecture about the extent to which Ishiguro might agree with them.)

* End capitalism. I don't mean there's no good place for free enterprise or profit, but capitalism as a full economic system predicated on growth and profit as the ultimate (and often only) goals needs to go. Completely.

* Institute a universal wage (AKA universal welfare): guarantee everyone (ideally everyone in the world) enough money for basic necessities.

* By non-coercive means, plan to reduce the Earth's population to about 2 billion over a few generations (about what it was in the early 20th century). This would greatly alleviate a host of social and environmental stresses and allow everyone a higher standard of living.

* Reduce the standard work week to maybe 20 hours. Give us back leisure.

Revolt is sometimes necessary, but it is a long and savage mess. Or we can march quietly to our ends. When I think of my own life, realistically I hope I'll have enough courage to do a little bit of each.
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