Never Let Me Go

The cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

For years I resisted reading anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I absolutely believed people when they told me about his greatness and his 2017 Nobel Prize caught my attention since that is one of the categories I track in my reading, but but the descriptions for his novels created an impenetrable field around them. An English butler during the fading days of the aristocracy, complete with repressed feelings? Pass. A novel set in a rural English boarding school? No thanks.

At the same time, Ishiguro seemed to me the sort of author whose books I shouldn’t reject out of hand just because I have had bad experiences with books with superficial similarities. A conversation on a podcast about his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, finally pushed me over the edge, leading me to read his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

My initial thought about Ishiguro proved both absolutely correct and entirely wrong.

From the outside, Hailsham looks like any other exclusive English boarding school. The students play sports and complete art projects, complain about the teachers, and form little cliques. The difference is that the students at Hailsham are part of a program that produces walking organ donors.

Kathy H. is a Hailsham graduate. After eleven years of service as a carer, tending to the donors, she is reunited with her friends from school, Ruth and Tommy who have both entered their donor phase. Seeing her friends again unearths memories in Kathy: her friendship with Ruth, Ruth’s relationship with Tommy, and the rivalry the two girls felt over the boy.

Ishiguro is adept at spinning out small tendernesses and deep barbs that breathe life into these relationships and at times make them hard to read. Had the relationships primarily been what Never Let Me Go was about, my preconception about the novel would have proven accurate: a sensitive and careful novel that just wasn’t for me. However, Kathy’s recounting to of the events transform the story into a low-key, dystopian horror, which is very much my type of novel.

As Kathy H. explains her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, she explains the context in which she knew them. Hailsham literally is a world unto itself. They forge all of their human relationships at school because they don’t have families beyond the walls and are incapable of creating families of their own. The origin of the students remains a mystery, but they are, ostensibly, bred for the sole purpose of being donors (and the story gets a good deal darker if one imagines a different background than what we are told). Hailsham itself is simply a social experiment designed to evaluate whether there is value in educating the donors, whether by making them better carers or by humanizing an institution that the powers-that-be find mildly off-putting. After all, donors, people marked for inevitable death, walk among the people who might one day receive their organs.

The brilliance of Never Let Me Go comes in how Ishiguro juxtaposes the familiar complications of childhood friendships with the ever-present doom of the program. That is, these characters do not have the freedom to choose their futures. From the first page, Kathy H. explains that she has been at her job as a carer for an unusually long time before becoming a donor. They are literally and physically a second class of citizen, disposable for the convenience of others. And yet, in the face of the inevitable, they scrape out a human existence.

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The demands of the semester (the first semester at a new job) and some writing obligations have led to a notable silence in this space about the books I have reading. When given the choice between writing and reading, I almost always choose reading. The result is a list of books I haven’t gotten around to writing about: S.A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper (I might write about it after I finish the series), Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies (not as good as The Lies of Locke Lamora), William Germano’s On Revision (quite good), Téa Obreht’s The Tigers Wife (solid magical realism) and Drew Magary’s The Night the Lights Went Out (a memoir about learning to live with an illness). I might write about some of those, but the two recent reads I do hope to write about are Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island and Tana French’s The Secret Place.

The best of intentions

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Dave Barry, The Salmon of Doubt

I love setting goals.

Over the years I have come to realize that I work best when I have clear and articulated goals I can work toward. This doesn’t mean that I have to know what I am doing. Quite the contrary—I like situations where I need to work out my thoughts on paper or come up with a work around or react and adjust. I just like those situations with clearly defined parameters.

Goals set those guardrails.

My problem is that I tend to set too many goals, fail to achieve them, and then feel bad. In the SMART acronym, “achievable” has always been my issue and I have not managed to brush missed deadlines off with the breeziness of Dave Barry.

This is the long way of saying that after setting the modest #AcWriMo goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise, I promptly managed to miss two consecutive weekend reflections.

On the one hand, I have spent most of this month reflecting on why this time of academic calendar is so hard, mostly while buried under an avalanche of grading. I touched on this in my first #AcWriMo post, and it remains true. There is a finite amount of time and both writing and teaching take as much as you are willing to give. Anything I write here is extra; some months are easier than others.

On the other hand, my missed reflections also speak to modest success. I averaged nearly an hour of writing a day during the first week of November. In truth, I would have liked to write more, but an hour is my usual target: long enough to write or edit a chunk, but short enough that it doesn’t consume my entire day. And yet, that one hour also meant that I fell behind on grading such that I spent following week playing catch-up. Here I sit on the first day of the third week and I wrote for nearly an hour and was able to dedicate some time to moving other parts projects forward.

Several of my students told me today that their goal is simply to make it to break next week. I am sympathetic to this position. In the words of Giuseppe from The Great British Baking Show, “my objective for this week is to survive.”

Giuseppe: “My objective for this week is to survive.”

At the same time, I can’t help but hope I’ll find a little spark, something that will plant a burning thought that just has to get onto paper.

Selfish Writing

After what seems like ages of running into walls I have recently gotten good news about several of my writing projects, including about an article that had been stalled for more than a year after being summarily rejected and then falling victim to the malaise I felt when it looked like my academic career might be over. Now, this bits of positivity has not prompted an outpouring of words on these projects, but they have boosted my confidence, which, in turn, has made sitting down to write a little less taxing.

Time is the biggest impediment for me right now. Simply put, I just have a lot of demands on my time and my first semester teaching in a new institution has eaten up the vast majority of my time on campus. I have done a bit better protecting my writing time this week, but I accomplished this in part by spending an evening in front of my computer and with headphones on—to say nothing of coming at the expense of grading time.

This evening I attended a virtual lecture given by UCSB professor John Lee about his forthcoming book about John Wesley Gilbert, the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (also the subject of next year’s Fordyce Mitchel Lectures at the University of Missouri). Toward the end of the talk someone asked him what he is working on next. Lee laughed and said that next up he was going work on being a good husband and father.

By that point in the talk the audience had already been treated to a child ready to play with dad, but the answer also reminded me of something that Bill Caraher has written several times while documenting his journey toward completing his academic monograph: writing is a selfish exercise.

Books require time and attention to cultivate from the germ of an idea to the final product. Where other types of writing might require a few days or weeks of attention before they see the light of day, an academic book often take years of sifting through research, thinking about issues, and stitching together ideas before even getting to the revision stage.

I happen to think in book length chunks and like this process well enough that I want to continue doing this regardless of where my career takes me. (Seriously: I lay awake consumed with anxiety last week because I only had three history books and one novel that I want to write after I finish the one I am working on right now.) And, yet, I cannot disagree that book-writing can be a deeply selfish pursuit.

It would be one thing if book-writing, specifically, was my job either because it meant securing tenure or because it constituted a significant amount to may paycheck. Right now, though, neither of those things is true and coming to grips with the possibility of changing career paths over the last several years dispelled the last vestiges of the hope that another publication would tip the scales in landing me a tenure-track position. My department supports me as a scholar, but I am employed as a teacher so writing remains something that I do on top of my contract. The difference is largely semantic in practice, but this semester has also made me keenly aware of those evenings when I tell my partner that I have to—i.e. want to—write. In effect this is me telling her that what I want to do with my evening after spending all day at work is to put on music and play with my thoughts rather than spend time with her. There are of course compromises. I almost never write in the evening if I can write earlier in the day, for instance, and I rarely write on the weekends, but these only go so far. The fact remains that I am writing my book(s) because I want to write the book(s).