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How Ishiguro rewrote himself

The Nobel winner’s cryptic new novel is the result of a decades-long rejection of “well-formed” fiction.

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Towards the end of his Nobel lecture, delivered in Stockholm in December 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro advised that we should relax our definitions of “good literature”. It would be hard, perhaps impossible, to engage with his latest book in any other spirit. On first appraisal, Klara and the Sun belongs in the realm of the not-good – glacial and abstract, and written in a repetitive vanilla prose beyond anything that this specialist in the monologue-monotone has previously inflicted on the reader. The stakes are elusive, as are the basic contours of the fictional world. Yet Ishiguro is an extraordinary writer and he has surely earned our trust, or perhaps, in this instance, our faith.

The setting is the US in the near future, and the title character is an Artificial Friend, short-haired and slightly French-looking, purchased as a companion to an ailing teenage girl, Josie, by her single mother, Chrissie. Josie, we learn, has been “lifted” and is destined to receive a university education, but her neighbour and soulmate, Rick, is one of the “unlifteds” and as such has no prospects. Klara, our narrator-guide, offers little in the way of hand-holding. Does she not care what “lifted” means, or does she already know and deems it banal? Though she runs off solar power and worships the Sun as loving and kind, she never establishes whether this superstition is shared by the human community of which she is now a part.

For a large chunk of the novel, Ishiguro’s detail-pipette, familiar from The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), seems either blocked or empty, and the natural response from the reader is neither anticipatory excitement nor even curiosity but a form of waiting. Then, at a certain, fairly advanced point, things become clearer, if no more graspable. An absence of thematic material is replaced by something like the opposite. There’s professional envy, sexual longing, the inequalities created by technological advancement, what it fundamentally means to be human, and most prominent of all, the power of “hope”. A noun that barely features in the novel’s first half suddenly becomes the thing that, according to Josie’s absentee father, “never leaves you alone”. But having appeared to settle for a rugged sort of coherence, Ishiguro produces an ending that arrives, if not as a deus ex machina – though that description might be literally applied – then certainly as a non sequitur.

Ishiguro has been inching towards this cliff edge for more than 30 years. “I sometimes wonder,” he said in 1989, “should books be so neat, well-formed? Is it praise to say that a book is beautifully structured? Is it a criticism to say that bits of the book don’t hang together?” He explained that after three novels – his most recent was The Remains of the Day, then on the cusp of winning the Booker Prize – it was time to be “messy” and “chaotic,” “undisciplined” and even “undignified”. The result was The Unconsoled (1995). A delirious portrait of a pianist who arrives in a nameless European town and never quite gets his bearings, the novel is clearly an example of irrational literature, and Ishiguro’s work since then, however eerie, has always welcomed interpretation.

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Readers of When We Were Orphans (2000), about a detective convinced he will track down his long-lost parents in late-1930s Shanghai, might struggle to determine which parts of Christopher Banks’s narrative are true, and which are delusions or magical thinking. It’s easy enough, though, to identify what the novel is trying to say – that fantasies of omnipotence may be the most effective, if not the healthiest, way of guarding against our knowledge of futility. And Ishiguro’s most recent novel, The Buried Giant (2015), used an unlikely form, the Arthurian myth, to present, with unwavering focus and mounting explicitness, the idea that blanket amnesia may be more psychically appealing than daily confrontation with a single unbearable fact.

Usually, when a novelist wants to rip up the rule-book, the literary precedent cited is some distant epoch – before the codifying process was complete – or else some moment of modernist rebellion. Ishiguro has found surprising licence in the 19th century – in Dostoevsky, but also in Charlotte Brontë, the rare Victorian practitioner of the female monologue, the form employed (albeit with a non-human narrator) by Klara and the Sun, as well as the earlier novels A Pale View of Hills (1982) and Never Let Me Go. Klara and the Sun is concerned with forging the new from the old, and Ishiguro exhibits his own Frankenstein-ish impulses, aspiring to cross-breed Brontë’s Villette with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Or perhaps to produce a version of Villette (mundane, diaristic) that morphs into The Idiot (vertiginous, frantic), telling a story that dwells initially on things like kitchen geography (“Once I’d established the importance of the Island, things became much easier”) and then on hubris, injustice and miracles.

The added complication is that Klara brings an alien perspective not to a small French-speaking city or Russian high society, but to some unspecified future moment in which customs are different from our own. When Klara says that neighbouring townhouses had been painted “a slightly different colour” in order to prevent the resident from “entering a neighbor’s house by mistake”, we cannot be sure that this strange-looking presumption is actually wrong. The dialogue is frequently unmooring. Josie says that some people think her father is a “dork” but in fact he’s “super-smart” (though most of us would see no contradiction between the two). In another scene, Klara announces that she is “sad” to learn that Josie’s sister died, and Chrissie replies, “Sad puts it pretty well”. Late-arriving hints that Klara’s memory has its shortcomings fail to account for the many page-by-page uncertainties.

Never Let Me Go employed a similar strategy, with a clone-narrator in an altered “late 1990s”, but the rules were consistent and largely recognisable. A closer analogue for the double distancing act executed here is the recent work of JM Coetzee, the only other living English-language novelist to have received the Nobel Prize. Simón, in Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, washes up in Novilla, with the boy-seer David by his side, and struggles to get a grip on local customs, though not in a way that always accords with the reader’s own reactions – the eyelid-batting is out of sync. In both Klara and the Sun and Coetzee’s concluding volume, The Death of Jesus, which appeared just over a year ago, Beckettian chatter alternates with pseudo-Platonic dialogues and acts of bemused looking-around, and a story of childhood illness culminates, against the odds, in a grand act, if it is indeed real, of salvation.

The easiest way to read these novels is for their evidence of self-commentary. As an artist-character in Klara and the Sun says, “any work we do brands us… and sometimes brands us unjustly”. The novel is at least in part an attempt to set the record straight, to establish once and for all what kind of writer Ishiguro wants to be. The albatross for Coetzee was the conventional hit he scored in mid-career, Disgrace. Here, Ishiguro is trying to end a 40-year debate: his campaign to be read at what he calls “a more metaphorical level”, not as a writer about England or Japan, the past or the future, nor as an author of “quiet” fiction (though that word, in some form or other, is used more than 50 times in Klara and the Sun).

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Now and again, Ishiguro can seem to be trolling the reader – or at least those critics who cling to traditional criteria. Josie and Rick, the boy-next-door with whom she has hatched a secret “plan”, sometimes communicate through cartoons, and one of Rick’s bubbles reads: “The smart kids think I have no shape. But I do. I’m just keeping it hidden. Because who wants them to see?”

Other clues to Ishiguro’s intentions arise throughout. Josie’s father, an engineer who has been “substituted” by a machine worker, invents a compact mirror that reflects her face the right way around: “Wow,” she tells him, “it’s a masterpiece.” Worthwhile rewards are associated with high-level risk: if you play for “low stakes”, Josie’s mother tells Rick, what you win is “small and mean”. In one sequence, Klara’s vision, never the best, begins to splinter, and she speculates that the things she sees weren’t really “three-dimensional, but had been sketched onto flat surfaces using clever shading techniques to give the illusion of roundness and depth”. It’s a kind of in-joke, recalling E M Foster’s famous distinction between three-dimensional and two-dimensional (or round and flat) characters, which Ishiguro discussed in his Nobel lecture.

In this analogy, Klara is a novel reader, and Klara and the Sun, whatever else it is and isn’t doing, engages with some of the challenges of interpretation: “I don’t really understand what this is about.” “Look, I don’t understand any of this.” “I’m not sure I understand.” “I couldn’t be sure.” “I couldn’t be certain.” “That’s a very smart way of misunderstanding my point.” There are almost ten instances of “puzzled” or potentially puzzled glances, expressions and looks. In this landscape of furrowed brows and wrinkled noses, Artificial Friends are considered a “vital source of education and enlightenment”. But what news is Klara actually bringing to the human characters, or to us?

Given Ishiguro’s record, the likely general response will be to acclaim the novel as a conventional success – moving, powerful, and so on. That would seem a curious sort of tribute, though to call it a disaster would miss the point no less. When the critic James Wood said that The Unconsoled invented “its own category of badness”, I cannot help but wonder how he knew that it was bad. I’m not convinced that Anita Brookner solved the problem any more effectively when she panned the novel, then changed her mind and hailed its perfection. My own response to Klara and the Sun, over two more or less identical readings, initially resembled Ishiguro’s note on finishing the first part of The Brothers Karamazov: “I’m disappointed with how baggy and unedited it feels.” By the end, I was put more in mind of his reflection, after reading The Trial, that “one could drive oneself mad thinking of … interpretations”.

When, in 1989, Ishiguro presented those rhetorical questions about neatness and structure, his interviewer, Graham Swift, replied, “I think it’s a matter of how it stays or doesn’t stay with the reader”. Klara and the Sun is certainly a resonant experience, a sort of tone poem that, like most of Ishiguro’s fiction, recalls the title of one of his surrealist film scripts: The Saddest Music in the World. If I can’t decide what he is going for, I’m hardly inclined to blame him. Equivocation is an under-employed response to works of art that reject existing forms, but in the case of Klara and the Sun it seems the only way of reconciling my boredom and annoyance with the patience and humility that genius deserves.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus