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.

ΔΔΔ

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.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.