19 August, 2021 • • 47.2FictionLiterature

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Untidy Identities

Eleanor Hallesy

Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun
Knopf
2021
320pp
$28.00 (Hardcover)



Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, introduces us to the title character, a robot named Klara who is an ‘AF’, or ‘Artificial Friend’, in the store where she is on sale. She waits for a customer long enough that one starts to think the waiting will be the central point of the book. But then one arrives: Josie is a teenager in need of companionship and Klara sets off for a new life in the countryside. As she assimilates, Klara struggles to process the outright hostility of the housekeeper and the guarded emotions of Josie’s mother (or ‘the Mother’, as Klara calls her). We learn along with her what the family who purchased her expect to get for their money and see her ability to mirror human behaviour tested by the dark extremes of how far they want her to go.

Ishiguro’s novels take us on a tour around the perimeter of a psyche, using first person prose to show us how the limits of our language can be the limits of our world. Through the fallibility of each of his novels’ narrators, he hints at the truths that lie beyond their blinkered perspectives. Thought comes pre-constrained by the vocabulary of a self moulded to its context. It is our job to piece together this slowly unfolding reality until we can see the narrator for who they really are.

The first sentence of Klara and the Sun hints at the role we play, observing the observer: “When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window.” In the first four words alone, slant phraseology encapsulates a central tension. We are invited to inhabit the perspective of a Narrator whose status as object is implicit, where ‘new’, not ‘young’ is the antonym of ‘old’ and where age is a slow degradation from spotlessness to superfluity. Yet, characteristically for an Ishiguro novel, that world view is conjured in a retrospective mode in which memories are the hard-won trophies of lived time. By the end of the novel, Klara will no longer be new.

Little time is devoted to explaining how society got here, so we learn the rules as we go. Piecing together this big picture is one of the great pleasures of the novel, and for this we are wholly reliant on Klara’s careful attention to mundane interactions between objects and people. She has, it appears, been programmed with a background knowledge of how the world works, so her goal is to understand what we can already intuit: how human emotion motivates the people around her. The question of what she has been pre-programmed to know becomes increasingly important. We have no choice but to glean what we can from how AFs fit into the fabric of this society. Early on, for example, Klara notices a fellow AF walking three paces behind a child:

And I could see, even in that small instant, that he hadn’t lagged behind by chance; this was how the girl had decided they would always walk—she in front and he a few steps behind. The boy AF had accepted this, even though other passers-by would see and conclude he wasn’t loved by the girl. And I could see the weariness in the boy AF’s walk, and wondered what it might be like to have found a home and yet to know that your child didn’t want you. Until I saw this pair it hadn’t occurred to me an AF could be with a child who despised him and wanted him gone, and that they could nevertheless carry on together.

Klara knows that her existence is intimately linked to the problem of loneliness, and while we might suspect that her focus on getting the balance right between providing company and what she calls ‘giving privacy’ might be excessive, her observations offer an insight into how people live. Because Josie’s mother must leave early for her ‘high-rank’ job, Klara learns that morning coffee is of great importance and that if Josie ‘failed to join the Mother for the quick coffee, there was the danger of loneliness creeping into her day, no matter what other events filled it.’ We sense that Klara’s function is linked to Josie’s online schooling, which leaves her at home alone all day. Her only contact with her peers is through meticulously planned ‘interaction meetings’, even if we never find out why this is.

When Josie gets sick, just as her sister did before her, there is a building sense that this was predictable, and that the source of her illness has to do with the mysterious rules of status in a world Klara is learning to understand. Josie’s only real friend, Rick, with whom she has unresolved romantic tensions, is a victim of a social system in which a person’s future is determined by whether or not they are ‘lifted’ (a process that, we eventually surmise, involves genetic modification). However it works—and we never really find out—Rick has missed out on it, and appears to be the most emotionally well-adjusted character as a result. Getting Josie better soon becomes Klara’s central motivation, her every action bound by a sense of duty that appears to be both earnestly felt and carefully programmed. In response to Josie’s illness, her mother will call upon her AF to recast this sense of duty to a more disturbing end.

What propels the novel’s empathetic journey is the gulf between our perception of Klara’s humanity, with the benefit of access to her inner thoughts, and the way other characters treat her, almost always kindly, but never, as Kant would term it, as an ‘end-in-herself’. Such power dynamics are perhaps the central preoccupation of Ishiguro’s whole oeuvre, all of it first-person, each voice crafted to reveal the distinct mould in which the narrator has been formed. Never Let Me Go, his most recent novel before this, is narrated by a clone whose life will ultimately be sacrificed to provide organs for non-clone humans. His most famous novel, The Remains of the Day, explores the reminiscences of an aging butler reflecting on a life in service, almost pathologically suppressing his own desires to cater to those of his employers, whom he must serve with what he calls ‘dignity’.

The social strictures that define Ishiguro’s quiet, subtle protagonists loom foggily in the background, until, in moments of intense emotional release for the reader, they are brought suddenly, sharply into focus. The nuance required to achieve this is perhaps the author’s greatest skill: it is only from the slow build-up of implication upon implication that the moment of revelation draws its force. In The Remains of the Day, the moment of release is explicit, as the stiffest of upper lips, Mr Stevens, reencounters an old acquaintance and lets the mask slip: ‘Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.’ The effect is that of a dam bursting. In Klara and the Sun, the emotion is more subtly woven into the tissue of the narrator’s expressivity, as we slowly come to realise the inevitability of where Klara’s story will end.

If one wished to make a criticism of Klara and the Sun, it might be that it draws its capacity to move us from the same basic idea as the film Toy Story. The thesis of the book, in so far as it has one, appears to be that what makes us human is precisely what remains inexplicable, too complex to be programmed. Klara’s exceptional abilities are a source of perplexity to even ‘the Manager’ who sold her: insofar as she is more than the sum of her parts, the people who made her don’t understand her, why or how she is capable of more. Just as we tacitly accept that what animates Woody, Toy Story’s soft-toy cowboy protagonist, is essentially magic, something that can’t be and needn’t be explained, Klara’s human heart remains mysterious.

In this sense, this is not really a novel about a robot at all. By the end we have gained little explanation of Klara’s propensity for near-human insights and superstitions, but much appreciation of how the internalised subservience of robot status might feel. Ishiguro’s purpose is to cast a starker light on the Toy Story dream. The implicit humanising force in our stories about toys and robots coming to life is us: we treat them as if they were human and can’t help but fantasise about it coming true. But how can we both rely on a near-magical idea of the human consciousness of the objects around us while also retaining the right to discard them as they cease to be of emotional use? This is the question at the heart of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant novel. It invites us to assume that Klara has feelings like ours—her relationship to the sun, for example, is anthropomorphically religious—and then asks us how we can simultaneously fetishize the idea of robots as human and normalise relationships—servant and master, robot and owner—that treat people as objects. If this were a book about whether or not robots were capable of human feeling, I suspect it would be the worse for it. Isn’t it always, Ishiguro asks, all about us?

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Eleanor Hallesy is reading for a DPhil in French literature, focusing on Proust’s interactions with poetry.