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Friday, April 22, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro is like watching those trick-shot pool competitions they used to show around 4pm on ESPN2. Sure, the technical skill on display is impressive, but the sheer pointlessness of the exercise makes it difficult to sustain much interest.

This is the second Ishiguro novel I have read (the other was The Remains of the Day) and in each he has set himself a narrative challenge that would seem insurmountable to many writers. He deliberately obscures the main thrust of his story by utilizing a first-person narrator whose interests are often only tangential to that of the reader. In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is a long-tenured English butler whose discourses on the proper way to serve a distinguished gentleman cloak that same gentleman’s unsavory politics. Here, the narrator is a woman named Kathy, who wants to tell us the story of her and her two best friends from Hailsham, the idyllic boarding school they all attended. While Kathy is intensely interested in rehashing grade-school slights and petty teenage drama, the reader slowly comes to discover the horrifying truth about their lives at Hailsham and after.

At first glance, this seems like an appropriate choice, as Kathy assumes the reader’s familiarity with the rules of her alternate reality. Indeed, it would perhaps be just as tiresome and less realistic if she droned on and on about the way her world worked. The problem though, is that of sustaining reader interest. This is a short novel, but even so I found myself bored with Kathy’s narration, which is often true to life to the point of exhaustion. The way she incessantly reaches a point in her story, only to say that she needs to go back and explain some things first, will drive even patient readers up the wall.

It might be a bold artistic choice, but when you intentionally use a boring person as your narrator I’m going to praise you for how authentically bored I feel reading your novel.

I am going to watch the film version of the novel, which stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, and was released last year. The “surprise” revelation of the novel (which I won’t spoil here even though it is achingly obvious shortly into the plot) seems like a decent presence for a movie. Reading Never Let Me Go reminded me a lot of Children of Men, which was a stuffy, uninteresting novel but a fantastic film.

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