The Book That Made Me is a series about the books that have changed our lives. In the latest installment, a novelist and PhD candidate reflects on Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent Nobel prize, and his book that made her native land distinctly unfamiliar.
- When did you first read this book?
I first read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go right after the end of my junior year in college. A professor of mine, Marisa Parham, had just recommended it. My mom and I were driving from Massachusetts to my parents’ house in central Illinois, and I have this clear image of the yellow plains rolling past as I finished the book, somewhere in Pennsylvania or Ohio. It was sunny, and every time I looked up from the book I felt I had been ripped out of this gray, rainy English landscape and dropped on an alien planet. That’s quite an accomplishment, to make someone feel like the prairie they’ve known all their life is the foreign place, and this other country is the familiar one. And when you read back through the book, you see that Ishiguro doesn’t actually describe the setting in any detail. It’s very blank, very sketched-out; the same words again and again, “gray” and “hills” and “pasture.”
- What surprised you about the book? Was this reaction immediate, or delayed?
What surprised me about the book was what a page-turner it was. At that time in my life, I had this sense that there were two types of books, the book you read for the plot and the book you read for the writing. The first kind, you zoomed through, you discarded; the second kind, you paused over, you analyzed. Basically, the traditional logic about the divide between genre fiction and literary fiction. I didn’t think either kind was better than the other, but I thought genre fiction was more escapist, and literary fiction was more, well, professor-approved. But Never Let Me Go had me totally in thrall, I couldn’t stop reading, and yet I also knew there were parts I needed to come back to, think over.
Now I’ve had that experience with many more books, but I think I needed Never Let Me Go to open up that possibility inside me. These days, most of my recent academic work has been on genre fiction, exploring the traits and tropes of popular genres. And as a creative writer, I try to challenge that conventional boundary and write books that are plot-driven but also very attentive to language and character. Publishing in general is going that direction, I think.
- What did you misunderstand about the book? If anything, when did you realize your version of the book differed from what others read? Did this matter?
I don’t know if it’s a misunderstanding, exactly, or just a facet of age and political environment. But when I first read it, I was very focused on the relationship between Kathy H. and Tommy. Then, when I wrote about it for my senior thesis in college—my whole thesis was on the production and exchange of visual art in Ishiguro’s books—I could only really see the arguments about artistic preservation. The ideas about simulations or copies were also interesting to me; I was really into Benjamin. Afterwards, I saw the novel as a critique of the heedless pursuit of scientific progress, but that reading has become less relevant for me now, now that science itself is under attack. Now, I think of the book as being mainly about how governments value lives differently, and the immense cruelty that can be dealt to some people in the name of saving others.
It was sunny, and every time I looked up from the book I felt I had been ripped out of this gray, rainy English landscape and dropped on an alien planet.
One thing that a lot of scholars have been interested in, that I for some reason haven’t been, is the literature and medicine angle. The history of militarized science that’s provided; the organ donation theme. There’s a lot of good work out there about the carer/donor relationship and medical ethics. I am interested in the organ donation scheme from the perspective of bodily integrity, bodily ownership. Does your body belong to you or to the government? That question is meaningful to me in the context of contemporary debates about reproductive rights. But I haven’t done much thinking about the role of medicine in the book.
- Do you have a favorite quote from the book? Is this the same quote as when you first read it?
Yes! I often think about this quote:
So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you—of how you were brought into this world and why—and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
Now I realize that this is basically an account of Du Bois’s double consciousness, with maybe a little splash of Lacan. But when I read the novel that first time, I had read Du Bois, but I guess I didn’t remember it well enough to see the parallel. What struck me about it then was just the language of the last two sentences, the rhythm of the language. Those last two sentences are very plain, and yet I honestly believe that they are two of the most perfectly wrought sentences in all of English literature. I can’t account for it, it’s just something I feel, deep down. Something about the way those sentences sound in my head makes me almost weep, every time I read them. I cried when I read this book, that’s another thing. I don’t usually cry when I read books.
- Is the book something you hide from others, display proudly, or have left behind?
Display proudly. Actually, I read Never Let Me Go right when a lot of articles were starting to come out about it, and a little bit before the movie version came out. So I have always experienced it as being pretty well-accepted by both academics and popular readers, which is not always the case. I guess I hear a little backlash now about it being “overrated,” but that happens with most books.
Even if it were somehow an “embarrassing” book, I don’t really believe in hiding books anymore—see the previous comment about genre fiction and literary fiction. Too much of our literary culture is structured around shame. If I ask someone what their favorite book is, half the time they’ll say, “You’ll probably think it’s stupid, but …” There’s an anxiety around reading that is very dangerous. Maybe it’s a function of my profession, but I don’t hear people express the same anxiety about television shows or music. I spent a long time pretending I didn’t like detective novels, or romance novels, or young adult fiction, or whatever. But I’m trying to be more honest, because I worry that the more we demonize particular genres, the less public dialogue we’ll have around reading. We really need that public dialogue right now, politically. We need people to feel good about reading.