Nov 28, 10
Read from November 16 to 27, 2010
** spoiler alert **
I think I had a very different relationship to the subject matter of this story than Ishiguro did, which makes it awkward for me to say something about the book that's not going to sound like the unfair criticism of wishing he'd written a different book. Isiguro seems to be primarily interested in creating a very particular mood of looking back on one's childhood and past with greater wisdom, longing, fondness, and regret. Secondarily, he uses the donation process as a metaphor for the life of everyone. That, at least, is how I read the climactic confrontation between Miss Emily and Kathy and Tommy. Particularly this from Kathy: "Why did we do all of that work in the first place...If we're just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?" Take away the words "give donations anyway, then" and you have a perfectly good existential question that the novel has some interesting ideas about.
Both those elements worked for me, but I kept getting distracted by some logistical questions about the world in which the novel takes place. For example, why do they take only one organ at a time from the donors? It would seem far more efficient, not to mention less cruel, to euthanize a donor and take all his or her organs at once, especially since it seems not unheard of for the second donation to be fatal. Is the rest of the body then thrown away? That seems like a tremendous waste of resources. I have a hard time believing there's any good reason for this besides Ishiguro's desire to pile on the pathos.
More importantly, because it reflects directly on the characters' motivations, why don't any of the donors rebel against this system? Obviously they've been indoctrinated at school from birth (or hatching, or whatever it is clones do), but this indoctrination seems far from perfect. Ishiguro isn't often explicit about what the children are taught, but unless I missed something major, it seems to be a fairly standard boarding school education, meaning among other things a thorough grounding in the canon of Western literature and philosophy. I just don't see how a group of students could receive that education and have 100% of them turn out to docilely accept a social order in which they will be harvested in their twenties so others can live, no matter how many speeches they get about being "special." For example, we're explicitly told that Kathy has read the Odyssey, which I assume means the Iliad was also available. Since one of the main themes of that book is the choice between dying young because one is special or living a fulfilling but less special life, I can't imagine reading it wouldn't raise doubts in at least some students.
And, in fact, there are clear indications that the donors aren't entirely on board with the status quo: they all seem very interested in deferrals. One of the pivotal scenes is Tommy's rage at the universe after being denied a deferral. I submit that this rage doesn't make any sense. That is, I can see why he'd be upset but I can't see why the loss of a three year deferral is an unbearable torment while the larger system is met with apparent equanimity. Also, not to get all Marxist here, but it's not "the universe" that's doing this to him, it's a specific set of social relations that is exploiting him in the most direct way imaginable. Again, I think Isiguro is going for donation as a way to bring the existential angst of all mortal beings into sharper focus. But for me it didn't work as well as it could have because the social context was missing.