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On a bright, cool Saturday in late October 1983, the growing prospect of thermonuclear war between the world’s two superpowers drew a quarter million people out into the streets of central London. Among them was a young writer named Kazuo Ishiguro, who’d recently published his first novel. Ishiguro’s mother had narrowly survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, so his presence at the march that day felt like a matter of personal duty. Along with a group of like-minded friends, he chanted slogans demanding that the West renounce its nuclear arsenal — the hope being that the East would quickly follow suit. As they made their way past Big Ben to Hyde Park, holding signs and waving banners, a current of euphoria spread among the crowd. Synchronized protests were taking place all across Europe, and for a brief moment it seemed possible to believe that they would actually make a difference. There was just one problem, as Ishiguro saw it: He worried that the whole thing might be a terrible mistake.
In theory, unilateral disarmament was a nice idea; in practice, it could backfire catastrophically. Perhaps the Kremlin would respond to a nuclear-free Europe in the way the demonstrators foresaw, but it wasn’t hard for Ishiguro to imagine a less harmonious outcome. Even as he recognized their good intentions, he feared the marchers were succumbing to the disorienting lure of mass emotion. His parents and grandparents had lived through the rise and fall of fascism, and he grew up listening to stories about the dangerous power of crowds. Britain in the 1980s was a far cry from Japan in the 1930s, and yet he recognized common denominators: tribalism, an impatience with nuance, the pressure placed on ordinary people to take political sides. Ishiguro, a mild, deliberative person, felt this pressure intensely. He didn’t want to wake up at the end of his life only to realize that he’d given himself to a misguided cause.
These anxieties found an outlet in the novel he was writing at the time, Masuji Ono, the book’s narrator, is a man who waits too long to ask himself whether he might be backing a misguided cause. An aging painter in late-1940s Japan, Ono has been suffering from moral whiplash: His monumental artworks celebrating Japanese imperialism, at one time the source of honor and renown, have taken on a shameful meaning in the democratizing postwar era. Looking back over his life, he tries to come to terms with his decisions. Nietzsche once distilled the workings of psychological repression thus: “Memory says, ‘I did that.’ Pride replies, ‘I could not have done that.’ Eventually, memory yields.” In Ishiguro’s novel, the tug of war between pride and memory plays out behind a screen of glazed eloquence as Ono uncovers the things he has carefully hidden from himself.
At 66, Ishiguro is now approaching the age of the disgraced propagandist he imagined in his youth. To say that the life lived in error he once feared has not come to pass would be understating the matter — something Ishiguro, a virtuoso of restraint, has been doing for almost 40 years. In 2017, the closest thing an author can get to outright existential validation. Announcing the award, the Swedish Academy described him as someone “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Ono, in “An Artist,” or Stevens, the English butler who narrates which was awarded the 1989 Booker Prize, are men who have ever but slenderly known themselves. Only late in life does Stevens recognize the mess he has made of things, freezing out the woman he loves and throwing away his best years — the period between the two world wars — in service to a Nazi-sympathizing master.
Ishiguro was laden with prizes long before the call from Stockholm came through, but acclaim has never stopped him from asking the questions that troubled him on the march in 1983: What if I’m wrong? What if I’m making a terrible mistake? On the evening of Dec. 7, 2017, he confessed to the audience who gathered to hear his Nobel lecture that he’d begun to wonder whether he’d built his house of fiction on sand. “I woke up recently to the realization I’d been living for some years in a bubble,” he said from behind the gilt-inlaid lectern. “I realized that my world — a civilized, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people — was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined.” The raucous discontent that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump were laying bare had forced him to acknowledge a disturbing reality. “The unstoppable advance of liberal-humanist values I’d taken for granted since childhood,” he said, “may have been an illusion.”
Ishiguro’s new book, “Klara and the Sun,” his first since the Nobel, picks up more or less where his acceptance speech left off. The novel is set in a near-future America, where the social divisions of the present have only widened and liberal-humanist values appear to be in terminal retreat. Appropriately enough, our window onto this world is not a human being but an animatronic robot powered by artificial intelligence. Its name is Klara — or should that be “her” name? On this choice of pronoun hinges the moral burden of Ishiguro’s tale. The book addresses itself to an urgent but neglected set of questions arising from a paradigm shift in human self-conception. If it one day becomes possible to replicate consciousness in a machine, will it still make sense to speak of an irreducible self, or will our ideas about our own exceptionalism go the way of the transistor radio?
Unlike his ill-at-ease narrators, Ishiguro is a droll, self-deprecating presence, secure in his gift and the uses he has put it to. “If it wasn’t for my screenplay, I think it would have been a pretty good film,” he told me recently. He was speaking of an all-around flop on which he joined forces with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. (The duo had better luck with a nominee for Best Picture at the 1994 Academy Awards.) Perhaps modesty comes easier when everyone is telling you how remarkable you are — he seems to average around a prize a year — but there is something about Ishiguro, a sort of twinkling poise, that makes you feel that he would be the way he is in any simulation of his life. “He’s very at peace with himself,” Robert McCrum, a longtime friend and former editor, said. “There’s no darkness in him. Or if there is, I haven’t seen it.”
As a man is, so he writes, and Ishiguro’s sentences have nothing to prove. In the hands of some of his contemporaries — Martin Amis, say, or Salman Rushdie — the novel can sometimes feel like a vehicle for talent; high-burnish prose comes at the reader in a blaze of virtuosity, but the aesthetic whole isn’t always equal to the sum of its parts. Ishiguro, a practitioner of self-effacing craft, takes a contrary approach. At first glance, his books can appear ordinary. “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” is the far from dazzling first sentence of “The Remains of the Day.” The real action happens between the lines, or behind them, as when Stevens justifies his taste for sentimental romance novels on the grounds that they provide “an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one’s command of the English language.” That they might also provide a dose of wish-fulfillment to a disconsolate, middle-aged bachelor is something we are left to infer for ourselves. It is not for nothing that Ishiguro has named Charlotte Brontë as the novelist who has influenced him most. From “Jane Eyre,” he learned how to write first-person narrators who hide their feelings from themselves but are transparent to other people. Rereading the book a few years ago, he kept coming across episodes and thinking, Oh, my goodness, I just ripped that off!
Ishiguro’s latest novel continues this tradition of beneficent theft. Klara, an A.F., or Artificial Friend, is a sort of mechanical governess in search of a post. We first meet her (we’ll go with “her” for now) in a storefront window, where she is desperately hoping to catch the eye of a would-be owner. Meanwhile she has to content herself with the spectacle of street life, and one pleasure of the book’s opening section comes from watching Klara’s newly awakened synthetic consciousness expand in real time. First she gets to grips with things like physical space, color and light (A.F.’s run on solar power), but before long she is wrapping her head around more abstruse realities, like the rigid caste system that defines the society of which she is at once a product and a witness.
“It feels more fragile today than it ever has done in the time since I’ve been conscious,” Ishiguro said of liberal democracy. He was speaking to me over Zoom from his home in Golders Green in North London. From where I sat, in Los Angeles, liberal democracy didn’t look too sturdy either. It was mid-November, two weeks after the presidential election had finally been called for Joe Biden, but Donald Trump and his supporters continued to resist this reality.
In his late teens and early 20s, when he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, Ishiguro had shoulder-length hair and a bandit-style mustache and went around in torn jeans and colorful shirts. These days the facial hair and flowing locks are gone, and he dresses exclusively in black. (“He hates shopping, but he wants to look cool, so at one point he just bought a thousand black T-shirts,” his daughter, Naomi, told me.) He didn’t look uncool this evening, hunched in front of the monitor in his sable shirt and rimless glasses. To his right was a bookshelf lined with Penguin Classics, to his left (as he obligingly revealed when I asked him for a brief tour), a spare bed crowded with stuffed animals.
Ishiguro likes to compare his generation, born at the start of the postwar era, to Buster Keaton’s character in “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” who, in the famous scene, is standing in front of a house when its facade collapses on top of him. He’s saved by an open upstairs window, which falls clean over his oblivious figure. “We don’t realize what a narrow miss we had,” Ishiguro said in his measured, unemphatic voice. “If we’d been born just a little bit earlier we would have gone through the war, the Holocaust — all that savagery.” Instead they inherited a world of unparalleled material comfort and reached maturity at the zenith of the sexual revolution. “For my daughter’s generation, I don’t feel things are so secure,” he said. “In the West, since the end of the Cold War, we’ve allowed massive inequalities to develop, which are leading substantial numbers of people to think, Well, maybe this isn’t for us.”
Another facet of the story, as Ishiguro sees it, is the rise of ever more sophisticated technology. In “Klara,” the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence has created a permanently jobless class, which in turn has led to mass unrest and top-down repression. Most contemporary A.I. stories, even very good ones, like Alex Garland’s or play on the age-old fear that a slave class of robots will rise up and overthrow their human masters. Ishiguro’s vision is at once more pragmatic and more bleak. Klara and her kind don’t revolt; they simply allow governments and corporations to control people more efficiently.
On a philosophical plain, artificial intelligence is also putting pressure on traditional notions of human singularity. As one character in “Klara” phrases it, the idea that “there’s something unreachable inside each of us” that makes us who we are is an illusion: Human beings are simply the sum total of a series of biochemical processes. “One of the assumptions we have in liberal democracies is that human beings are intrinsically of value, that they have a value that is not conditional on what they can contribute to the larger society or to the economy or to some sort of common project,” Ishiguro said. “If it starts to look like we can be reduced to the point where we’re just a bunch of algorithms, I think that seriously erodes the idea that each person is unique and therefore worthy of respect and care regardless of what they can or can’t contribute to our joint enterprise.”
Of course, Ishiguro is a novelist, not a philosopher, and the power of his book derives from its ability to make palpable the human stakes of such abstract propositions. These stakes begin to emerge when Klara is picked out from among the other A.F.’s at the store by a young teenager named Josie, who is suffering from an obscure illness. At first, Josie’s family, rather like the reader, is unsure how to relate to Klara: She seems to them something in between an au pair and a household appliance. Ishiguro wrings plenty of pathos from these conflicting attitudes. One moment, much to Klara’s delight, Josie is confiding in her A.F. as though she were a sibling; the next, she’s brusquely ordering her to leave the room. For long stretches, Klara simply stands uncomplainingly in a corner, waiting until she can be of service.
Great stylists, like Amis, reinvigorate our perception of the physical world by defamiliarizing it, describing, for example, the steam that rises from the grates in New York City sidewalks as “meat-eating genies of subway breath.” Ishiguro does both less and more: Using fairly simple sentences, he defamiliarizes the human condition. Time and again in his work, what looks like the face of an alien creature contorted with pain turns out to be a mirror. (2005), which the critic James Wood has described as “one of the central novels of our age,” is narrated by a clone named Kathy H. As a young person, Kathy attended a prestigious English boarding school called Hailsham, where she and others like her were given a solid education in the liberal arts while also being gradually apprised of their true social role: to serve as organ donors for the noncloned population. This involuntary process begins shortly after graduation and ends only when the donors “complete” (i.e., die), which usually occurs sometime in their early 30s.
Kathy knows what’s coming, and yet she tells her story, and seems to accept her fate, without self-pity or alarm. There is almost a quality of stoic good humor to the way she describes it all, as though state-sanctioned organ theft were just another one of life’s minor irritations, like tax returns or parking tickets. “Why aren’t they screaming?” the reader wonders of these death-camp inmates. Their situation seems nightmarish, a sadistically abbreviated travesty of life — until we realize it differs from our own only in the particulars. Sooner or later we are all going to the inevitable.
As a narrator, Klara functions in much the same way. Josie’s growing emotional investment in her new A.F. mirrors that of the reader, and as the book wears on, the cleft between “it” and “she” begins to narrow. Whether it can, or ever should, be closed altogether is a question left provocatively open, and yet there is no mistaking the similarities between Klara’s experience — that of someone performing onerous affective labor in an ever more precarious job market — and our own. “You can get the reader with their defenses down,” Ishiguro said of his preference for seemingly outré narrators, “so that suddenly they realize this person they’ve been reading about isn’t so alien. I want them to realize: ‘This is us. This is me.’”
Like “Guernica” or “Chernobyl,” the word “Nagasaki” has come to stand less for the name of an actual place than a totemic feat of human destruction. For the young Ishiguro, however, it was simply his hometown. By the time he was born there, in 1954, the city had been largely rebuilt, and no one talked about the war. He spent his early years in a three-generation home with tatami mats and shoji paper doors, the kind of place the director Yasujiro Ozu was already using in his films to symbolize a disappearing way of life. There was no washing machine and no TV. To watch his favorite program, “The Lone Ranger,” Ishiguro had to go to his friend’s house next door.
Ishiguro’s father, Shizuo, was an oceanographer whose work on storm surges caught the interest of the British government. In 1960, he moved his young family to Guildford, a small market town an hour’s drive from London, to take up a short-term research job. Like Nagasaki, Guildford was a place of long-established custom. The narrow winding lanes were often clogged with cows; milk was still delivered by horse and cart. When the Ishiguros arrived, at Eastertime, they were struck by the gruesome images they kept seeing around town: a man nailed to a cross with blood spilling from his sides. Everyone there was white, and even continental Europeans were a rarity, and yet the new arrivals were warmly received. Ishiguro picked up the language quickly, and at school he learned to turn his foreignness to his advantage, putting it about, for instance, that he was an expert in judo. He also started going to church, where he became the head choir boy. His family believed it was important to respect local ways, however odd they might appear.
The move to England was only ever supposed to be temporary, and yet each year funding for Shizuo’s research would be extended and the return to Japan postponed. Growing up between two cultures, Ish, as everyone now called him, absorbed his immediate surroundings with an almost ethnographic detachment while simultaneously constructing a myth-laden image of the faraway homeland he left when he was 5. From his mother, Shizuko, a former schoolteacher, came haunting images of life during wartime: a man whose skin had been entirely burned off by the atomic blast being kept alive inside a tub of water; a cow’s head, the rest of its body nowhere in sight, glimpsed from the window of a passing train. The parcels of comics and books that arrived regularly from his grandparents painted a more appealing picture of the country. To be Japanese was for Ishiguro a private source of confidence, but the more firmly rooted in England he grew, the harder it got to imagine going back. It came as a relief, when, in the late 1960s, his parents decided to stay for good.
Unlike many future novelists, Ishiguro didn’t spend his teenage years inhaling the canon. He spent them listening to music and making music of his own. In 1968, he bought his first Bob Dylan album, “John Wesley Harding,” and worked backward from there. He and his friends would sit around for hours nodding along to Dylan’s obscure lyrics as though they understood every word. It was like a microcosm of adolescence, he told me, pretending to know while knowing nothing. Ishiguro wasn’t just bluffing, though. From Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, he learned about the possibilities of the first-person: how a character could be summoned into being with just a few words.
Ishiguro’s daughter, Naomi, who is about to publish her first novel, “Common Ground,” told me that she doesn’t recognize her father in any of his characters. Then she corrected herself: Ono’s impish grandson in “An Artist of the Floating World,” whose obsession with “Popeye” and “The Lone Ranger” is an index of nascent American cultural hegemony, was probably a version of Ishiguro at the same age. Here the likenesses ceased, however. “Some people have their art blender turned down very low, so you can see where everything came from, and some people have it turned up very high, so you have no idea,” Naomi said, borrowing a concept from the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. Ishiguro’s art blender is turned up to 10. Like Colson Whitehead or Hilary Mantel, he has found it easier to be revealing about people who are dissimilar to himself.
It’s nonetheless tempting to draw a connection between Ishiguro’s piecemeal experience of immigration as a child and the outsider narrators he would later dream up. Stevens, in “The Remains of the Day,” is the consummate English butler, but as his new American boss points out, he has spent so long confined to stately houses that he has hardly had the chance to really see England. On the road trip he takes through the West Country at his employer’s suggestion, he is like a hapless foreign tourist, getting lost, running out of gas and poignantly failing to understand the natives. In fact, it’s not so much the English who baffle Stevens as human beings in general. Watching the sunset from a seaside pier at the end of the book, he observes with interest a group of people that has gathered nearby:
I naturally assumed at first that they were a group of friends out together for the evening. But as I listened to their exchanges, it became apparent they were strangers who had just happened upon one another here on this spot behind me. Evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on, and then proceeded to fall into conversation with one another. As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly.
Like Klara gazing at the crowds from the storefront window, Stevens might be watching the Aurora Borealis, such is his amazement at the sight of this commonplace event.
Before studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro hitchhiked around America and worked a series of jobs back home, including as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Starting a mile or so behind the trenches, or butts, where the Queen Mother and her guests sat waiting with their guns, the beaters would trudge through the moorland heather, driving the birds forward into shooting range. At the end of the season there was a drinks party for the beaters hosted by Her Majesty. Ishiguro was struck by her graciousness, especially the manner by which she let them know it was time to leave: Despite the late hour, she didn’t turn the lights on. “Oh, it’s getting very dark,” she murmured as the sun began to set, before inviting her guests to inspect a series of paintings, which just happened to line the corridor to the exit.
If the experience offered him a useful glimpse behind the scenes of a grand old country house, the job he took after graduating, at an organization in West London that helped homeless people find housing, taught him something about life at the other end of the social spectrum. While he was working there, he met Lorna MacDougall, a social worker from Glasgow whom he would later marry. MacDougall is Ishiguro’s first and most important reader, and her comments can be unsparing. After reading the first 80 pages of his previous novel, “The Buried Giant” (2015), a historical fantasy set in Dark Ages Britain, she told him that the ornate dialogue simply wasn’t working and that he needed to start again. Ishiguro did as she suggested.
He has always been receptive to feedback. In 1979, Ishiguro applied and was accepted to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. One of his oldest friends, Jim Green, who was getting a master’s degree in literature, remembers Ishiguro’s response to the weekly reading for a seminar on the 19th-century novel. “What struck me was the way in which he would talk about Stendhal or Dickens or Eliot or Balzac as though they were fellow craftsmen,” Green said. “There was no hint of hubris or grandiosity, but he treated them like they were colleagues of his from the creative-writing course who were showing him their work. It was: ‘Ah, OK, that’s why that’s happened, this is how this is done. Hmm, not sure that bit works.’”
Ishiguro’s first novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” which he began at the University of East Anglia, is largely set in a Japan of the mind, an imaginary counterfeit of the place he left when he was 5 and had never yet returned to. Like almost everything he would go on to write, it is a monologue of anxious self-justification in which the speaker keeps claiming she feels no need to justify herself. Etsuko is a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England whose daughter has recently committed suicide. At the start, the reader is primed to expect some kind of reckoning over this tragedy; instead, Etsuko proceeds to talk about a woman she knew many years ago in Nagasaki and that woman’s obstreperous daughter. Only gradually do we come to suspect an act of narrative transference is taking place, that Etsuko, numbed by grief, is displacing her unmanageable feelings about her own daughter onto these figures from her past. It is the kind of novel that might have earned the label “experimental” were it not for the fact that the experiment is so clearly a success. The book was published to general acclaim in 1982 when Ishiguro was still only 27. The following spring, Granta magazine named him on its list of Best Young British Novelists, along with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. The recognition from Granta made him bold; he decided to quit his job and devote himself full time to literature.
Ishiguro is not the kind of writer who takes dictation from his characters. He has never been able to sit down at his desk and improvise, to launch into a novel from a standing start. He is a planner, patient and meticulous. Before he begins the writing proper, he will spend years in a sort of open-ended conversation with himself, jotting down ideas about tone, setting, point of view, motivation, the ins and outs of the world he is trying to build. “Kathy’s self-deception isn’t about what happened in the past (like Ono, Stevens, etc.), it’s about what’s going to happen,” he wrote in one of his notebooks for “Never Let Me Go” in early 2001, clarifying for himself the psychological profile of his narrator. “Is it better not to have them in a prisonlike environment?” he wondered of the clones a couple days later. “Should they live in a wider community? Is there some other way in which they’re contained, tagged and made to fulfill their duties? Maybe not: a prison they don’t realize is a prison is the best.”
Only once he has drawn up detailed blueprints for the entire novel does he set about the business of composing actual sentences and paragraphs. In this, too, he follows a set of carefully honed procedures. First, writing very quickly and without pausing to make revisions, he’ll draft a chapter in longhand. He then reads it through, dividing the text into numbered sections. On a new sheet of paper he now produces a sort of map of what he has just written, summarizing in short bullet points each of the numbered sections from the draft. The idea is to understand what the different sections are doing, how they relate to one another and whether they require adjustment or elaboration. Working from this sheet, he then produces a flow chart, which in turn serves as the basis for a second, more painstaking and deliberate draft. When this is finished to his satisfaction he finally types it up. Then he moves on to the next chapter and the process starts again.
By his own account, Ishiguro’s relationship to work is decidedly nonobsessive. Some writers do and think of little else; he can go for years at a time without writing anything, and it doesn’t gnaw away at him. “Klara and the Sun” is only his eighth novel. For comparison, the figures for his near-contemporaries on the Granta list, Rushdie, Amis and McEwan, are 12, 15 and 16. When he’s between projects, he’s content to pass the days lunching with friends or playing his guitar. (Since the mid-2000s he has been writing lyrics for the celebrated American jazz singer Stacey Kent.)
“You probably work harder at your job than I do,” Ishiguro said one evening in early December. He was sitting at a desk on the landing of his second home, a 17th-century limestone cottage in rural Gloucestershire, where he and MacDougall often spend weekends. During the pandemic, they had fallen into a postprandial routine. Sitting at the kitchen table, MacDougall would read aloud from an anthology of classic British crime stories, “Serpents in Eden,” while Ishiguro paced the dining area, as he put it, “like a caged cat.” “What distinguishes the detectives,” Ishiguro, who wore a black hoodie over a black T-shirt, said, “is that they have this weird, arcane knowledge of things like old English tapestries or Greek myths or something like that. And often that’s what allows them to crack the code.”
Speaking of his comparatively small output, Ishiguro said: “I don’t have any regrets about it. In some ways, I suppose, I’m just not that dedicated to my vocation. I expect it’s because writing wasn’t my first choice of profession. It’s almost something I fell back on because I couldn’t make it as a singer-songwriter. It’s not something I’ve wanted to do every minute of my life. It’s what I was permitted to do. So, you know, I do it when I really want to do it, but otherwise I don’t.”
When he does want to do it, he is capable of going flat out. He produced a first draft of “The Remains of the Day” in a four-week “crash,” during which he wrote from morning until night, stopping only for meals. The practice served him well at the time — he and MacDougall needed the money a new advance would bring — but Ishiguro’s crashing days are now firmly behind him. He has grown suspicious of the modern office and its imperative to be constantly on call. “The way our capitalist society is organized, it accommodates the workplace as a kind of alibi,” he said. “If you’re trying to avoid difficult areas in your emotional life, you can just say, ‘Sorry, I’ve got too much work on right now.’ We’re invited to disappear into our professional commitments.”
Ishiguro came of age as a writer in the early 1980s, when market fundamentalism was sweeping Britain and the West, a development that caught him entirely off guard. “I never wanted revolution,” he said of his younger self. “But I did believe we could progress towards a more socialist world, a more generous welfare state. I went a long way into my adult life believing that was the consensus. When I was 24 or 25, I realized that Britain had taken a very different turn with the coming of Margaret Thatcher.” Although his books never explicitly address Thatcher’s neoliberal project, they reflect its dismaying human consequences. For Ishiguro’s characters, not working is not an option, or even a proclivity. Stevens is so devoted to his duty as a butler that he leaves his father’s deathbed in order to go wait on the guests downstairs. Klara, a sort of Stevens 2.0, doesn’t need to sleep or eat and lacks even the semblance of a private life.
When Ishiguro told the audience at his Nobel lecture that he’d always taken the unstoppable advance of humanist values for granted, he may have been exercising a certain degree of modesty. In fact, the defects of our current liberal order, and the selective blindness of its beneficiaries, come under scrutiny in his work. In “Never Let Me Go,” the clones hold up a mirror to the reader (like them, we are all dead in the long run), but so, too, do the noncloned characters, the ordinary human beings who accept with equanimity the wholesale slaughter of their fabricated counterparts. How could this be? At one time, we learn, there was a public outcry after news of the appalling conditions in which clones were reared got out, but because no one was willing to return to a world without an endless supply of organs — a world where cancer and heart disease remained incurable — discussions of systemic change came to nothing. Instead Hailsham, the progressive boarding school, was founded, an incremental half measure that allowed people to ventilate their guilt without substantially changing the status quo. Clones would still be bred for death, but a few of them were now given the chance to read poetry and make art in a pleasant rural setting before the time came to go under the knife.
You don’t have to be a Marxist revolutionary to see the parallels between Ishiguro’s novel and our own socio-economic dispensation. Over the past year, an army of underpaid workers in retail, health care and other industries, many of them living paycheck to paycheck, have faced a daily choice between putting food on the table and exposing themselves to a deadly virus. In “Never Let Me Go,” the clones are euphemistically referred to as “donors,” a word that obscures, to clones and humans alike, the involuntary nature of their situation. In the United States, the terms “essential worker” and “frontline hero” perform a similar function. The nation’s billionaires, meanwhile, have collectively grown $1.1 trillion, or nearly 40 percent, richer than they were last March. Of course, the pandemic didn’t “reveal” the essential cruelty of the American system, as some have claimed: For anyone who chose to see it, the cruelty has been clear all along. Whether the high-visibility injustice of our current moment will be met with transformative change or the same old incremental half measures remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most chillingly resonant aspect of “Never Let Me Go” is the absence of solidarity among the clones. Despite the collective nature of their suffering, they can imagine only individual forms of resistance. They don’t strike, or revolt, or even try to run away. They simply pin their hopes on a rumor that “deferrals” may be granted to a select few, namely couples who can demonstrate that they are truly in love. In a powerful essay on the book, the American philosopher Nancy Fraser credits Ishiguro with exposing the “double-edged sword” of individualism. Educated in the liberal arts, the Hailsham clones have come to think of themselves as unique and irreplaceable beings, which Fraser calls “the mark of personhood and intrinsic value.” Outside Hailsham, they are valued only as a source of spare body parts, a reality their schooling leaves them ill prepared to manage. Fraser sees the same process at work in our own society. “It is as ‘individuals’ that we are exhorted to assume responsibility over our own lives, encouraged to fulfill our deepest longings by purchasing and owning commodities, and steered away from collective action toward ‘personal solutions’ — invited to seek deferrals for our own precious, irreplaceable selves.”
“Klara and the Sun” isn’t Ishiguro’s finest novel (it has third-act problems, and Josie and her family are curiously underdrawn), but it provides a vision of where we are headed if we fail to move beyond this constraining view of freedom. What’s most unsettling about the future it imagines isn’t that machines like Klara are coming more and more to resemble human beings; it’s that human beings are coming more and more to resemble machines. As we slowly discover (and those wishing to avoid spoilers should now skip to the start of the next paragraph), the cause of Josie’s mysterious illness is a gene-editing surgery to enhance her intellectual faculties. The procedure carries high risks as well as potential high rewards — the main one being membership in a professional superelite. Those who forego or simply can’t afford it are essentially consigning themselves to economic serfdom.
The plasticity of human beings has been of pressing concern to novelists for hundreds of years. Ishiguro told me that he has always envied 19th-century writers like Dostoyevsky who were working at a time when age-old religious beliefs were being called into question by the rise of evolutionary theory. In that moment, he said, it seemed only natural to ask what in recent times may have come to sound like portentous questions: Does the human soul exist? And if it doesn’t, how does that affect our understanding of what human life is for?
“I grew up in an era when you didn’t really ask questions like that,” Ishiguro said, “but it seems to me that these huge breakthroughs in science and technology are forcing us to go back to them and to ask, ‘What exactly is an individual?’”
It’s a question Ishiguro has been asking, in his own way, ever since he first began to write. To judge by the wretched and the meek who fill his books, it may seem as though he takes a dim view of humankind. “We’re modeled from trash,” Kathy’s friend Ruth says in “Never Let Me Go,” during an argument about “possibles,” the real people who may have served as models for the clones. “If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in the rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that’s where you’ll find where we all came from.” Certainly that is where most of Ishiguro’s beings, human and otherwise, end up, once society has taken from them all that it can use.
It is curious, then, that we should come away from his books not with a sense of the cheapness and futility of life but something like the opposite. In “Never Let Me Go,” Kathy works as a “carer,” someone who looks after fellow clones once they’ve begun to donate. Her patients include her old school friends Ruth and Tommy, who used to be a couple. Kathy and Tommy have been drawn to each other ever since they were children, but circumstances have always kept them apart. Now, late in the novel, they finally get together and are briefly happy. Believing themselves to be eligible for a deferral, they track down one of their old teachers to ask for one, only to be told deferrals are a myth. Soon Tommy dies and Kathy gets word that the time has come for her to start her own donations.
Though she cherishes her memories of her old friends, Kathy says she doesn’t dwell on them. “The only indulgent thing I did, just once, was a couple of weeks after I heard Tommy had completed, when I drove up to Norfolk,” a place the three of them once visited. On a quiet country road, she notices a barbed-wire fence and a group of trees at the edge of a field. They are filled with trash. “It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire.” The sight recalls Ruth’s words from earlier in the book (“We’re modeled from trash”), but Kathy’s thoughts on what she sees, a muted elegy for the overlooked and discarded, provide a defiant counterpoint:
That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing. … I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call.
“I feel it’s an optimistic vision of human nature,” Ishiguro said of “Never Let Me Go” during a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s “Bookclub” program. Love and friendship may not survive death, but they grow stronger and deeper right up until the end. As he saw it, this tenderness, and not the exploitation that the clones endure, is the moral center of the novel.
What exactly is an individual? For one thing, we are all works in progress, apt to make mistakes both large and small. Technology holds out the promise of human perfectibility, but, as far as Ishiguro is concerned, it is a promise we must resist. Our mistakes are the portals of discovery.
Ishiguro has known nothing but success almost from the moment he began writing. The last time I spoke to him, in mid-January, I wondered out loud what the major disappointments of his extraordinary career might have been.
“They’re like parallel lives,” he said, distinguishing between his public self, who gives interviews and wins awards, and the private one, who spends day after day in his study, trying to will imaginary worlds into being. “Most of the time, after I finish a book, I’m left with the feeling that I didn’t quite get down what I wanted to. And possibly that’s what’s kept me going. I always feel an urgency to get back to my desk. Because I don’t ever feel I’ve written the thing I wanted to write.”
As we discussed the subject of artistic failure and frustration, his train of thought led him to an old memory. In the summer after they graduated from high school, he and a group of musician friends spent several weeks at a chalet near Loch Fyne, on the west coast of Scotland. They’d brought their instruments and a portable cassette player and would pass the days and nights recording songs. Ishiguro had long had an idea for an arrangement of a song he always loved, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell. “I really cajoled my friends and made a complete pain of myself, telling them to do this and do that,” he recalled. “One of us, not me, happened to be a superb guitar player, and one of us was a very gifted singer, and it all sort of just happened.” The song turned out almost exactly as he’d envisaged it.
“This thing that I had in my head, in the abstract, had come to life, and it was there,” he continued, narrowing his gaze and lowering his voice. “It was very, very close to the way I had always wanted it to be. I remember being on a kind of weird high.” Ishiguro laughed softly to himself, emerging from his memory of the long-ago summer. “I thought at that point these kinds of moments would come often, but looking back, I haven’t had that feeling again.”
Giles Harvey is a contributing writer for the magazine. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Jack Davison is a British photographer known for his black-and-white portraiture. He last photographed the two remaining northern white rhinos in the world for the magazine.