Thursday, November 04, 2010


Falling in Love, Falling out of Love

A couple days ago, I had a nice long conversation with a young new friend, who is an aspiring writer. We talked about books. I have had some difficulty reading, as I've said elsewhere, but have recently started to make my way back to fiction. I finished Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea" this afternoon and a pile of other books await. For the first time in a long time, I am excited to read.

In our conversation, we touched on two books: "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuko Ishiguro and "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy. Let me just say here that I've long loved Ishiguro and have admired his career. For a great many reasons, he's someone I always list as a favorite author and whose choices I privately admire and examine as I try to make my way through to becoming a "real" writer. "Never Let Me Go" was published in Canada before it was available in the US; lucky for me, I was in Vancouver and you can bet I made sure I would be in Canada long enough to get the book to read on the plane flight back to New York. I inhaled it.

Now, a few years later, I find myself reflecting back on the novel and feeling disappointed--less and less of it is staying with me. I think there is something to the sad way in which the characters march off to their doom and the repressed way that they accept their fate that feels flat to me. This quality has worked in other novels--in "The Remains of the Day" I could feel why the butler was unable to return love and the novel didn't feel so flat because Miss Kenton has a spark to her, a quality that searches for and really wants love. And everyone was up against overwhelming forces. I'm unconvinced of the "tide of history" that pervades "Never Let Me Go."

I suppose part of it is that the novel is speculative (or science fiction if you want to call it that, though as one person has pointed out, NLMG can't really be science fiction because the science aspect of the novel is viewed with such suspicion), and I want an experience like I had watching the film "Children of Men" or even reading the crack-like addictive novels "The Hunger Games." In these stories, people are placed in "speculative situations" (there are no more babies in "Children of Men": children are sacrificed gladiator style in "The Hunger Games"), but struggle to find their humanity and to fight back in some way. It isn't even clear in "Children of Men" that the future will be positive or that there is redemption, but at least there is movement in the story. We leave "Never Let Me Go" feeling very sad. There is no hope. The end.

And if it feels flat to me, it could be because I am American, but I don't think so. There are other novels that I have loved which end on extremely tragic notes--like Eight Million Gods and Demons--and yet feel complete and as if we are watching people battle bravely. I think it felt flat to me because I felt I was reading about an idea, and much less about how people would actually behave within the confines of that world. (Incidentally, as time has gone by, I reflect back on the final "Hunger Games" book which initially annoyed me, and now I think the author was quite clever and insightful. I think it still needed better editing, but she was brave to finish the story off as she did. But perhaps more on that another time).

We also got to talking about "Blood Meridian," which I still think is an incredible novel. I'm still in love with it. And even though there is a sameness to all of McCarthy's work, the vision is unique and the execution highly original. No one else can do McCarthy. The vision is also often tragic and yet there is this quality to his books which is alive and is not quantifiable. Years later, some aspect of his work lingers in my head. I still feel something.

This is what I am looking for in what I read now. I spent a great many years looking at novels that have been published to try to understand what made a novel publishable. I read a great deal of first fiction--and I'm sure will continue to do so. But it's that quality that is ineffable that I think makes a book last and last and elevates it to art. This is what I am now seeking (and suspect I have found in "Wide Sargasso Sea.")

What does it mean to get older and to fall out of love with some books, to still be in love with others and to be ready for a different kind of reading experience?

(Edited to add: not too long after I posted all of the above--and congrats if you made it all the way through--my friend Maud posted this video, in which Ishiguro does indeed say that his novel was about mortality and the fact that most of us accept our fates and do not fight back).

tried to read Ishiguro a while back, just couldn't get into him at all. gave up.

I'll take Murakami Haruki any day
I have to admit that I love Never Let Me Go. I actually think that the behavior of the students--not fighting, not opposing authority or questioning--makes a lot of sense for their age and who they are. I was reading about, I guess it's the Elizabeth Smart trial. And the writer was trying to explain why she didn't run or fight or even whisper to a policeman who had accosted her directly and asked if she was Elizabeth Smart, and I thought about NLMG. It feels the sad, real truth that most people don't fight. They just live and survive the best they can.

In that sense, it seems, without being an overtly political book, to be about the real toll of oppression. Also, a book set in a 'real' place or culture would have ultimately been a critique of that culture, but by speculating Ishiguro opens up the interpretation--makes it truly universal.

BUT, I taught this book at City College two years ago and at least half the class hated the book precisely because they wanted the characters to fight. Maybe it's an age thing as well as a cultural thing?
Hasie--This is so interesting and such a darker read of NLMG than I've read anywhere else. I suppose you are right--most people *don't* fight back, though over the long arc of history, they do. But individuals rarely do, which is why we are so impressed when one eventually does.

I have to admit, I have often wondered if my "fight back" attitude is based on my American upbringing. I mean, I'm sure it is.

I guess the book felt flat to me because I didn't believe the characters' self-repression. But I might read again with your thoughts and see how it reads now. It might be very different.
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