on Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Let's face it. The Nobel Prize is, more often than not, a curse. When JM Coetzee - probably my favourite living author - won in 2003, it took him a couple of novels to recover. Not that Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year were terrible books, but they certainly were unremarkable by Coetzee's standards. I'd also argue that Summertime and The Childhood of Jesus, whilst steps in the right direction, were no great shakes eaither. It wasn't until The Schooldays of Jesus that he was back on form. And that was 2016. His Nobel was celebrating its bar mitzvah. Coetzee is not alone. Many other authors are either squashed into slience, or fart out works decidedly unworthy of their newfound status. Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Patrick Modiano, Peter Handke (here's hoping)... Oh, and stop kidding yourself. You only pretended to like Dylan's last two albums (*fight me*). Which brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel laureate. A bit over three years after he won, and six after his last (and weakest) novel, we get Klara and the Sun.

For those trying to avoid spoiler's in the lead-up to Klara's March release, I'll give you the potted summary first: it's good. Very good. Fans of Never Let Me Go will find themselves in familiar territory, though this is a more complex and meditative work of speculative fiction. Though I think I still preferred Never Let Me Go (I say think because I'm still kind of processing Klara), I can confidently say that Ishiguro has bucked the Nobel curse. Sure, it's no Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World but it's a thoroughly enjoyable, consistently intriguing read that had me contemplating some very big, uncomfortable questions.

From hereon in, beware. There will be minor spoilers. That said, I'll try to keep it a little vague, if only because I couldn't hope to capture all the novel has to offer. Also, I don't want to ruin the experience of watching its many, many ethical dimensions play out on the page. Still, don't say I didn't warn you.

Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), advanced robot technology created to serve as a companion to lonely (or spoiled) children. AFs are both trend and necessity. When the novel opens, we meet Klara in the front window of a store, where she stands on display with fellow AF Rosa, observing the world, taking in the sun, and hoping to be picked out by a passing child. After some weeks, the two are taken from the window to make way for the newer B3 models that have just arrived. Klara and Rosa have been superceded, and are relegated to the back room bargain bin. Eventually Rosa is sold and Klara is alone. Enter Josie, a shy and sickly child who instantly falls for Klara. Her mother wants a B3, but Josie won't be swayed.

As soon as Josie brings Klara home, we get the sense that things are amiss. The reader, like Klara, is dropped into an unsettling world of shifting perceptual planes, a cruel and dangerous social strata system, and a family tenuously held together by what feels, more than anything else, like existential dread. Of course it's hard to know whether to trust Klara's narration - she is, after all, a robot learning to be part of a family.

Still, there are enough objective markers to know something is not right. The house is kept by an overly officious robot, Melania Housekeeper (yeah, I laughed). Josie's best friend, Rick, who has not been "lifted" (it takes a while to work out what that means) is ridiculed and bullied at an "interaction meeting" with other children. Mother regularly schleps Josie to the city to sit for a portrait with the very creepy Mr Capaldi. Each time he focuses on a single body part, and she is never allowed to see how it is progressing. There's also a downright bizarre outing to Morgan's Falls, where Mother has Klara perform a number of what, at first, we take as demeaning tasks but that come to have a much more sinister, tragic meaning. Klara, too, develops some pretty intense obsessions: with the sun, with a nearby barn and, most importantly, with a machine that spews Pollution through its three funnels.

Underpinning all of these things, and the story as a whole, is Josie's failing health. She is not just sick. She is dying, as did her sister before her. When Klara's purpose is finally revealed by Mother, it is as profound as it is horrific. Sure, there wasn't quite the cataclysmic gut-punch of Never Let Me Go, but that hardly seemed the point. Ishiguro renders the twist intentionally unremarkable; the signs are there for the reader to see and what is revealed feels like the final piece of a smartly constructed puzzle. It doesn't force us to reconsider all we've read but, rather, to engage with Ishiguro's central theme: the human essence.

Much like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death. Klara, in a perpetual state of received revelation, is a useful avatar, all the more so because of her inherent unreliability. She is honest and forthright, but necessarily naive. It's kind of great and fun, but to a certain extent, is also the novel's greatest weakness - I found myself thoroughly confused a number of times and, to be honest, there are a few things I still don't get, even after having chewed it over for a couple of days.

Klara and the Sun also lacks the tightness of Never Let Me Go. For a novel so jam-packed with fantastic, genuinely original ideas it felt a little wooly at its edges. There are minor subplots that struck me as underdeveloped and unexplored (the AF resistance movement springs to mind here). There also lulls; they are few and far between but their presence was very much noticed. Maybe it is the novel's reliance on set pieces that caused the connective tissue to visibly strain. Not that it greatly mattered. Sure, I felt as if I was limping through some parts, but it always came good. Indeed, the closing section is one of the most moving things I've read in a long time.

Stripped of use, immobile and with failing circuitry that cast her memories into doubt, Klara is found in an AF junkyard by the manager who first sold her to Josie. They discuss the purpose and worth of her existence and decide that it was good. She fared better than Rosa. But to what end? She exists, an individual, in perpetuity. Forgotten and discarded in a world that might be wholly populated by successive generations of Artificial Friends. Perhaps these ideas of life, of individuality and worth, are all lies we tell ourselves when we reach the end. Because, really, what other choice do we have?


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