For shame New York Review, for shame! Anita Desai on Never Let Me Go:
There are risks in writing such a novel, and Ishiguro is not afraid to take them. One risk is in the use of Kathy H. as the narrator . . .
Another is that developments in science can move faster than a novelist’s pen at times: the issue of cloning has in some ways been overtaken by that of stem cell research and the morality of how such stem cells are obtained, particularly from embryos. The latest discoveries in the field, made in Korea just the other day, claim to bypass the embryo altogether, instead using clusters of cells known as "nuclear transfer constructs" before they reach the embryo stage, and the emphasis of research has also shifted to healing and repairing damaged or failed organs instead of replacing them. The vision Ishiguro creates of the factory farming of clones does indeed belong to the world of horror movies—and the nightmares of conservatives in government and church—but makes no mention of a far greater and more real horror, which is the trafficking in organs of donors in the desperately poor countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, compelled by their poverty to provide organs for which the first world with its obscene wealth can pay.
Seriously, WTF? Traffiking of organs in desperately poor countries? Nuclear transfer constructs?
I can’t say that I see why any of this would matter for Ishiguro. Yes, the book is about the life of a clone in an England that relies on clones’ organs, but it’s not a polemic against cloning. This book is as much Brave New World and 1984 as is the musical "Spamalot."
The point of Never Let Me Go isn’t to reveal the evils of cloning, but to explore the nature of humanity from the point of view of an extremely atypical human. (It’s what Ishiguro has always done.) I can’t imagine where organ traffiking in Third World countries would fit into this book.
I’m disappointed that the NYRB would publish such a simplistic reading of this novel. Ishiguro has a history of picking strange narrators–one was a senile Japanese man, another a private detective, another a butler–but why is it necessary to base a reading of his books on the narrator’s place in society? It would be trite to call When We Were Orphans a searing look into private detectivery and to wonder about what Ishiguro hopes to teach us about the world of private detectives. It would miss the point entirely to say An Artist of the Floating World is an examination of how Japan treats its senior citizens.
Similarly, to say that Never Let Me Go is a book that exposes the evils of cloning is to miss the point entirely. I’ll say, as an anti-cloning polemic the book is pretty poor. Where’s all the happy cancer-survivors to show the other side of the debate? Where’s the slimy politicians exploiting the cloning issue for cheap political points? Where’s any part of British society or the world at large, for that matter?
They’re all absent because the book is about the relationships of the narrator and her two closest friends, not about what cloning might do to society. Ishiguro chose to make his narrator a clone because he liked the voice and that was where it led him. Not vice versa.
I think that when a reading of a work of literature relies mainly on its societal underpinnings–that is, what it says about the contemporary world–either the book is bad or the reading of it is. Yes, virtually all works of fiction do have something to say about the world. (After all, most books don’t take place in a blank void.) Some of them–Infinte Jest for instance–make some pretty good points about the world we live in.
But, no matter how good the points, eventually they will be merely of historical interest. What’s left after that is whatever art the author managed to incorporate into the work. That’s what ultimately endures and determines if a work is worthwhile in the long run. That’s what I think Anita Desai should have been examining when she wrote her piece.
There are so many more interesting grounds to dissect a good work of literature on than what it says about our current political situation. I believe Never Let Me Go is in fact a very good work of literature. I feel like Ishiguro is an author who stands a good chance of enduring, and I think it’s because of the way he writes his books, not for whatever he’s added to the political debates of our time. After all, whatever political lessons we can garner from Never Let Me Go (e.g. "it’s painful when you have a to kill a clone to harvest its organs") are pretty trite.
Well, let me just close with this. When I saw that the New York Review of Books was running an essay on Never Let Me Go, my hopes were raised. I thought the piece’s author would have something interesting to say about Ishiguro as an artist. Unfortuantely, I was wrong about that.
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