Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Let me go
Here I am shelving in fiction and I have made it to "I". Specifically to ISHI. I am shelving at the author Kazuo Ishiguro. Last time I was here I took his book Never Let Me Go. It didn't. I read it in two days, and I would have read it faster if I could have. It was gripping. It was a gripping and terrible book. And when I say "terrible" I mostly don't mean it in the grand, Biblical sense of "Lo, a terrible flood was upon them." but much more in the contemporary sense of "This cheese whiz tastes terrible!"
But I am not here to convince you that Never Let Me Go is a terrible book. I doubt I am absolutely alone in my feeling, but when I look at what all is slathered across the covers and first pages of the book I feel I may as well be. TIME calls it "The best novel of the decade." The New York Times says it's a "Gothic tour de force". "Ingenious" is the New Yorker's key descriptive, and the "most persuasive science fiction you'll read" is part of how The Atlantic Monthly describes it. I can only begin to take a little bit of heart at The New Republic's subtly cowardly description of Never Let Me Go as "almost miraculous." So then it isn't miraculous? I am able to agree with that one. It also, according to the back cover, almost won the Man Booker Prize, but here's the important New Republicy thing about that one too: It didn't win the Man Booker Prize. The Sea won it, a book that I have nothing against other than that I got too bored to finish reading a four sentence description of it. It sounded sort of like Never Let Me Go, only without the gripping part.
And herein lies the problem with greatness. Here is why I try to forsake it when I can: no matter how sure I am of the greatness of Dylan and Jane Austen and Bernini and Caravaggio, I know that with each one I bring most of the greatness with me. We all do, everywhere. It is all darkness without us, marks on a page, smears of color, sounds, chipped away marble. There are millions of artists out there. And after they are done with creating it all falls apart. We put it together again. Never Let Me Go can be plastered with a million magazine quotes, but they're all talking about something different than everyone else, recognizable, but not the same. And the hell with it, all of those fancy reviewers are right. If they want Never Let Me Go to be great they are very well equipped to make it so.
But here is the thing, and if I must ruin Never Let Me Go for you in the process, so be it. It is a small price to pay, especially for me. When it comes time for us to reconstruct the artist's work inside of ourselves there has to be enough space left within the art itself for us to do so. Sometimes there is too little space and we cannot make the work come to life. But occasionally, like in Never Let Me Go there is too much space. The space falls in on itself. It is not space anymore, but a giant hole, swirling, black and full of gravity in the very heart of the story.
Never Let Me Go is mostly about three people growing up in a kind of isolated orphanage/boarding school. With a studied naturalism it follows their development and twisting relationships. Despite all this English School normalcy though, these young people are clones, clones who are raised to help take care other clones who are in a slow process of donating their organs until they're dead. And when they are done with their role as "carers", taking care of donors, they begin the donations themselves.
Now, if you did not read this book there is a very fine chance that you are thinking "That, um, sounds a bit stupid." Pitch that one to TIME Magazine and they are not likely to think "Best novel of the decade." But here is the trick: No one in the book ever really talks about any of this directly. The truth of the situation emerges like something displacing fog. All the organ donorship and slow horror and strange tragedy is shown entirely in negative space, not named, but defined by everything around it.
And here is how that works: The idea that a group of teenagers, growing up in an at least somewhat free and self expressive environment, wouldn't, at some point, in between reading the classics and slogging out their complicated relationships and growing up, at some point in there say "Wait, seriously, you're going to cut my organs out of me until I die!" is so wildly outlandish and misunderstanding of human beings that, if instead of taking in that that is a ridiculous and frankly insane premise, if you'd rather fill in that giant, sucking narrative hole with anything you've got, then you are the author's slave. But all that junk you fill that gaping hole with, that's yours. That is not Kazuo Ishiguro's.
Okay, maybe I am trying to convince you that Never Let Me Go is a terrible book. You and me both.