Monday, March 9, 2009

Baren Bitches Book Brigade: Never Let Me Go

Welcome to another installment of the quad-B. (I just made it up. Like it?) On the agenda for today is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Warning: If you haven't read the book, but may want to, slowly point your mouse towards the browser's back button, click away, and nobody gets hurt. Because this here post? Chock full of spoilers. It's a spoiler stew, so to speak. And as Mel correctly warned when suggesting the book for the book club, you are much better off not knowing a damn thing, not a tiny little thing about the book before you start reading. No, really. But if you are the sort to read the book even if you know how it all shakes out (or if you are in the habit of peeking at the last page) or if you are not going to read it anyway, but want to see what all the fuss is about, then by all means, read on.


I found the book to be engrossing. The week I had last week, and the weekend I was heading into, and this week again, I really had no business throwing book reading in there. I thought I'd start, and read a few pages here and there, and then maybe I would be far enough along to be able to read along with the book club today. Maybe even comment. But the book sucked me in, and so I sacrificed sleep-- the only thing with any sort of give in my days-- to finish it in just over two days. But here's the thing. I loved the start of the book. I got into the characters, the settings, the relationships, the big picture. But the closer it got to resolution, the less I was staying with it. It didn't hold charge for me at the end, it didn't ring true. Less individual characters than the overall structure that circumscribes their existence. But the way society turns out to function just didn't work for me, and falsified some of the character development with which I was originally fully on board. But more about that later. First, some thoughts and reflections.

One theme in the book that I kept returning to was that of parallel worlds. Students/carers/donors seem to live in a separate world from the rest of society. They seem allowed to interact and we know that they are taught about the ways of the ordinary people (for Hailsham students in particular, possibly in a way that would enable them to "pass" for an ordinary person-- for example in the instruction on having sex), but they don't seem to do it to any appreciable degree. That made me wonder, in such a context, which world is "real"? In the case of the world of the book, we don't really get a good idea of what the students think of "ordinary" people or their world. Media is not depicted, and current events are referred to only briefly. Other countries are mentioned in passing, but whether they have similar clone set ups are not articulated. (Likewise, we get only glimpses of what the people in the regular society think of the clones, but that's a bit of a separate topic.)

But thinking about this also brought to mind the topic not infrequently raised on the internets, the topic of whether we are living in a separate world, here. In the world of bereaved parents in particular (and in the world of infertility too) it is often the case that we begin to feel that most of the people in our real lives, our physical worlds, do not really understand us, that the world where we don't have to explain ourselves is the one in the computer. Ethereal world of electrons and words, but as real to us, and some days more real, than the one that includes our next door neighbors.

Another thing I kept picking up to consider was the way clone infertility is presented in the book. As a plot device it was a natural (pardon the pun) choice-- if there is no possibility of the clones having children themselves, there is less to handle logistically and there is (slightly) less of an ethical mess-- no need to consider whether a mother of a young child can be slated for donor status, or a father, or any of the other very messy questions one might come up with. But as far as making sense in the world, it is not really explored. Students are told at some point that they are infertile, and eventually it is tied to their forming views on sex. But we don't know whether the clones are infertile as a side effect of the way they are created, by design, or made so very early in life. Does it matter? Does it matter to you, the reader? To them? Should they want to know? To me it feels different if they are infertile as a result of the process that creates them than if they are sterilized as infants. One is an inescapable side-effect of the process, albeit one that the system freely exploits. The other is yet another decision, another action, that takes yet more away from these beings.

And that brings me straight to the Miss Emily vs. Miss Lucy debate. Should the clones be told their place in the world piecemeal, presumably preserving their happy childhoods or should they be told the whole stark truth from the beginning, allowing them to make what they will of it? I would like to postulate that maybe the difference here is not altogether academic and applicable only to the world of the novel. I would like to postulate that the difference is one between pity and empathy. Miss Emily sees her moral obligation in providing for the clones, even as she later admits to being revolted by them. Miss Lucy, on the other hand, seems genuinely respectful of their humanity, of them as individuals. Miss Emily sees the students only as other, while Miss Lucy sees them as equally human to herself. And isn't this a theme familiar to most infertiles and bereaved parents alike-- do the people around us pity us or give us empathy? Do they treat us as other, scary and possibly contagious, or as an equal, even if in pain or in need? We rarely want pity. But empathy, understanding that preserves our dignity? Many of us are thirsty for it, and not in the least because it seems to be in such short supply.

Ok, so this next point might solidify my standing as a politics geek. Eh-- what else is new, right? This point is about language and framing in the book. See, in the book, students are special, unlike say ordinary people. Donors are kindly providing for others, rather than are being taken apart, piece by piece, for the benefit of unseen privileged class. Carers care (duh), rather than make it more palatable for the same privileged class to dismember other human beings while still alive. And, of course, donors complete, rather than... well, we don't even know whether they die or become vegetables connected to machines while the rest of their organs are harvested. There are so many places to go from here. There is the whole transfer vs. implant media thing, for one. There is the fictitious and purposefully-named partial birth abortion (it doesn't exist! a bunch of medical procedures are clumped together under this colloquial umbrella). There is accountability in education, which really only means more standardized testing, which happens to be only peripherally related to actual student learning. And there is any number of euphemistically named political phenomena. Let me leave those alone for right now, except to say that language is important. And in the case of the students in the book, being raised from infancy for the role they are scripted into, language is also formative-- it imprints their view of themselves and their role.

Finally, towards the end of the book, Kathy finds herself separated from Tommy by the carer/donor divide. She is saddened and angered by all the talk of "you would see if you were a donor." What struck me is that the way she bristles at that is rather similar to the way many of us react (or used to react) to the glorification of parenthood and demarcation of certain truths to be only accessible to one who has crossed the threshold.

And now the questions.

At what point did you realize what the book was about and did it change the way you viewed the main characters?

Honestly, I had an inkling from about page 2, and I consider it to be a very nice setup. My very first thought about what a donor was donating was "organs." And it seemed clear that Kathy wasn't expected to just retire to a cottage in the country upon being done with her carer role at the end of the year. Gradually, more is revealed, and, sadly, not always in a satisfactory way. I would say that at the beginning I bought the premise, but by the end, had to, regretfully, take it back for a refund. There are many reasons for it, and I will try to run through them briefly.

First, what is the societal set-up? Is there legislation governing clone conduct and interactions with the wider world? It seemed a lot more congruous while I thought this whole thing was more of a hush-hush operation, and even then it was shaky, but once we hear Miss Emily's explanation, very little of it makes sense. (As an aside, if it was fully official and known, I highly doubt regular people would be called ordinary. Because don't we all know how nobody wants to think of themselves as ordinary [cue American Beauty soundtrack]. Unless, that is, one finds oneself in the land of Shit Out of Luck, a place from which ordinary looks divine and unattainable). I am going to elaborate on that a bit more below, but the short of it is that to me, the dystopia setup here doesn't hold water, unlike, say, the one from The Handmaid's Tale.

There are plenty of places where I could put this particular question, but let's put it here, under the not holding water heading-- how is it possible that the students are reading so much, and none of them has ever stumbled onto, for example, A Modest Proposal? They have, by Kathy's own reckoning, discovered irony at some point. How have they not ever read anything suggestive of their treatment not being morally defensible? Oh, forget books. They have TV. They watch American sitcoms. Do they not also watch movies? Nothing? Really?

This part has been bugging me since I figured out it won't be answered for us-- who is Kathy speaking to? She is very deliberate, saying on more than one occasion things like "I want to now speak of X." It is an outsider, since it is not a character in the story, not even a peripheral one, since she's had to explain everything. But neither is it a person entirely unfamiliar with the topic-- right on page one or two she talks about the person she is addressing no doubt knowing some aspects of the carer establishment. Is this a reporter? A government official? A (new) lover? An ordinary person of some other description?

Speaking of, why haven't there been a reporter? Seemingly, not a single one? Ever? Nobody is interested in speaking to these children/adults? Do we really believe that no newspaper editor wants to publish a series? Do we really believe that, as Miss Emily will have us believe, the whole society in its infinite homogeneity doesn't want to know where the cures come from, doesn't want to humanize the clones? Have none of the reporters ever read A Modest Proposal either?

How are the clones produced? Is a human womb required? Who is used? Do women volunteer? Are they conscripted? Has not one of them ever wanted to keep the clone baby she just carried for nine months?

Through most of the book I kept thinking there was a one to one correspondence between clones and their intended organ recipients. I kept thinking these were clones of privileged people, setting themselves up for organ replacement later in life to prolong theirs. I think this was both for scientific reasons (thinking about organ rejection) and for social, in terms of how society would work if everyone was complicit. I thought it made less sense the way it turns out to work. But upon doing some more thinking, I no longer think it matters all that much-- as I say, society piece of this doesn't work for me in very many ways.

One thing that struck me while reading the book is that the characters seem very passive. Although certain knowledge is withheld from them along the way, and they do have questions, they do not really rebel or protest their fate, or try to escape. They seem quite accepting of the future that has been laid out for them. Why do you think this is so?

I think we are meant to see the students as accultured to not questioning their fate. The most they seem able to do is look for a deferral. And I do know that propaganda is a strong and powerful force. But I can't entirely buy that they would remain passive after leaving school for the transitional setups. They have this limited freedom. They interact with the ordinary people. They are even allowed to have sex with the ordinary people. Has not one of them ever done so? Enough to form an emotional connection? Enough to want to not go into the carer/donor world?

It is interesting that when looking for deferrals, clones only think in terms of the authorities of their world. Never does it occur to them to petition regular courts, to seek protection from human rights organizations. I mean, they can read newspapers, though we almost never see them do it. They can watch TV. I don't think it's a coincidence that education is considered a very dangerous thing in societies where people are subjugated. To be able to read-- slaves had been punished, killed for that. Canonical act of rebellion. And the clones read. They study art and literature. And still nothing?

At the end of Never Let Me Go, they mentioned “designer babies” had turned people against the whole clone issue. Now, ABC news featured a story tonight (3/3/09) about parents being able to build their baby http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=6998135&page=1 (a bit of reality reflecting art). How does this make you feel? Do you think PGD should only be used to avoid health issues and genetic defects? Is it ok to use it to have a baby who can save your current child’s life through marrow transplant? Is it ok to pick hair type and eye color?

I think this is a fine line. If you were planning on having another child anyway, and the question is whether you could use technology to make sure that kid would be able to save an older sibling's life, I would say that's ethical. Because if you had several children already, and one of them matched the sick one, it would be ok to have that kid help. If you are having a child for the sole purpose of saving the sick one, that's dicey.

Avoiding fatal genetic defects-- yes. Yes. Because I don't want anyone else to grieve a child, if they can avoid it.

Eye color? Hair color? I just threw up a little in my mouth.

If you were a student a Hailsham, would you have wanted to know your ultimate destiny as a Donor? Why or why not? How do you think knowing at that point in your life would have affected you? Does this desire to know your outcome apply to your own real life? In what situations do you find knowledge helpful? At what times can it be detrimental?

I think the complicating thing is that the kids are so small when they first arrive at the school. But there is an age when I think it's better to know. I actually think that what Miss Lucy was trying to tell Tommy was that just like if he didn't want to be artistic he didn't need to be, he didn't have to donate if he didn't want to. Not an option anyone else ever presented them.




Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

5 comments:

Melissa said...

this line really struck me "It is interesting that when looking for deferrals, clones only think in terms of the authorities of their world" It reminds me of what children do though, they go to the safe people in their lives. Although the guardians are basically harvesting organs, they are still all the characters know. I did wonder why they didn't find a police man and ask him for help. some of those things bothered me as well.

loribeth said...

Wow, Julia. I did pick up on the way that "cliques" dominate the book (Hailsham students vs non, donors vs carers, clones vs "normal" people, etc.), but your comments about parallel worlds, & then extending that to the fertile/infertile communities, takes it to a whole different level.

The book sure did raise more questions than it answered, didn't it?

Cassandra said...

I really enjoyed your infertility/donor parallel.

"Who is Kathy speaking to?" I imagined that she was speaking to her carer. She keeps saying, "I don't know how it was where you grew up..." in a way that you wouldn't to someone who grew up in a family. Earlier in the book, before I knew about the donor aspect, I thought she must be speaking to someone else who attended boarding school.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Okay, now you've blown my mind too much and I don't even know where to begin (the lack of newspaper reporting, how they become infertile, etc). I think I will comment on the idea of all these parallel worlds standing next to one another. I feel like I definitely move in different drops of liquid. These sometimes flow together like attending BlogHer and having people I communicate with online suddenly step into my face-to-face world. But also, the infertility sphere and the parenting sphere and the Jewish sphere, et al. I was holding Tertia's book and my friend started to talk to me about it and I realized how what I take for granted in this world in terms of knowing, my other spheres don't know. And therefore, I feel like there are these parallel structures in everyone's life and those are mirrored somewhat in the structure of the book.

superlagirl said...

I read this book a few years ago, and had a similar reaction. I wanted it to make more sense, and it just doesn't. The big reveal conversation at the end of the book felt particularly Scooby Doo-ish.

Thinking back on it, though, I wonder if some of the inconsistencies and vagaries weren't intentional. Maybe the author was trying to evoke this sense of frustration.

I'm not sure the book is meant to be taken literally, but more metaphorically. What made me want to rip out my hair was that all the clones *knew* their time was limited, and they still were jerks to each other. They still wasted time on personality conflicts, rather than taking advantage of the freedom they were granted between their time as student and their time as donors/carers.

But that's true for all of us in some sense, which I think is maybe what the author was trying to get at.