Sunday, July 8, 2012

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro


I had never thought about the deterioration of paint until recently. When I hear or read of damage to old paintings, I always think of water stains, or transport damage, or other such wear-and-tear calamities. Actually, certain compounds in paint will decay, and often at different rates, so that what you see on many older paintings is a variance in brightness, vividness, and (believe it or not) opacity. Some bits of old paintings are now transparent because the top layer of paint has aged so noticeably.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in London, I was fascinated by a painting of a drawing-room. The artist wanted to show off how he could paint sunlight coming through a window at an angle, and the focus is meant to be the noble men and soldiers sitting around a table. However, my fascination rooted itself in the long skirt of a maidservant. Her blue garment was transparent. Through it, I could see that the artist had carefully painted the floor tiles and the fireplace before putting the woman over top of them.

Yet she had no legs.

Why, you might think, should she? Of course, looking through her skirt and seeing no corporeal stilts jars an admirer of the painting, but the artist could not have been concerned with how his painting would look after long years of slow deterioration. If her skirt was plausible in and of itself, who would care whether he had bothered to paint the unseen supporting frame underneath?

I was disillusioned, to say the least. Disappointed in the artist, and consequently the entire painting. The painter had not done the leg work (yeah, I went there), and yet he expected to pass his work off on me. Yet I felt it was all artifice and no substance, once I saw that the woman's legs were as real as Casper's. That blue skirt did precisely what suited the painter, and not what it would have done had the body swishing it been permitted any amount of life.

I had the same unfortunate feeling with Ishiguro's novel. Yes, he is a masterful writer, and The Remains of the Day continues to haunt me with its beauty, its resonance, and its power (come on -- he makes an impossible love story between a butler and a maidservant more meaningful than all of World War II). But Never Let Me Go showed me the gears where there should have been legs.

The narrative structure bothered the snot out of me, for one thing. Our narrator, Kathy, takes up a conversational tone when she needs to jump around in time or provide explanations for earlier references. But we never learn what context this conversation is in -- is she writing it, or speaking it? To whom? And why? By pointing it out so blatantly in the story, Ishiguro begged the question of context without satisfying the hunger for an answer.

And the characters follow what I can only assume is Ishiguro's own sensibility when it comes to relationships. Conflicts never happen in the open -- they're all full of supposition and nuance. Which, fine, okay; some people interact like that. But to have a boarding school full of teenagers who (VERY minor spoiler) know for a fact that they cannot get pregnant, and to have those same teenagers take a very timid and cautious approach to sex? Please. These aren't butlers. No matter how prissy and reserved some of them are, sex would be happening all over the place -- if not in the cafeteria, then certainly in every bedroom and every unlocked classroom.

The story is enjoyable enough, and the threads all get tied up (even if, in my opinion, unsatisfactorily). But if you want a good Ishiguro, go find The Remains of the Day. It does a much better job examining "what it is to be human" (an honest-to-god puff quote from Never Let Me Go) than this effort, which will likely stand the test of time about as well as blue skirt paint.

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