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Nobels are ringing for Klara

New Fiction from a Nobel Laureate ッ

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber

I confess there is dishonesty at play in my assessment of Ishiguro’s middling Klara and the Sun. I enjoyed the book – it tickled some parts of me, on a rudimentary level. But his Nobel victory-lap falls short of the standard of a Laureate. Therefore, I’m going to be far more critical than I probably should be.

Perhaps it would be a greater dishonesty not to elucidate these flaws. And it does beg another question: should acclaimed and established authors be given a free pass off the back of their past achievements? Surely not. Acclaim should be earned, not given away like a Julian Barnes novel to a charity shop. But the literary establishment is often guilty of letting certain missteps drift by unpunished.

Personally, I’m also the forgiving sort. And conceptually, Klara sets us salivating. The novel has a science fiction window dressing, and Ishiguro goes for an AI narrator: Klara. Klara is an Artificial Friend (or AF), with an ‘appetite for learning and observing’. She is bought by Josie, a child who suffers from bouts of an unnamed sickness.

Ishiguro slips into his narrator like a second skin, only Klara is no multifaceted Nexus-6, she’s not even a chirpy Wall-E. She is – whisper it – a pretty boring robot. But plot can make up for shortcomings of character and voice, and the circumstance of Josie’s deteriorating health lights a fuse. And in that, coupled with Klara’s misunderstanding of rather rudimentary astrophysics, we have the makings of a story.

This misunderstanding stems from the AFs solar-powered design. By Ishiguro’s reckoning, this would instigate the deification of the Sun by AFs: ‘the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment’. Klara seeks this nourishment for Josie and heads where the Sun disappears on the horizon, believing that is His ‘resting place’. And there she makes a pact with the Sun: to destroy what she knows as the ‘Cootings machine’, a tool used by road workers she believes is causing unchecked pollution. In exchange for the destruction of this machine, Klara maintains that the Sun will heal Josie.

Ishiguro has a wider point here about the importance of natural systems, and the need to protect them from the impact of humankind. But that is the extent of the ecological thrust: Sun is good, Pollution is bad. Ishiguro is not wrong, but he’s also a Nobel Prize winner.

There should surely be more depth, and this lack of nuance is no anomaly. Ishiguro opts for simplicity of narration and story, forgoing thematic complexity. Plenty of threads are dangled – ecological, sociological, economic – all teasing, waiting to be pulled. But many of these threads stay, frustratingly, spooled.

Of course, you might argue that great novels leave gaps. And you’d be right. The onus is on an acute reader to determine what stray meaning lurks in the shadows. But I struggled to find much in Klara not found elsewhere.

At least (or so we’d be forgiven for thinking) a non-human narrator offers an outsider perspective on the essence of human experience. But before Klara can offer her wisdom, a conflict is already established between two strands of thought. Foremost is an essentialist understanding of human identity, as voiced by the character of Capaldi:

Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. […] It’s not faith you need. Only rationality.

And to counter this is Josie’s Father’s wonderings about the existence of something unknowable in the human experience, something irreducible to components and blueprints:

Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?

Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. But this conflict is habitual for the genre – concealed in some form or another in Aldiss, in Dick, in almost every sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. Thumb through those vast depositories, pick away blindfolded – it’s everywhere. Surely a writer of Ishiguro’s experience knows this?

But not to be deterred by unoriginality on this, his search for truth, Ishiguro has one last swing. And wielding Klara’s left-field humanoid perspective with menacing intent, he gifts us another thesis. Klara – with ‘the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store,’ remember – whacks us with this perceptive number:

There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.

If this seems unsophisticated, that’s because it is. Klara is implanted with a child’s curiosity, a child’s understanding. It works when conveying awe at the Sun, or wonder while on a trip taken to a local waterfall, but it’s not exactly incisive on the big topics. It may be poignant for some, but for me it belongs in the lowly gutter of sentimental cliché. Klara brings nothing new to an age-old debate on human nature.

You might consider these harsh – even sacrilegious – criticisms directed toward a writer of Ishiguro’s status. Truthfully, there were parts of Klara I enjoyed – scattered chunks of plot, which filled a hole like warm porridge. But there was little nourishment. And these criticisms are hardly unjustified, because Ishiguro has set his own standard: he is a master of subtlety and restraint.

But Klara is too subtle: it’s simplistic. It’s words on a page for the sake of it. And there’s that question, relentless, hammering at my cranium like a two-day hangover: can I give Ishiguro a free pass?

Klara and the Sun
(UK: Faber & Faber, 2021)
Paperback, pp. 320

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