Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout the work, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

Valencia, Michelle Tea

Cover illustration for Valencia, by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.

So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia, the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.

Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.

Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”

Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.

Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).

More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.

Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”

Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.

So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.