Ishiguro’s reticent world-building

I’m interested in Ishiguro’s reticent world-building in Never Let Me Go. With “omnivorousness” in mind, this withholding of information (about the specifics of systematically cloning humans for organ donation) seems to negotiate not just the degree to which the reader understands Kathy’s circumstances, but also the degree to which the reader can identify the text’s “SF”-ness. Reticence might then be a formal, structural, and thematic way in which Never Let Me Go negotiates (satisfies?) readerly tastes for/expectations of both “literary fiction” and SF. 

From the start, Ishiguro hints at something else going on that marks Kathy(‘s world) as different. These mostly stop at hints, without illuminating what they signify or how they might radically change our apprehension of the textual world. The moment “when we know this is an SF novel” is thus deferred or strangely diluted, so that we suspect (with the help of paratext), but don’t know. Hints appear in Kathy’s vocabulary: she uses terms like “carer,” “donor,” “completing,” “recovery centre,” and “collections,” (3, 5, 16). The reader starts to collect and make some hazy sense of these terms, but explicit explanations aren’t given (yet). (“England, late 1990s” is another cryptic scene-setting gesture.)

The novel’s world-building does hinge on a few instances of explicit description of the cloning system. These eruptions (ex: Miss Lucy’s speech, page 81) produce rents in the fabric of the text’s reticence, allowing the reader to retroactively piece things together. The process of gleaning subtextual, tonal clues and finally recognizing the contours of the dystopia parallels Kathy’s own experience of learning (or always already partially knowing). She reflects that: “certainly it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before” (82-3). How are we to read the novel’s tight-lipped tone/plot before, amidst, and after scenes of rare explicitness? And how does the novel resist such clear temporal distinctions between stages of understanding? Finally, how do generic codes/expectations play into this? 

One thought on “Ishiguro’s reticent world-building”

  1. As a formal feature of the novel, I think reticence is apt, and Noelle is right about the way it “(satisfies?)” *some* readers’ expectations. I focus on the parenthetical verb here to emphasize my own dissatisfaction with this reticent form. Personally, the temporal effect is like walking into a cube of gelatin: I was hungry for more “eruptions.” In his nobel acceptance speech, Ishiguro suggests that these “eruptions” of the hidden worlds underneath his novels are informed by “crucial lessons” he learned from “the voices of singers.” How curious. How do the textures of the human voice help us understand Ishiguro’s temporalizing hints/hits?

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