After reading Ishiguro’s fantastic Remains Of The Day (and posting this) I immediately moved on to Never Let Me Go. Admittedly I found the book a touch disappointing at first because one aspect of it pushed me back into a too critical distance. It was a distance that never quite allowed me to fall in love with the characters in the same way I did with Mr Stevens in Remains of the Day. My gripe was that the protagonist’s voice felt a touch too instructive at times. The vague, Sebaldian, meanderings of memory through time were, as I say, looking back now, and thinking about it after all this time, a touch too author’s handy and unconvincing – or so it seemed, back then. I feel that tone suited Mr Stevens (the narrator of Remains of the Day) so much better than Kathy H (the narrator of Never Let Me Go). However, the concepts, themes and questions raised by the story are fascinating and so it is these that I will focus on here.
The story is about an alternative 90’s England that has found a solution to all disease. It is cloning, and rearing, whole human beings so that their organs can be harvested at adulthood. The protagonist, Kathy H, is one of these clones and tells the story about how she grew up at a school called Hailsham, moved away, and became a carer for her fellow friends who ‘donate’ their organs like she, too, will do so one day. It is the story of a love triangle intensified under the inevitability of death. It is also a coming of age story, Kathy H, moves from the idyllic Hailsham into the wider world, and as she tells the story, soaked with hindsight and nostalgia, the reader is led through the distinctly fateful lives of her friends (Ruth and Tommy). The major themes of the book, death, love, memory and class, are quite universal concepts that many can relate to. I would like to take a few of these and, alongside some specific examples, frame them in a particularly psychoanalytical way.
To begin with I must outline some telling terminology. To ‘complete’ is to die after too many organs have been ‘donated’. To ‘defer’ is to suspend the inevitability of having to ‘donate’. All three of these terms point towards a meta-inevitability controlled by a social world. It is a world where things are determined right from the start. Even before birth, the major contributions one can make to society (‘donations’), most fantastic dreams (‘deferral’) and form of end/death (‘completion’) are pre-determined to fall within the temporal and physical, and political structures allotted. All three of these terms allude to a crushing inevitability. The three main characters of the love triangle all talk about these things, and once again, it is the devastating truth cloaked in plain sight on every page. I will outline the three inevitable terms now. First, to die at the hands of a surgeon harvesting your organs for an upper class is called ‘completion’ – one is only completed, made whole or defined, by ‘completion’. It is a ‘completion’ enforced by the state apparatus. Or, to put it another way, one’s very identity being granted, in political terms (language) is contingent to the state’s utter destruction of one’s mind and body. Secondly, ‘Donation’ reveals that the ‘donor’ will always choose to ‘donate’ – as if allowing one’s liver to be taken will, if not at present, always come to be something one would accept, grant and go along with – maybe even come to hope for. And why not if it defines the ‘donor’s’ existence by rendering them ‘complete’. Thirdly, ‘deferral’ is most telling, because to defer - to post-pone, hold off, exempt temporarily - is not to stop the inevitable ‘donation’ or ‘completion’: it is just pushing them away from the present into future. ‘Deferral’ does nothing to the inevitability of ‘donation’, ‘deferral’ is by no means a cancellation, it merely puts the bloody ‘donation’ on ice, for the time being.
Water, tides, rivers, currents and flows are a subtle theme in the book. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy live through a social and political current, but the real force, as strong and inevitable as the tide, is the fate allotted to them by society: donation and completion. Tommy in particular speaks of rivers, tides and unseen forces:
“’I suppose you’re right, Kath. You are a really good carer. You’d be the perfect one for me too if you weren’t you.’ He did a laugh and put his arm round me, though we kept sitting side by side. Then he said: ‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.277)
“’You know, Kath, when I used to play football back at Hailsham. I had this secret thing I did. When I scored a goal, I’d run around like this’ – he raised both his arms in triumph – ‘and I’d run back to my mates. I never went mad or anything, just ran back with my arms up, like this.’ He paused for a moment, his arms still in the air. Then he lowered them and smiled. ‘In my head, Kath, when I was running back, I always imagined I was splashing through water. Nothing deep, just up to the ankles at most. That’s what I used to imagine, every time. Splash, splash, splash.’ He looked at me and did a little laugh. ‘All this time I never told a single soul.’ (Ishiguro, 2005, pp.279-280)
The first instance can obviously be read as a, perhaps, slightly saccharine metaphor for the impossibility of their love surviving. But it can also be read in light of their fates: ‘donations’ and ‘completions’. These are the currents that their love cannot survive – their love cannot survive their separate fates because one will, inevitably, ‘complete’ leaving the other. The second instance I’ve quoted above is slightly more curious. Tommy’s imaginary splashing is a metaphor for how the fates and forces that will shape their lives were there all along, even in the halcyon days of football on the Hailsham School playing field, when they were children, that force was always present. But the fates and forces, the tide and currents that rip Ruth, Tommy and Kathy apart are dynamic. Dynamic in that the force of an inevitable fate, of being expendable, being spare bodies for an upper class, is cemented and born in their deepest imagination as much as in any stuffy assembly or dusty classroom. The deep, thoughts of the Hailsham students, their imaginations, are absolutely necessary for creating and maintaining their ideological incarceration. They are not responsible, but their unconscious drives and fantastic subjectivities are vital machinations for the proliferation of an exploited and infinitely expendable stratum of society.
Hailsham was a crucible of imagination. The caricatured idealogical state apparatus of Hailsham, with its hazy meadows, red brick and draughty, creaking, hallways first and foremost task was to insist on imagination. The children were urged to draw, paint, write poems etc. These efforts of creativity were submitted to an unseen gallery, the Big Other… The first third of the book, set during the three character’s childhood days at Hailsham, relentlessly insists on how much creativity was pursued. Indeed, at first this seems to be heavenly and privileged, perhaps some sort of consolation for the terrible fate that is slowly revealed in this section. Imagination is of such importance to the Hailsham ideology that it is even reflected in the cliques and spiteful power struggles of the children. Ruth, is aggressively imaginative. She schemes and lies her ways into dominance. Kathy, being more realistic than Ruth, often point’s out reality to Ruth (the truth behind the lies or fantasies of play), but soon learns to play along with Ruth’s fantasies for fear of social exclusion.
But it is Tommy that best exemplifies the sheer necessity of imagination. At Hailsham Tommy’s peers play a series of tricks on him. The bullying starts because he is bad at art. The tricks and pranks all take a particular format. A fib is posed, or a lie is posited, or Tommy guesses something incorrectly or suggests something that is, unknowingly, false – and the children all play along. They all contribute to egging the fantasy on or playing along with it. Everyone is in on it, everyone knows, apart from Tommy. Until, of course, he finds out, and, realising that he has been at the centre of a longstanding and sustained conspiracy against him, he flies into ‘one of his rages’ and 'goes bonkers'. This cruelty effectively strips Tommy of any foothold on a cozily secure subjectivity, he is denied his world, disillusioned over and over again. His language of life is shattered, time and time again, he is reduced, in his rages to a pre-language, pre-social being – he moves his limbs uncontrollably, he becomes unaware of the presence of others, he is unable to speak and gibbers and shouts nonsense. But the most profound upset to Tommy’s subjectivity, his language and imagination comes from a teacher who does not subscribe to the Hailsham methodology. Of course this teacher, Miss Lucy, as a result of differing from the methodology of the ideological state apparatus, soon disappears. So, what did she say to Tommy? She said to Tommy that he had been taught but not taught about his future and that creativity, the pictures and poems, didn’t matter. (See Ishiguro, 2005, p.30) As Tommy recounts this instance to Kathy they both speculate about the connection of creativity to their futures. What does art have to do with ‘donating’? Imagination, in Never Let Me Go, is a stand in for the building of a subjectivity – taking grains of inspiration from the outside world, a sunset, a flower, and constructing a secure haven of denial from it. Hailsham plays out the Lacanian model of subject creation. But Tommy, being hopeless at art, being unimaginative, does not take the task up, not quite fully; he always seems half present. Tommy never becomes a vivid person, not like Ruth and Kathy, instead for the majority of the book he resembles a prisoner worn down by some inner weight – trapped and burdened by the suffocating incarceration of the big wide world. Tommy almost seems bereft of his own desires and fears, he is washed along by Ruth for the most part.
Years later Tommy falls into a cruel disillusionment that triggers ‘one of his rages’. It is telling that, in the brief period of his active imagineering (based on a hope and myth) he becomes a more definitive character than previously. Ruth, in her last play of creativity and make believe, supplies Kathy and Tommy with the address of Madam so that they can go there and ask for a ‘deferral’. Tommy places all his hopes on ‘deferring’ - it sparks a renewed creativity in him. He spends his days drawing mechanical animals, going for walks, and making love to Kathy. The myth of ‘deferral’ is that the pictures from their days at Hailsham went to The Gallery as evidence of their souls. This evidence was required for determining if couples are truly in love. If they are truly in love then a ‘deferral’ could be granted. When Tommy and Kathy eventually arrive at Madam’s house they are told, in no uncertain terms that this was a myth, a rumour with no basis. Tommy’s reaction to the disillusionment erupts as Kathy drives him back to the ‘donor’ centre where he stays. He leaves the car and makes his was into a field where his rage erupts. His limbs flail about and he screams and screams. The first scream is so dramatic that Kathy does not even recognise it as Tommy’s. (Ishiguro, 2005, p.268) Kathy, looking through the darkness of the countryside, soon finds him raging. His rage is so severe his loses all verbal coherence, he screams and screams - Kathy remarks how “jumbled up swear-words continued to erupt” and his face was “caked in mud and distorted with fury” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.269). This final disillusionment of Tommy renders him de-subjected in many ways, his voice doesn’t sound like his, he loses his capacity for language, his appearance shifts, he loses bodily control, his face becomes unrecognisable, distorted with fury and masked with mud. After this episode Tommy returns to his shadowy and vague self, less vibrant, more like Tommy in many ways, the Tommy that was debilitated by being aware of an unseen force, a current, an unspoken fate. It is as they drive home after the incident that Tommy’s ‘going bonkers’ is attributed to him knowing the truth, something he always knew:
“’I’m sorry about just now, Kath. I really am. I’m a real idiot.’ Then he added: ‘What are you thinking Kath?’
‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. And I was just having this idea, just a thought really. I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.270)
For all the Hailsham pupils, imagination, building ones thick crust of a subjective world to such a degree that not even the horror of ‘completing’ can pierce it’s barricade, is essential. It is essential for the state that exploits them. This is why Tommy was always such a ‘bad’ student and a loner at Hailsham – he never, cultivated the correct subjectivity, he never worked on being creative or nourished his daydreaming denial. Tommy stands in stark contrast to Ruth. Ruth is the ultimate form of the Hailsham ideology, she creates worlds for herself, distractions. Ruth doesn’t want to know the truth – she is super-social, popular, eloquent, adept at creating fictions for herself and those around her, she even mimics TV shows (the object taken into the subject, and expressed as subjectivity) without consciously knowing. Tommy comments how he is glad that Ruth died oblivious to the harrowing truth:
“Just once, though, after I’d been wandering aimlessly around his room for a while, I did ask him:
‘Tommy, are you glad Ruth completed before finding out everything we did in the end?’
He was lying on the bed, and went on staring at the ceiling for a while before saying: ‘Funny, because I was thinking about the same thing the other day. What you’ve got to remember about Ruth, when it comes to things like that, she was always different to us. You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn’t like that. She always wanted to believe in things. That was Ruth. So, yeah, in a way, I think it’s best the way it happened.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.279)
The difference between Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go, in regards to subjectivities of belief, denial, and imagination, is an example of how the ideological state apparatus (Hailsham) needs our own subjectivities to achieve its ends. Hailsham is the state apparatus that provides a space for a fantasy of denial to blossom, but the denial actively serves the state, the imagination and fantasy of the Hailsham children allows the coming-quietly into genocide. Hailsham needs to produce a paradoxical imagination, ensuring that a little childhood fantasy, a little fanciful escapism, would ensnare the pupils in a world of crushing inevitability. Like class barriers today (that access to educational and vocational opportunities are spared for the upper echelons of the populace) the inevitability of utter exploitation, of harvesting a ‘bumper crop’ for the rich, is a horrific truth buried beneath seas of denial, hopes, dreams and myths. If things are to change, then we must all ‘go bonkers’. One must lose one’s self, you simply cannot take your cosy beliefs and subjectivities with you to freedom. Hailsham, may even be read as a portmanteau pertaining to the truth of its purpose and methodology. ‘Hail’: (of a large number of objects) fall or be hurled forcefully. The children are merely things to harvest, a ‘bumper crop’ – they are even told they do not have souls in the final disillusionment. + ‘Sham’: a thing that is not what it is purported to be. Never Let Me Go elaborates how effective the ideological state apparatus is. It is so good at dream formatting and subject moulding that even the wildest dreams of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are dreams of 'deferring' their prescribed fate - not changing their fate. In Never Let Me Go, the fate of having ones organs exploited and harvested to support an upper class is as inevitable and inescapable as the passage of time and the coming and going of the tides.
There is one last detail I would like to draw to attention in order to further emphasise the similarities between the alternative England in Never Let Me Go and the England of today: a sinking isle of state enforced inequalities and exploitation which actively engineers collective denial. After Hailsham the students arrive at The Cottages, a half-way house between either becoming a ‘carer’ or a ‘donor’. Here they either cling to their old life, their beliefs and myths, or they become withdrawn. The existence is austere and it is always cold. They are supposed to finish their final essays, but no one ever does because, outside of Hailsham, it pails into an insignificance. In the book, the excursions from The Cottages into the outside world hint at how the clones are second rate citizens. After a certain point, the clones can elect to become a ‘carer’. The ‘carer’ is analogous to the manager today, smoothing the process of exploitation along, yielding, perhaps one more ‘donation’ than would otherwise be gained. They do not contribute directly, but offer emotional support. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Kathy is an exemplar of the utilisation of emotional managerial strategies within ‘Caring’. Driving across the country, visiting donators, bringing gifts, using empathy to smooth the process over, increasing efficiency, productivity. She cares, she finds it tiring, but she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. She becomes emotionally invested in aiding the state to butcher it’s young for an elite class. The morbid inevitability of the states control is in her acceptance and support of the pre-determined fates of her friends and lovers. Kathy wants to be the ‘carer’ for Ruth, her best friend. Kathy also wants to be the ‘carer’ for Tommy, the love of her life. This is testament to how Hailsham, the ideological state apparatus, did a good job with Kathy’s subjectivity. She even states, in the opening pages of the book, how she is pleased at being a good ‘carer’ and considers herself ‘lucky’ to have gone to Hailsham. Kathy exemplifies our relationship to state control, repression and exploitation: it is so much a part our who we are that if we could ask one thing it would be to Never Let Me Go.
Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity.
Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005. Never Let Me Go. Faber and Faber.