"'None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets…You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.'"
~Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Marcus Price raises his hand for the first time in five months when I ask what happened in the chapter they were supposed to read last night for homework. It's a ghost, this arm floating up into the air, pale and limp from lack of use. I almost miss it, almost mistake it for a stray hair across my line of sight.
"Ruth died!" Marcus says.
A smattering of applause across the class.
In my head, the echo: "or was it yesterday…."
I didn't plan Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go as a contrapuntal follow-up to The Stranger, but here it is. After the class's surprising engagement with Camus's philosophical stance, largely because it makes so much sense, we're reading a book that has an entirely different take on the way we grapple with life like unholy wrestlers, trying to force it into something with recognizable meaning.
Ishiguro deftly builds and then reveals the central mystery of Never Let Me Go; something is off at Hailsham, the boarding school that serves as the novel's setting and, like the students, the reader knows that the students aren't being told everything. About a third of the way through the book we learn that the students are clones and that after graduation they will begin donating their organs to "normal" humans and will die before they're thirty. Ishiguro lays down at the feet of the characters and the reader one unsettling truth after another, turning quiet into disquiet and then into a suckerpunch that delivers an exquisite hurt.
Never Let Me Go trades blow for philosophical blow with The Stranger. I picture Camus sitting on my right shoulder. "We're all going to die some day," he says, breezy as autumn. "It doesn't matter if or how much we hurt."
Ishiguro sits on my left shoulder. "Yes, we're all going to die someday," he says mildly. "Thus, how we hurt is the only thing that matters."
Camus left Algeria to hang out with the countercultural artistic and philosophical revolutionaries and ex pats of mid-century Paris; I didn't expect him to look like James Dean. His hair's combed back with pomade and he's smoking with rugged and somehow entirely un-ironic panache. He's wearing a navy pea coat with a popped collar over a button-up shirt and tie. He's also wearing black skinny jeans, which I realize is a historical inaccuracy, but who am I to question?
Ishiguro has wire-rimmed glasses and looks like a grown-up, Asian Harry Potter. His hair, parted shaggily down the middle, spills into his eyes; he constantly brushes it back but it's just shy of hooking behind his ears. And even though he doesn't have one in the picture on the back of the book, the Ishiguro on my shoulder has a carefully groomed moustache that rides his lip close, as if it knows a secret.
"Hurting is pointless. It doesn't change anything," Camus says.
"Maybe it's not supposed to change anything," Ishiguro says. Even though I know he grew up in the UK, his British accent catches me off guard, and, I have to admit, suggests credibility.
Camus takes a haughty drag from his cigarette.
Ishiguro coughs into my ear. It tickles.
Back to Marcus. Back to Ruth dying. Back before that, actually, to Ruth's final gesture and last wish.
Before Ruth dies, she apologizes to Kathy and Tommy, the main characters who realize they love each other too late to do much good about it, for keeping them apart. She says it should've been those two together all along, that she knew it when she dated Tommy. After she apologizes, she gives them the address of the headmistress, Madame, so they can find her and ask for the lovers' deferral—a couple of years to be together before they "complete."
On a tiny scrap of paper, Ruth gives them hope.
We discuss whether Ruth's act is virtuous or cruel—she puts an improbable idea into Tommy and Kathy's heads and the reader cringes, knowing how this is going to turn out, but nonetheless hoping that these characters will somehow get what they want. Tommy and Kathy invest in the deferral—they prepare for the visit, gather evidence of their love, and rehearse arguments for why they deserve the brief reprieve. They hope so hard that they genuinely buy into the fantasy of their own dreams and futures. Then they learn that the deferral is only a persistent rumor and that it doesn't exist.
The question, then, is whether Kathy and Tommy would have been better off if they had never believed in the deferral, if they'd never experienced false hope. In promoting this hope, did Ruth give them a gift or did she dangle a carrot cruelly out of reach?
I write on the board:
either you get what you hope for
It occurs to me that I've never articulated hope quite this simply before, reduced to two possible outcomes.
"Everything's fifty-fifty. Either something will happen or it won't," Camus says, flipping a franc on his knee. "This is why hoping is at best a pointless waste of time and at worst a guarantee of unhappiness. Either way, it separates us from the moment."
Not in front of the kids, I think. Standing under fluorescent lights in front of twenty teenagers isn't the ideal setting for an imaginary conversation with two famous writers.
In my periphery, I catch sight of Sam Connell; the deep weariness in his eyes reminds me of a lost and hungry puppy. Week after week, he describes in his reader response journal a web of connections between the book and the darkness of his own life. I'm glad that he's connecting to the book, though I'm worried that its weight will tug him under, that he'll have trouble kicking to the surface with it. Sam watches me intently. I think he wants me to argue for hope; I think he wants to be convinced. And I want desperately to convince him.
The problem is, I'm thinking about my dad and what it was like to believe, for moments here and there, that he would make it, that everything would be okay. I'm thinking about what it was like to be wrong.
Camus pokes my earlobe with the filter of his cigarette. "Move on with the lesson! Talk about how sappy ol' Ishi here is or something. Wade about in your sentimental drivel on your own time."
"The death of a parent—a favorite subject of yours, no?" Ishiguro says.
"When treated with a…certain touch, perhaps."
"Teacher second, human being first," Ishiguro says, running his hand through the part in his hair.
"Were you always this touchy-feely?" Camus loosens his tie.
"Mono no aware," Ishiguro says. "Pathos. Empathy. It's what separates us from animals. You should try it sometime."
I feel Camus shrug. "Whatever you say, monsieur." He leans back and props his feet on my collarbone.
There wasn't one specific moment when we lost hope in Dad's recovery, at least not that I can identify. The sense of urgency in his care evaporated, replaced by a somber but firm efficiency that, in retrospect, makes it clear that the doctors lost hope before we did. The oncologist withdrew Dad from the clinical trial. The surgeon told us that even removal of the entire colon wouldn't work, that the cancer had spread too far. The internist reviewed the latest CAT scan and quietly canceled all subsequent ones. The hospitalist had a new vocabulary: pain management, hospice, palliative care. I don't remember which of these moments was the one. I do remember that, like a cooling ember met suddenly with fierce breath, our hope would for an instant be reignited by a new treatment option, a firm hand on the shoulder, a twinkle shooting like a star across Dad's eyes.
At some point we all knew there was no hope. He was going to die, and soon. There was nothing to be done. There was no tiny scrap of paper. And we had to live with that, breathe it, make room for it in all the conversations we had with one another, with the nurses, and with whatever gods we might have supplicated to in the moments when it made sense to try divinity one more time. All the food we choked down, all the times we brushed our teeth, all the funny movies we pretended to watch—all of it with a crushing absence of hope.
What's left if you renounce hope?
"Everything," says Camus.
"Nothing," says Ishiguro.
Absence of hope takes many shapes. It's not the quiet and muted scarcity of something wonderful and luxurious, like chocolates or soft sheets. The absence of hope is the absence of something utterly essential. The absence of hope crumples your chest like cellophane. How ugly the world becomes when the clouds hang hopeless, how suffocating and stagnant. Nothing will ever move or change again. The clouds sag lower and lower until they bind you up like a beetle in a spider's web, unable even to contemplate the possibility of escape. You walk through days as though you're in a CGI movie; some grey shadow has filled your soul, digitally grafted over your image so that you look and feel sooty, dirty, damaged.§
"Could you be any more maudlin?" Camus asks. "With your storm clouds and your poor excised heart." He cracks his knuckles one by one, saving his thumbs for last. "Your dad died. I died. You'll die. Sooner, later, with or without all your angst. So much useless angst. What are the angsty kids called these days?"
"Emo," says Ishiguro from around the back of my head, his breath skeeting my neck.
"Ah, yes. Emo." Camus chuckles. "I like that. There's nothing wrong with wearing all black—I've been known to slink about at parties in a black cat suit—but the whole black soul thing? I suppose it's vaguely silly, but all that pointless wallowing makes me want to degorge." He sticks a finger into his mouth and fake-gags.
"You're a real piece of work," Ishiguro says.
Camus smiles. "D'accord, Emo."
"I will say this, though—the way we die is as important as the way we live."
"And then some." Camus lights another cigarette. "Death is what defines us. It's the most genuine experience we have. Besides this, of course." He takes a long drag and exhales theatrically.
"So we almost agree on something," Ishiguro says, wiping his hand across his forehead. "Except I don't think we actually need to die in order to experience something real. Mortality provides a lifelong and life-shaping invitation to examination and contemplation. It's a state of being—not just an event."
Camus sighs. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in a game of chess, would you?"
The day after we read chapter seven, in which Miss Lucy, a guardian at Hailsham, stops the students from fantasizing about their futures by telling them in no uncertain terms that their "'lives are set out for [them]'" and that in a few years they will begin donating their organs to "normals", my students squirm in their seats and hands stick up in the air before everyone's arrived in the room. "You mean that they're all going to donate their organs?" someone asks.
"Wait a minute…." One student after another tries to clarify.
"Until they die?"
"How is that possible?"
"Can't the students refuse?"
"Why are the guardians allowing this?"
"Why are the doctors and hospitals allowing this?"
"Does the government know? How can they allow this?"
"Who needs all those organs, anyway? What's happened?"
Even though they've gotten answers to some of the book's central questions, my students realize there's more that they don't know and perhaps don't want to know. They're uncomfortable with the knowledge they've just received; they want to give it back. They don't want to know that these kids were created with a specific fate and purpose—death. But isn't that everyone's fate? And, arguably, everyone's purpose?
And here's where Camus and Ishiguro agree. Through the acceptance of mortality and later through the act of dying, one proves one's authenticity. Even these clones; especially these clones. They die their own individual deaths the likes of which no one else has ever experienced or ever will. In Camus' world, and (so far) in ours, no two people are exactly alike. In Ishiguro's world, some people are exactly alike; when they're alive, the students are copies. But when they die, they are singular.
Death, especially his acceptance and invitation of it, is what makes Meursault Meursault. Death is what makes the clones in Never Let Me Go human, thereby serving a purpose arguably greater than the anatomical one they were created to fulfill. Somewhat paradoxically, the clones serve this purpose, fated though it is, while exercising free will. They not only accept their unseemly destinies, they voluntarily enact them.
My students keep asking why, if these kids know that their purpose and destiny is to donate organs to "normals" and then to die, they don't simply run away? Especially when they move away from school and there are no guardians—they can take hikes and trips and are even able to score a car every now then. Why do they come back? Why don't they seek new fortunes, new fates?
We come up with a few possible answers, the primary one being that the characters simply don't know what else to do. They aren't part of the real world and never have been; it's mythos to them. For fifteen years, they never passed beyond the Hailsham grounds, scared to death of the woods that surrounded them. They don't know where to go or how to begin changing their destinies.
We also figure that the clones don't run away because if they reject their fates and, thus, their purpose for existing in the first place, they also reject their identities. Although this rejection could be exhilarating in its liberation, the enormity of the void it would leave would be terrifying.
The clones accept their purpose, even when the grisly implications become clear. "'I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it?'" Ruth says, entering into her destiny as though stepping into a long hallway with only one exit. All of these students, including Kathy and Tommy even as they pursue the deferral, embrace the fate they've been raised to fulfill.
"It's funny," Ishiguro says, fogging up his glasses and rubbing them with the end of his shirt, "that in this way, Tommy and Kathy and all the rest of them are like Meursault. They just roll with it." He puts his glasses back on and blinks rapidly.
Camus crosses his arms. "Meursault didn't believe in fate."
"Sure he did—death."
"Bien sur." Camus gestures impatiently. "The fate of all man is death. Meursault neither seeks nor avoids death; it does not enslave or rule him. It carries no meaning—it simply is."
"If Meursault had been raised at Hailsham, would he have accepted his fate as a donor without complaint or comment?" Ishiguro crosses his right foot onto his left knee and leans in.
"If Meursault had been raised at Hailsham, he would not be Meursault," Camus says.
Our explanations for why the clones never make a break for it don't do much to chip away at the book's grimy darkness. My students struggle to make sense of Ishiguro's intentions—is he suggesting that fate swallows free will? Is he advocating surrender?
"The book is about how we face the knowledge that our time on earth is limited and how we decide what things are the really worthwhile things," Ishiguro said at a conference in Liverpool in 2007. If trying to escape their brutal, early deaths isn't "worthwhile," what is?
One possible answer is something both Ishiguro and Camus advocate, albeit in fairly disparate manifestations—individuality.
My students understood the connection between individuality and free will when we read The Stranger and they sense this connection more deeply now. They see and feel how it pertains to their own lives because Never Let Me Go widens the gap between "normal" and "other," between who we were born to be and who we want to be.
Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all the other clones are literal copies—they're not physiological or genetic individuals, and they've all been reared since infancy in the same environment. Their demonstrations of free will involve recognizing and distinguishing themselves and each other as individuals. They do this by cultivating emotional and idiosyncratic personalities—Tommy has his temper tantrums, Ruth dominates others and wants to know everything, Kathy pans through her memories like a desperate gold rusher, driven by nostalgia and the nagging feeling that there's something she still hasn't quite pieced together.
"But all the feelings are such clichés!" Camus says. "'Oh, I'm so upset. Oh, I'm so confused. Oh, I feel so bad about what I said…' It's a silly performance in a show so old it's rotten."
I'm inclined to ask Albert to ease up a little, but I'm afraid he'll kick me in the cerebellum with his taper-toed boot.
Camus tucks a cigarette behind his ear. "You don't need emotions to be an individual. Look at Meursault—his lack of emotion is a defining element of his individuality. The rest is what Meursault does or doesn't do. He demonstrates nonconformity with action or inaction, rather than with emotion."
Ishiguro rubs his moustache, smoothes it back down. "But actions come from somewhere, right? They're a result of thoughts, beliefs and feelings. The characters in my book all receive the same practical, moral and experiential education, so thoughts and beliefs don't really distinguish them from one another. If they're going to come into their own, they have to start on the inside."
"Then distinguish thoughts and beliefs from the emotional quicksand." Camus lowers his voice to a stage whisper. "And from sentimental storytelling, while you're at it." He clears his throat. "Do we really want to pull at our feelings like errant threads? What's that going to do for us? For your clones?"
"Perhaps their time would be better spent exploring religion?" Ishiguro asks.
Camus laughs from the belly. "One thing I like about your book, Ishi, is that these kids never go there. There is no God. There's only us, from beginning to end."
When Kathy and Tommy don't rebel after learning that the deferral is just a rumor, when they submit to fate, my students feel that Tommy and Kathy have failed somehow. But the pursuit of the deferral is about something more than squeezing a few more years out of their short lives—it's about proving their humanity to a world that regards them, if at all, as something less than human.
"'We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all…it's still not a notion universally held,'" their teacher, Miss Emily, tells them after she debunks the rumor of the deferral. The nonexistence of the deferral reinforces the tightening coils of the clones' mortality, and reminds us that although the clones aren't born, they leave the world the same way as the rest of us. Mortality itself doesn't make the clones human, but their pursuit of the deferral despite its improbability does.
The clones, particularly Tommy and Kathy, transcend what they and the "normals" perceive as their limits—not intellectual, professional, or geographical limits, but emotional ones. The clones are created for their healthy human organs, yet the greatest proof of their humanity lies in their emotional range and experience. Ishiguro affirms that feeling anything passionately is worthwhile regardless of the outcome. He makes the argument in favor of heartbreak, a strictly human phenomenon, and an experience which would further intensify the interplay between the book and my personal life.
Just before we read Never Let Me Go, I fell head over heels for a guy. Thoughts of him seeped into my most mundane routines, into the books I was reading, and into the classroom, thrumming through me, delivering jolts to a mechanism that hadn't run in ages. When the relationship fell apart a few weeks later, I was devastated. I couldn't imagine days being only what they had been before this current ran through them.
My friend Jamie connected the dots when I called her, bereft over the loss of that brief luminescence. She said, "I know you're sad and I'm sad for you. But during the last few weeks there's been a quality to your voice and your laugh that I haven't heard in so long. Since before your dad died. Since you thought the chemo was working. Since you believed that he might be okay. It's been wonderful to hear you like that, excited, full of anticipation. This isn't about some guy or even about love—this is about hope."
The difference between my life over the past few weeks and my life over the past couple years is, simply, hope. I've decided I don't want to live without it. For me, a state of hopefulness is a state of happiness. And if hopefulness is a conscious choice, then so is happiness.
The desire to hope brings with it an instant pre-hopefulness, like feeling better ten seconds after taking medicine. When I experience it, I realize that despite never actually choosing to be pessimistic, I have often chosen not to hope. After Dad died, the letting go of hope was automatic. I desired only preoccupation, sleep, and any other reprieve from the creeping hollowness I felt.
It's far easier said than done, but here it is: one can choose to want to be hopeful despite the knowledge that one's hope probably won't be realized. This is free will. This, I think, is bravery.
This is why hope in Never Let Me Go is so important, regardless of whether it's "false." The most important choice Kathy and Tommy make isn't to pursue the deferral or to accept their fate—it's to hope.
"They're hoping to stave off death," Camus says. "Granted, it's only for a little while, but still—that's not acceptance. Even Tommy, a guy who's missing half his vital organs, tries to eke out a few more years. What's the sense in that?" He lights a cigarette and holds his palm over the still-lit match.
"It's not what you hope for that matters." Ishiguro drums the backs of his heels against my shoulder.
"What about when Tommy's minutes from his fourth donation, hoping that he'll 'complete'? It's like Meursault being forced to hope that the guillotine will work the first time. At some point, reality and hope collide and reality is left standing. Or, as you know all too well from Nagasaki, perhaps not much is left standing. In any case, the moment is what exists." Camus blows out the match, sending the smell of sulfur into the air.
"The choice always exists," Ishiguro says, his voice rising like the moon behind my shoulder.
They're both right: the moment always exists, but inherent in the moment—if we want it to be—is choice. We can choose to do or feel nothing, and perhaps sometimes that's best. But we can choose something over nothing. Tommy and Kathy choose to wish on Ruth's slip of paper as though it's a star, not a satellite. They exercise free will by making a conscious choice against the odds, by saying hey, we don't care what's likely to happen, we don't care if we have destinies, we don't care if we're going to die. We still choose hope. And if they can do it, so can I.
This is the class that, all throughout The Stranger, pulled for Meursault, cheered his potential and hoped that he would change—at least enough to save himself. This is the class that, after initially thinking that Meursault's freewheeling attitude was pretty awesome, rejected it because of its incompatibility with hope. And now here we are, tangling with the question of whether hope is valuable enough to overcome a particularly grisly reality.
I look at what I've written on the board, the two possibilities. It's like setting up an algebra equation incorrectly—it's impossible to solve, not because you're incapable of figuring out the answer, but because you haven't properly defined the problem.
"Maybe it doesn't matter whether your hope is realized or not. It's not about the outcome. It's about the act of hoping," I say to them. "Hope itself is the reason, it itself is the goal." I half expect the bells ringing in me to resonate through the classroom and through them, but all that echoes is the same static that accompanies most other pauses and transitions.
Sam Connell's eyes are big behind his glasses and he nods almost imperceptibly. Some of them agree, some of them don't, and some of them don't care one way or another. They're free to find meaning where I do, or not, or somewhere else, or nowhere at all, yet I find myself thinking that they don't really get how fundamental this is. How perfectly obvious, yet nearly invisible in its obviousness. I wish someone had told me, an impossibly jaded teenager, that this was true. But had that happened and had I—improbably—understood, I wouldn't be having this moment now, teetering like my students on the verge of the jagged, messy hills of free will and feeling below me not emptiness or fear, but a space full of possibility.
"You know, I read The Stranger in high school," Ishiguro says. "Not for class—on my own."
"Of course," Camus says. "And?" He extends his pack of smokes.
"I never smoke, but what the hell," Ishiguro says, taking a cigarette. "I read it on the beach in one afternoon. Sun burned my back, too—I don't think I moved a muscle from cover to cover. I read the last line over and over instead of going in the water. 'For me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.'" Ishiguro shakes his head appreciatively. "I remember thinking that I could die happy if I'd written that line."
Camus smiles and leans across my collarbone to light Ishiguro's cigarette. "Die happy. A fine choice."
Ishiguro shrugs and takes a drag. "I guess Meursault and I have something in common after all." Smoke trails from his mouth as he speaks. "Life is a funny old dog sometimes." He coughs over his shoulder and takes another drag.
"That it is," Camus says. "And you can't teach an old dog new tricks."
Ishiguro exhales, copying Camus' gesture perfectly. "That's why the first thing you teach a puppy is that learning new tricks is possible," Ishiguro says.
The bell rings. Teenagers rush past me into the hallway, into the world, to make of it what they will, what they can. I'm seized by their humanity, the scuff of their sneakers on the floor, the impatient cadence of their conversations, their faces emerging from the hoods of their sweatshirts. The blazing whites of their wide eyes.