Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

It seems a bit churlish to follow my last, fairly negative review with another one – although Ishiguro‘s work generally and this novel in particular have been sufficiently praised by enough people for one small dissenting voice not to matter that much – but I found Never Let Me Go frustrating on a number of counts, some technical, if you like, and some not. Technically, I was struck over and over again by the sheer dullness of the language. Much has been said about the masterful way Ishiguro deploys a limited vocabulary and stylistic range to reflect the damaged nature of his narrator, but it seems to me that, once again – because this is a feature of much of his writing – the author has tried to make a virtue out of the endemic flatness of his prose. If this were the case in one novel, or even two, it might be easier to attribute to authorial intention. And it’s certainly true that, in the three novels of his that I’ve read, the narrator is someone whose personality is damaged in some way. But it seems to be true of all his work, which makes me suspect that the clichéd blandness and boneless, repetitive syntax are pretty much all that Ishiguro does. Emotionally scarred narrators are no excuse: there must be – damn it, there are! – numerous ways of writing about, and out of, damage without using language that operates at the level of a rather dispirited Christmas round robin, as it does in this book.

The second source of technical frustration is Ishiguro’s use of a sort of cataphoric narrative device to move the story on, with the narrator saying something like ‘that time with the tree, doll, tape, etc.’ and then telling us what happened that time with the tree, doll, tape, ad infinitum. Used sparingly this technique can be very effective. In this novel, it’s practically the only method the author uses to advance the tale, and it gets particularly irritating well before the end, as well as failing in its purpose, which is surely to encourage the reader to find out just what did happen next. Too much ellipsis produces, in this reader at least, a sort of curiosity fatigue, as well as feeling, well, clumsy.

My final quibble, and it’s a big one, has to do with the general air of resignation that hangs over the book and others by Ishiguro. He’s best at loss, captured in a forlorn, stiff upper lip sort of way, ideally in a grey, rainy landscape that saps any energy the characters (or reader) might have. His books are contrived to ensure that the prevailing mood is a low-level whinge, what my mother used to call grizzling, whatever the subject. Nuclear attack, WW2, class warfare (and the lack of it), cloning for spare part surgery; no matter how appalling the central issue of the book may be, the only mood possible seems to be one of tearful, perhaps rueful acceptance. I know that literature isn’t supposed to be a weapon for change (although I’d like to thank it could be, used properly), but the refusal of the novel and its characters to even consider the possibility of resistance becomes as implausible, to me, as the passivity of the butler in The Remains of the Day. I can’t help but feel that Ishiguro actually values these qualities as having a sort of moral stature simply because they persist, and allow the status quo to persist. He strikes me as a deeply reactionary writer, and I find this uncongenial.

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8 Responses to Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

  1. Isa says:

    Hello Charles, and Happy New Year.
    I wonder, have you ever come across this essay, http://global.wisc.edu/worldlit/readings/walkowitz-largeness.pdf, claiming that Ishiguro’s novels are “written for translation”? Personally, I don’t think such a thing is possible without sacrificing the literature itself, but maybe it helps explain the style… Ciao, buone cose.

    • Nice to see you here, Isa! I’ll take a look at the essay but I’m not sure what a comment like this would imply, other than that translated literature is necessarily more limited, which isn’t the case. I suppose it means shorn of idioms, which Ishiguro isn’t – indeed, he favours the more obvious ones. It’s certainly true that local feel, which may be a translation problem (though I don’t think so, in the right hands), is sacrificed in his work, but, once again, I think it’s a limitation rather than a choice. I certainly felt, reading this novel that Hogwarts or even Malory Towers (Enid Blyton, if anyone’s wondering) had more imagined existence than Hailsham. It’s also rather irritating to see translation being used as to defend lack-lustre language. I can’t speak for all translated literature (who can?) but I’ve never felt, reading translations of Perec or Bernhard or Sebald, that I’m getting something that doesn’t quite qualify as the real thing. I’m just grateful they’re there to be read.

  2. Eileen Shaw says:

    Never Let Me Go is an interesting flight of imagination but there are holes in the scenario – if these children are destined to harvested for spare parts in the future, who is to say they’ll last longer and be in better condition than their donee? Environmental erosions of health are just as likely to strike them down – viruses, epidemics of various kinds, etc. However, the deep pathos and ultimate self-censorship of Stevens, Ishiguro’s butler in Remains of the Day is way beyond reactionary and ‘damaged’ does not begin to describe such a personality. Warped might be closer. And yet he is a tragic figure and the book is entirely satisfying on that level. A book can’t always be a judgement on its characters. There is no political element in the butler’s make-up. His ‘autism’ is implacable. What would it mean for a butler to burst out and condemn his employer’s toadying to fascism? It’s meaningless. Of course, in private it would be different. But Stevens’ mask is his face and he has no other persona to drop. Monstrous as he may be – he is true to himself.

    You make some vinagerish remarks about Ishiguro’s writing style, which I would like to defend a little. Going back to NLMG, Ishiguro’s self limitations of style (if, being charitable, that’s what they are) are in-keeping with the age group he’s writing about (especially in the pre- and just post-teen sections). Re: reactionary themes – failure to revolt at their ‘slavery’ not unlikely? I don’t know. The parallel world Ishiguro invents for them is narrow and mean (increasingly like England) and their activities within it are mostly designed to wring pathos from their situation. They certainly don’t provide a basis for rebellion. On balance, and call me a cynic if you like, I find the given outcome more likely than not.

  3. I’m suitably reproved, Eileen, but I think the key to our difference of opinion over Ishiguro’s work – quite apart from his style – is precisely in the value he gives to pathos, which you see, quite rightly I think, as central to both books. I think I’m temperamentally mistrustful of pathos, as an emotion that tends to pat suffering on the back a little rather than give it a good shake. But that’s just me, as the (rather pathetic) TV ad for the dating site has it!

  4. Guy Savage says:

    I tried to watch this last night, but since I have a problem relating to passive characters, I did not finish it.

  5. My respect for trying, Guy…

  6. As I said, my respect for trying…

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