Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in the library simply because it was a nice handbag-friendly size for my commute, but if (like me) you’ve lost track of Ishiguro’s work since An Artist Of The Floating World or The Remains Of The Day, this one’s worth a read.

NLMG reminded me how wonderful Ishiguro is at illuminating the silences between people, the myriad things that may come to your mind during a conversation but which, for all sorts of reasons, you decide to leave unsaid. I don’t think I noticed this in his other books that I’ve read, but in NLMG he’s particularly adept at bringing this to life in the interactions between women, or at least it’s very true to my interactions with women anyway. I think he really skewers the things that can render even conversations between fairly close, caring and not particularly immature girl friends a mire of unvoiced resentments. Kathy is able to be annoyed with Ruth’s various facades and disingenuities, while understanding (and sometimes appreciating) why Ruth puts on the acts she does. Ruth is able to engage in genuine and close friendship with Kathy while she continues, through knowing inaction, to deny Kathy a precious and irreplaceable happiness. Tommy, the third major character in the book, is also quite accurately characterised (as far as my interactions with guys go, anyway) as being more straightforward, less calculative, not completely oblivious to all that’s going on between his two close girl friends but simply not wired to view things through the convoluted web of surface-vs-imputed-meanings that girl interactions have to be filtered through.

Do you know what I mean, or does none of this strike a chord with you? I mean the insecurities and disingenuities of your girl friends which chronically and acutely infuriate you, yet because you figure that they wouldn’t be like this if they weren’t fragile, you decide to be the bigger person and not crush them by letting on that you see right through them. But because you’re not perfect yourself, you can’t totally let go of your annoyance either, and it ends up colouring your interactions with them anyway, anything from throwaway comments which indirectly target an insecurity, to deliberate obtuseness when they’re fishing for affirmation, to finally just limiting the quantity/method of your interactions. (I have girl friends who I like in person, but I don’t like how they come across on their blogs, or vice versa, and other girl friends who are lovely alone but put on facades in certain social settings, so I sometimes try to pick how and where I interact with them accordingly.) Perhaps the dispassionate observer might wonder why you don’t just cut off these dysfunctional relationships, but there’s the rub – underneath all this bullshit you still like these people, you know they have good hearts, and you want to believe others will ultimately give you, too, the dignity of the holistic analysis, rather than write you off for your own annoying faults. And so we hold on to these relationships, and everything left unsaid represents the good and bad we can’t let go of.

That was a bit of a tangent, wasn’t it? Anyway, the point is that the major strength of Never Let Me Go, for me, is how consummately Ishiguro gets all of the above. Another of its strengths is how elegantly he unfolds the story, but it’s a little tough to discuss this without introducing spoilers. If you pick this book up cold as I did without knowing much about it, I daresay you will be a little surprised initially at the opening chapter’s hints about the central premise of its plot, and you might even be dubious about whether it’s your sort of story – I was. But I soon found that this didn’t matter, and (with apologies for being so cryptic, really) the third major strength of the book is how he uses the first strength to illustrate how little it matters.


  1. Michelle! I loved this book too – and your entry totally reminded me of the cab ride I shared with you and Erik from Sembawang to Orchard to Katong during which we spent chatting about books! Anyway I also wanted to say ‘hullo’ and offer long-overdue congratulations to you and Alec :) If you ever stop by NYC, you know who to get in contact with…xx

  2. I’m not sure there would be lots of surface problems without problems in the underlying “holistic” dynamic. But perhaps I think this because in most of my current social life, where I tend to pursue select individualised friendships rather than groups, I tend to have vegemite relationships: in the sense that it either works on all levels, or I/the other person has been largely dismissed from serious consideration for a friendship so virtually no interaction occurs (in which case it’s always possible to be polite).

    With my Singaporean friends, where there was a lot of groupishness because of the stage of my life I was at (you make friends at school or wherever), and also probably because I made friends with people when both of our characters were less developed (just because of youth), I see what you describe more in my interactions with people. But it’s pretty much balanced across genders – I’ve got as much affirmation-fishing from men with competitive anxieties as from women with stuck-in-a-rut or passive aggressive behaviour. I also found myself, when I hung out with guys in Singapore, frequently adopting a “one of the guys” role in which I gleefully participated in misogyny to earn honorary person status (instead of being, eeeyerr, a girl), which amounted to one party (me) taking on too much of the burden for maintaining the “don’t worry, there’s no surface-versus-imputed problem going on here” operational dynamic and submerging the problem.

    I’m not sure what the solution really is besides slipping away either. I’ve tried directly speaking about underlying things, but this has often resulted in blow ups. There’s also the problem that when you have submerged things for quite a long time, people find it hard to take you seriously or accept that you’re not just “looking” for some kind of problem where there actually isn’t one to begin with. (This is particularly the case if you’ve been responsible for quite a lot of the lip-biting in the relationship, and it hasn’t even occurred to them you might not be happy to have had to do that.) And I guess especially given I’ve moved away and all, people quite understandably just can’t be bothered with what seems like extraneous drama anyway.

  3. tamara: Hard to respond much without spoilers, but yes. :(

    Olive: Aw, thanks for the congrats. Haha, that was an amusing conversation – the different takes on Infinite Jest especially! We *are* currently contemplating a trip to NYC to exploit the low US dollar, but everything’s still extremely vague. Will update you if something crystallizes!

    J: Am not quite sure what your first sentence means or what you mean by “stuck-in-a-rut” behaviour from women, could you clarify?

    I’m also not quite sure we are thinking about the same phenomenon – to give a simple example off the top of my head, it’s the girl showily lamenting all the lame pickup attempts that guys have tried with her, but you know that the main point of this is not to entertain but to emphasize how hot she is while simultaneously pretending not to do so. My real-life examples are rather more nuanced, but I can’t describe them because they would be instantly recognizable to the girl friends involved if they should ever happen to read this!

    So it’s not like my annoyance is over something serious, like you swallowing outrage at misogynist guy conversation (for example). Most of the time, it just really makes me want to say “Look, I like you lots without you doing all this. Why are you trying so hard?” But that is, of course, still likely to result in a lot of defensiveness and acrimony. (The book’s examples are also over less petty annoyances, but the biting-one’s-tongue dynamic is still the same.)
    And for some reason, this only happens to me with girl friends, my friendships with guys are just plain speaking and plain sailing.

  4. I always enjoy conversations among groups of girls. You just have to get over the initial hump where they discuss shoes and handbags for 10 minutes and forget you’re listening. It’s fun to see how they approach sensitive subjects in a very roundabout manner and then not really get to the meat of a problem and just stew over it afterwards.

    Guys are direct but don’t tend to broach personal subjects at all, so they resolve even less than the women do.

    It’s probably why a mix of the sexes is ideal. Groups tend to overcome each others shortcomings, assuming they’re not negative people.

  5. Hm, I wasn’t very clear was I? By the first sentence I guess I meant that I’m a judgmental drama queen :) because for me, if interaction with someone sustainedly or repeatedly resulted in the kinds of impulses you mention (e.g. feeling you want to snipe at them or poke at their sensitive spots), I would regard it as a deeper (though not necessarily irresoluble) problem in the relationship, not a surface annoyance. I guess if I could classify it as a superficial annoyance I’d just try to mentally beat the crap out of myself to ignore it, or make fun of it to myself without having those impulses. So when you say you feel those things, to me, it reminds me of relationships I’ve had, with more substantive problems, that need fixing or justify avoiding someone (in which case the “holistic” value of the relationship must, sort of by definition, have decreased).

    By “stuck in a rut” I guess I’m thinking of some frustrating interactions I’ve had with people who lament problems and lament the solution and lament the possibility of reworking the situation so the problem isn’t a problem – people who are determined to have a problem and determined not to have any solution to it. I find this is exactly the behaviour that tends to excite in me the kind of impulses you describe, so that popped to mind… come to think of it I know quite a few guys who are like that though.

    I think we are foundering a bit here for (inevitable, for the reason you’ve explained) lack of specifics, but I guess maybe I just latched onto your description of your reaction when different things provoke that in us so it can’t really be compared. Like with your example, I’d probably teasingly scold them and change the subject. If they were people who kept doing it and incapable of flowing between subject changes so that it wasn’t All About Them, especially when the being About Them was on something so small like lame pickup attempts, then we’re back to sustained problem territory. I dunno. Sorry, this is a useless comment.

  6. But isn’t it the very judgments we hold that creates the negative/uncomfortable settings you speak of? If there is an annoyance you can’t let go of, and let it slip through some throwaway comments, chances are, the person of target will feel it and hence, discomfort breeds discomfort. I don’t quite know how to explain it and I’m probably not gonna get my point across very well. But I have found the moment I drop my own judgments about petty dislikes and go into every friendship/interaction with no judgments, the other person will somehow sense it too, and feel comfortable in that moment of interaction, and in turn drop the bullshit and become the very person you know you love. It’s not a condescension of me being the “bigger” person and understanding they are insecure, fragile, etc. More like me looking at the judgments I make and seeing that as MY judgments (not their actions because it’s all self-interpretation), then choosing to let it go.
    That’s in the social setting. I don’t know about blogging and the presentation of the self tho’. I haven’t felt much disjoint between the people I know in real life and their blogs when they do have one.
    I will now go to blog about my next lame pick-up and how hot I don’t think I am. ;p

  7. “underneath all this bullshit you still like these people, you know they have good hearts, and you want to believe others will ultimately give you, too, the dignity of the holistic analysis, rather than write you off for your own annoying faults. And so we hold on to these relationships, and everything left unsaid represents the good and bad we can’t let go of.”

    It’s almost uncomfortable how close to home you got with this one. Although I will admit that I wasn’t always this way– it took me a good while to realize all of this.

    P.S. Any plans to use RSS? My GoogleReader is incomplete.

  8. Kelly: I don’t find it useful to speak of having “no judgments” – everyone makes judgments all the time whether they want to admit it or not, and there is nothing wrong with exercising judgment as long as you are not being judgmental. Also, there is still a point where something stops being “just my interpretation” and becomes a reasonable conclusion to draw from someone’s actual words and actions. (This assumes of course that one is generally able to trust one’s own inner sense of fairness and intuition, and that said sense is calibrated to be unwilling to reach negative conclusions about people.)

    But I do get what you’re saying – in fact I never go into these interactions just waiting for a slip-up. We’re usually in the middle of pleasant, enjoyable conversation, and then the person says/does [specific bullshitty thing] out of nowhere. (On more than one occasion other observors have later commented unprompted on the bullshitty thing, so it’s also not that I’m making something out of nothing.)

    So anyway, it’s usually only after the thing gets said that I feel the wilful temptation not to let them get away with the bullshit, and not before. Even so, I do actually just bite my tongue most of the time, but it’s certainly possible something shows in my body language and creates discomfort. I’m not saying this is the right way to be at all, and good for you if you don’t share that particular failing of mine (which I continue to work on). But the reason this book struck a chord with someone as imperfect as me was how well Kazuo Ishiguro understands this dynamic. Perhaps it wouldn’t strike the same chord with you, for the reasons you described.

  9. Becky: If I copy and paste the URL of this blog in my Google Reader “Add Subscription” box, the feed does show up. However, point taken, and I know you’ve been making this point very nicely and patiently to me for a while now! Forthcoming blog redesign will feature prominent feed subscription link. :)

  10. ah, i was trying to search for instead of sorry about the trouble! looking forward to the redesign.

  11. There is an understanding among women that is different with men though? Perhaps that biting of tongue thing comes about because there is an innate understanding of what the other is seeking for; the onus is on the other then, to give, or not to give. With men, they usually take you as you say you are. There is less of that reading between the lines, unless he is attuned to you.

    Perhaps that is the tension in the interaction between women. An intrinsic understanding that is almost a mirror of how you are sometimes, or how you could have been.

    The actions we take, in dealing with that realisation of them, is also telling about us, I guess.

    Making sense?

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