Books

Unprecedented Input

Kazuo Ishiguro’s strange and beautiful new novel continues his remarkable career of exploring unfathomable questions with grace.

A robotic girl with a child's image reflected in her eye.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

It’s not an accident that Klara, the “artificial friend” who narrates Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book Klara and the Sun, shares a first initial with Kathy, the teenage narrator of his masterpiece, Never Let Me Go. In the new novel, Klara the AF is purchased by a harried, guilt-ridden, upper-middle-class mother to provide a form of companionship to her sickly 14-year-old daughter, Josie—a premise that bears a strong resemblance to Never Let Me Go, in which Kathy’s boarding school, with its intimate dramas, only gradually reveals itself as a compound for clones being raised for their donatable vital organs.

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But Klara is not Kathy. The earlier novel balances the undeniable basicness of the clones—who are profoundly uninteresting except for the fact that they are human—against our instinctual understanding that every individual, however boring, exists for her own irreducible sake and not for anyone else’s. The lack of virtuosity in Ishiguro’s prose in Never Let Me Go feels particularly pointed. Every banal sentence is a trap door dropping his readers into a mystery.

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For don’t most of us treat some people as a means to an end? The UPS driver exists only to deliver our package, and we choose not to think about who made that appealing cheap T-shirt inside it. As the reader’s horror over the clones’ fate swells, part of what we recoil from is our own callousness, but that’s not really the novel’s primary focus. The clones occasionally wish to escape their doom, but perhaps even more than that they long to meet their originals, the people of whom they are copies. They want, as human beings often do, to stand before their creator and ask questions with unfathomable answers: Why was I born and why must I die? In that, they are just like every person who has ever lived, however downtrodden or exalted.

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Klara has no such questions. She knows what she’s for: to help and comfort Josie. In the first part of the novel, before Josie chooses her, Klara eagerly scrutinizes what bits of the outside world she can see from the store where she and other AFs are displayed. The manager praises Klara for being observant, but a more accurate word would be curious. She describes becoming “increasingly fascinated by the more mysterious emotions passers-by would display in front of us.” Cab drivers fight and, in a formative incident for Klara, two older people who appear not to have seen each other for many years are reunited by happenstance on the street. Yet even this hunger for knowledge is directed. “I realized,” she goes on, “that if I didn’t understand at least some of these mysterious things, then when the time came, I’d never be able to help my child as well as I should.”

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Kazuo Ishiguro.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters want, as human beings often do, to stand before their creator and ask: Why was I born and why must I die? Andrew Testa

Ishiguro shows us the world as Klara’s artificial intelligence perceives it. When she encounters unprecedented input—a grassy meadow, a crowd of theatergoers on a sidewalk—her field of vision is partitioned into “boxes” for processing by the software whose operations seem undetectable to her. (Later, she will experience the same environments smoothly.) Looking out the window of a moving car, she is a noticing machine, making no distinction between the significant and the insignificant:

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We drove past a large creature with numerous limbs and eyes, then even as I watched, a crack appeared down its center. As it divided itself, I realized it had been, all along, two separate people—a runner and a dog walk woman—moving in opposite directions who for an instant happened to be passing one another. Then came a store with a sign saying “Eat In Take Out” and in front of it, a lost baseball cap on the sidewalk.

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Sometimes Klara’s perceptions delight (I laughed when she passingly referred to an “anti-parking sign”), but often she’s not curious about the things that most intrigue the reader. She doesn’t ask what ails Josie, even as the girl’s condition worsens and it becomes clear her life is in danger. In the world of this novel, some privileged children have been “lifted” and consider themselves above those who have not, but the nature of this distinction seems of no interest to Klara, and the reader only finds out how important it is late in the story.

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Klara can distinguish kindness from unkindness. In fact, this may be her central cognitive ability, but the moral shading is different for her than for a human being, who most easily exercises compassion by imagining herself in the place of the mistreated one. When, while still in the store, Klara notices later models of AFs smirkingly separating themselves from early models (like herself), she judges them for it, but not because their behavior hurts her. Instead, she wonders, “How could they be good AFs for their children if their minds could invent ideas like these?” When a woman (mistakenly) thinks that someone intends to take Klara to a play, and angrily objects, “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater,” we recognize that the remark is hateful but Klara doesn’t particularly care. Whether she is rejected or excluded by a complete stranger is simply irrelevant to her prime directive.

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From Henry James’ What Maisie Knew to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, novelists have used naïve narrators to jar loose our habitual perspective on the world and ourselves. Through Klara’s semi-comprehending, ever-learning eyes, the reader figures out what’s going on in Josie’s family and surmises the tensions and dynamics that Klara doesn’t recognize: the “high-ranking” mother seared by the death of Josie’s elder sister; her ex-husband, who was “substituted” out of a prestigious job and has joined some kind of urban community he insists is better than his former professional life; the unlifted neighbor boy with whom Josie has a “plan” for the future that seems increasingly untenable. And then there’s Josie herself, much loved but still a protean adolescent unsure of what she really wants.

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Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the human characters, Klara attempts to make sense of the world in ways that suggest she is more than just a machine. The sun, which shares the novel’s title with its narrator, supplies Klara with the power to operate, but to her it is much more than an energy source. She comes to believe that the sun can, when it wishes, provide a “special kind of nourishment” capable of restoring life to the near-dead if it so chooses. Unlike the clones of Never Let Me Go, Klara shows no interest in whoever created her, but in her eyes, the sun is very much like a god. She even contemplates a form of theodicy when, on an outing, she spots a territorial bull behind a fence, whose angry bearing and sharp horns make her feel something more profound than fear: “It felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness.”

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It’s not a mistake to view Ishiguro’s novels as works of social criticism, but to approach them that way won’t get you to the heart of the thing. The strange and beautiful poignancy of Klara and the Sun has less to do with its commentary on the transformative role of technology in contemporary life than with the flowering of such transcendental thoughts in a mind like a walled garden, unwitnessed by anyone around her. And yet to feel sorry for Klara at the end of the novel is a bit like weeping for the discarded lamp in that famous Ikea commercial. It’s silly not because she feels nothing: She clearly does. But Klara, Ishiguro suggests, is more to be envied than pitied. The novel leaves its readers with many paradoxes to mull and could even been seen as a riposte to 1989’s The Remains of the Day. In that novel, Ishiguro portrayed a man who devoted his life to the service of someone he comes to regard as contemptible, a crushing waste. But Klara has no such doubts about her purpose, which is to give everything for Josie, an impulse that might sound treacherous or degrading but one that parents know something about. She is Ishiguro’s most fulfilled character yet, and that may be the most inhuman thing about her.