Narrator, narrator, narrator. What a powerful creature you are.
On Tuesday evening, I started reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and then I finished it up on Wednesday afternoon. It’s a rare treat to focus on a book in what feels like essentially one sitting. This kind of intensive reading exaggerates the feeling I get of having completely exited my own reality and gone visiting another. And the smooth, unwavering quality of Never Let Me Go’s narrator Karen kept me firmly within the confines of the story.
I don’t want to go into too many details about the actual story of Never Let Me Go because I think it would spoil the fun of reading the book for those who don’t know anything about it. Suffice it to say the novel presents an alternate version of contemporary reality where certain scientific decisions require a new kind of social segregation. I’ve heard the novel labeled science fiction and I suppose that might be true, but I think it’s really beside the point. The point for me is the writing, combined with the novel’s careful exploration of Ishiguro’s idea.
I want to focus on the narrator. I was dubious of Ishiguro’s handling of Karen at first. I wanted her to have a different kind of voice – less explanatory, less hesitant, less flat. I felt like I wasn’t in good hands and that the way she told the story needed to be cleaned up or edited or smoothed somehow. I was worried it might be a case of a very successful writer not being held to certain standards anymore, which is something I do think happens as editors become less certain whether they can criticize or offer changes. And I held tight to that criticism for nearly a third of the book until it slowly dawned on me that Ishiguro was doing this on purpose and for a very good reason.
From the very beginning, Karen’s overall tone is one of jaded resignation. And it was driving me insane. I couldn’t detect the level of emotion I thought she should have. Nor could I understand why she felt compelled to do so much over-explaining. Until the details of Ishiguro’s frightening world started coming into clearer focus and then it all made sense. Especially when we remember that Karen begins her story at the end, when she’s eight months from leaving her job and taking on her “real” role in society, when what she has to tell us has already happened. It’s only when we get to the end, that it makes sense why she has the tone of voice she has. She’s worse than resigned. That’s the whole point.
But the point of letting this kind of narrator tell her story (something I think most writing classes or instructors would tell you to avoid like the plague because in essence she is lifeless) is where I think Ishiguro made a clever decision. Her tone of voice is specifically calculated for who she is. This sounds silly and maybe what I’m saying won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. But she isn’t just telling her story – she IS the story. And her voice, her resignation, her understanding of herself at the end, becomes the greatest piece of evidence of the novel’s tragedy.
And Ishiguro gives us everything we really need to know about her right on page one. Pretty damn clever.