Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. It seems clear by now that Ishiguro has permanently abandoned his idiosyncratic take on historical realism for stranger, and deeply rewarding, gambits. I think Louis Menand's review in The New Yorker slightly missed the pointhe sees it as eventually turning into a sci-fi dystopian novel, which for him is a problem, since that clearly isn't where its heart lies. I would say that Ishiguro is purposely using dystopian conventions as a backdrop for a quite different storyhis aim is certainly not the dystopian-novel project of showing what our society could become. (I take this to be the point of setting it in the late 1990s; the novel's world is counterfactual, not potential.) Its enormous force lies in its strategy of allowing the nightmarish social conditions to resolve very gradually out of the background while the small and familiar details of everyday life continue in the foreground, rendered with the pitch-perfect, deliberately overprecise tone that we're familiar with in Ishiguro. Though the characters' fates come to seem inhuman to us, they themselves discuss their destinies exactly as we discuss the inescapable tragedies of our livesfalling out of love, old age, deathwithout any sense of an alternative being possible. The novel thus delivers the truly terrifying news of how easily the monstrous can come to see mundane, how monstrous our own lives might look from a different vantage point.
Ishiguro's prior books, both the slim historical-realist volumes and the more recent allegorical dreamscapes, have tangled in one way or another with the problem of solipsism; either the narrator refuses to confront certain facts about his or her life and world, or his self-interest blinds him to suffering of others. Never Let Me Go employs Ishiguro's usual tactic of presenting a first-person narrator whose omissions we have to read around, but this time we confront not an individual blindness but a societal refusal to call a nightmare a nightmare. We mourn with the narrator at the book's end, but want to say she is mourning for the wrong reasons; and yet what else could she possibly do? The closing scenes merge utter bleakness with deep sympathy for a rare and devastating effect. This isn't the crude sort of "dark" literature that relies on shock value to substantiate its picture of the world. Its hopelessness is human.