I remember talking many years ago to my dear, departed friend Patrick about a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. He said, “You start reading and you think there’s no way he can pull this off. And you keep going and you’re still thinking no way. And then you get to the end and you’re astounded because he did pull it off.”
What does Ishiguro pull off, in novel after novel?
Almost invariably through the device of an exquisitely crafted, understated, and somewhat unreliable first-person narrative voice, Ishiguro pulls off an elegiac homage to what it means to be human and alive.
There’s no solving of the great mystery of life in Ishiguro’s novels, but there is exploration, probing, clue-hunting. His narrative voice first appeared as an elderly Japanese woman in his debut “The Pale View of the Hills,” a slender novel that greatly influenced me as a writer and is on my list of the Most Important Novels in My Life.
The voice was again heard from an English butler in “The Remains of the Day.” From a young adult clone in “Never Let Me Go.” And now through an artificial friend (AF), in “Klara and the Sun.”
Klara is the AF purchased for Josie, a young teenager who has been ill, possibly due to a side effect from being “lifted”—a procedure never quite defined but one that apparently offers cognitive and intellectual advantages in life. Being lifted does not come without risk. The choice whether a parent should have their child lifted is explored in the relationship between Josie and her unlifted friend, Rick.
Klara’s voice is loyal to Ishiguro’s usual careful storytelling that reveals and pulls back, reveals and pulls back. What’s left out is almost as important as what’s left in.
There is a plot concerning what will become of Josie, Klara, and Rick, and toward the end of the novel there is a single sentence that crystalizes what makes a human being special in comparison to artificial intelligence.
Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018 on the basis of eight works of fiction, before “Klara and the Sun” was published. That’s a relatively small oeuvre compared to an author like Philip Roth, author of 30 books, who was shunned by the Nobel committee. But that’s a different story.
Ishiguro deserves the honor. There’s no other writer like him.