MARCH 5, 2021
IN AN INTERVIEW with French director François Truffaut, director Alfred Hitchcock talked about how important it is to suspense that an audience has more knowledge than the characters do. A film in which the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table while two people are innocently chatting is more suspenseful and tense than one in which the scene has been entirely ordinary, with no knowledge of the bomb. In Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt, an odd veneer of innocence masks dread of a danger to come, a danger that is announced well in advance, not only in dialogue, but also the way the camera moves around with a kind of suspicion. Knowing of the bomb under the table, the audience longs to warn the two people talking, longs to participate in the events occurring.
If Hitchcock’s audience were simply watching quaint events — a bored teenage girl, two small town men talking about the best way to murder someone, a tennis star who wants to marry the daughter of a senator — they might be surprised by the detonation of the bomb, but they might also have a lesser degree of involvement. In his dystopian novel, Klara and the Sun, a sorrowful but elegant exploration of the human heart and his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, Kazuo Ishiguro makes use of a bomb under the table. The novel cannily uses delay and withheld information to ratchet up our worry, taking time to disclose the source of the menace. We know something horrifying is going to be uncovered, but we don’t know when.
From the start, a reader is fully immersed in the first-person perspective of a robot, an Artificial Friend, Klara. Ishiguro is not so much a stylist as he is supremely gifted at constructing dramatic events, both reveals and turns. The voice is so nonintrusive, so endearing in its transparency and simplicity, it works without interference. I glided along. However, the simplicity and transparency of the prose is deceptive — what happens in the novel is psychologically deep, an attempt to dive all the way down to the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench.
The novel starts out in a store where Klara is trotted out by Manager to customers along with her friend Rosa as a potential friend for lonely children. Robots take turns in the glass window “representing” the store to the outside world.
Manager assures Klara that even if nobody has chosen her yet, there are many children who would choose her. However, she also warns,
Children make promises all the time. They come to the window, they promise all kind of things. They promise to come back, they ask you not to let anyone else take you away. It happens all the time. But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.
Manager’s prescient warning about children is reminiscent of the poignancy we’re accustomed to in The Velveteen Rabbit, the Toy Story series, and other similar work about the toys of childhood. While the Velveteen Rabbit longs to be “real” and that longing drives the story, gives it emotional heft, Klara only seeks to do right by the family that buys her. There are no explicit longings beyond the sense of duty to be a good friend and to understand the mechanics of her relationships.
As a B2, Klara’s technology isn’t as advanced as that of the B3, the latest model of robot friend. We learn through a conversation Manager has with a customer, the B2 also has solar absorption problems, which might lead to behavioral issues. Even so, when a young, sick girl named Josie comes into the store and takes an interest in Klara, Manager tells her and her mother that Klara works well, and maybe even better than a B3. Meanwhile, the B3s try to physically separate themselves from B2s, standing in a separate group, to make sure customers know that they are different and superior.
As Manager explains, Klara is remarkable because she’s highly observant and conscientious. These traits also make her an ideal narrator of the uneasy future to which she belongs. Klara attempts empathy, imagining how others feel, but the process is so estranged and convoluted and incorporeal that it winds up being amusing, not only to the reader, but also to her. And an odd detachment also colors how she perceives the events of the novel; there are moments when her observations are downright creepy, but never fully alienating, and not any creepier, really, than those of her human companions (later in the novel, a mother is not sure how much to tell Klara, comparing her to her face with a vacuum cleaner). The novel’s surrealism is further enhanced through reminders that Klara’s vision is segmented into boxes and that she isn’t seeing humans the way other humans see humans, but in a more calculating manner.
Josie seems to have genuine affection for Klara. However, she privately confides in Klara that there’s something strange at her house of which Klara should be aware: “I want things straight between us from the start. […] things sometimes get, well, unusual. Don’t get me wrong, most times you wouldn’t feel it. But I wanted to be straight with you. […] Please say you still want to come.”
Klara indicates she still wants to come. Josie’s mother buys Klara to serve as an Artificial Friend. Klara gets to work trying to understand her new home and the protectiveness of Josie’s family and friends. Certain relationships in the novel hearken back to Ishiguro’s earlier novels. For instance, there’s a sibling who died before the events of the novel, as there is in A Pale View of the Hills.
The society has been divided into the “lifted” and the “unlifted,” with the former group entitled to all kinds of privileges. Lifted children are convened so that they can gain social skills through formal “interactions.” However, Josie’s best friend Rick is “unlifted.” Initially, Rick is uncomfortable with Klara’s robotic presence. When Josie introduces Rick as her best friend, Klara says, without a trace of irony, “it’s now my duty to be Josie’s best friend.” Yes, Klara speaks to addressees in the third person. Slightly annoying, but also helps with remembering that our narrator is an Artificial Friend rather than a human. Josie clarifies that no, an Artificial Friend is different, that she and Rick are going to be together forever.
During an interaction, Josie’s lifted friends threaten Rick. As with many scenes in Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and A Pale View of the Hills, the hostility is slow-burning at first, and then suddenly vicious. When Rick calls them on their assholery, a girl cuts back, “This is like a friendly encounter, okay?” The lifted children also threaten Klara with disquieting, matter-of-fact savagery. For instance, one teen says to another: “My B3, you can swing her right through the air, lands on her feet every time. Come on, Danny. Throw her over onto the sofa. She won’t get damaged.” Like the B3s in the Artificial Friend store, they want to differentiate themselves from those they see as inferior versions of themselves. Perhaps what’s most chilling in that scene is that Klara’s narration exhibits zero fear of being bullied. She might look like a human, but she’s plainly not one.
Klara has a subtle spiritual affinity with Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day.” In that story, school children live on Venus where it rains perpetually. The sun is visible only for an hour every seven years. One of the little girls has moved to Venus from Earth and still remembers the Sun, but when she tries to tell her classmates what the Sun is like, they don’t believe her. The children lock her in a closet, and then get so lost in their own revelry in the rare sunshine, they forget to take the little girl out of the closet until after it is gone for another seven years. As in Bradbury’s short story, the Sun in Klara takes on mythic proportions. Artificial Friends are solar-powered. The Sun is crucial to their survival. Another Artificial Friend points at the floorboard and tells the robots that if they’re worried, they can touch the pattern of sunlight there in order to regain strength. Klara tests this:
I took two steps forward, crouched down and reached out both hands to the Sun’s pattern on the floor. But as soon as my fingers touched it, the pattern faded, and though I tried all I could — I patted the spot where it had been, and when that didn’t work, rubbed my hands over the floorboards — it wouldn’t come back.
The passage serves as a resonant encapsulation of the book’s central melancholy. The world is changing and indifferent and perpetually lost. Whatever we do, whatever details we try to capture and keep in the shadowy recesses of our memories, the world is not going to be as it once was, as we remember it, ever.
Anxiety builds around Josie’s initial disclosure to Klara in the store: there is something strange going on. Why is Josie’s mother so weird? There is a bomb under the table, but the novel wisely doesn’t name it until more than halfway through. Wondering what the precise menace is — beyond the obvious, an entire society that would use robots as Artificial Friends for lonely children — propels the reader forward. Ominous suggestions are made in a series of increasingly disturbing, but ultimately restrained scenes. For instance, in a strange turn, Josie’s mother takes Klara to see a waterfall in Josie’s stead. Ishiguro announces the anxiety that hovers around the trip, the strain it places on Josie and Klara’s relationship, even before recounting it: “However, not long afterwards, something else came along which did for a time make our friendship less warm. This was the trip to Morgan’s Falls, and it came to trouble me because I couldn’t for a long time see how it had created coldness between us.”
Once we learn what’s been hinted at all along, the story’s focus shifts to Klara’s efforts to repair the problem. Ishiguro builds the novel’s horrible reveal and gently sad denouement with great care. Initially, I wondered whether the book’s revelations about love, especially the love between Josie and Rick, would simply echo the repression of The Remains of the Day or the ambiguous end of The Buried Giant or the bleakness of Never Let Me Go, but this novel goes further, is more generous. These revelations are also much closer to the surface of the language without much need for decoding.
The dramatic experiments of certain Ishiguro novels are enormous, occasionally trying; some fascinate more than land. For instance, The Unconsoled is a bold, dreamy, surreal, voluminous experience, but its speechifying tested even my (surrealist-loving) patience. And while The Buried Giant has an intriguing premise, the story struggles under the genre and labor of a third-person perspective Ishiguro isn’t entirely comfortable with and that stiffness is palpable in a way it isn’t when a novel truly sings at the right register. Although the drama is as risky in Klara as it is in these other books (well, okay, maybe Klara is not as audacious an experiment as The Unconsoled, but it is also more successful), this novel expertly pulls off a high-wire act of balancing a robot’s narration, its limited perspective, with plot reveals and turns that resonate both dramatically and thematically.
Ishiguro’s most memorable novels examine memory and the effort to hold fast to the mores of a world that’s being eroded and lost. Klara is more suspenseful and pointed than either of the two novels with which it shares the most DNA. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, seem to be quite different in their particulars. Never Let Me Go builds a disturbing world of “carers.” It reveals the friendship and love triangle of three students; similar triangulations exist in Klara, but they are less explicit and moodier. Klara shares that novel’s absorptions with society, the artificial way people divide themselves, and the mysteriousness of an individual human heart when coming up against society.
However, Klara also showcases Ishiguro’s gifts for expressing the point of view of repressed and service-oriented characters. The Remains of the Day centers the viewpoint of the dignified, formal English butler, Stevens. Where Ishiguro’s narration in several of his books can sometimes feel a little stiff or oddly earnest, this peculiar, endearing quality of his prose works beautifully in a novel told from the perspective of a robot who is there to make a lonely person feel less so, but is nevertheless, merely a robot, with the sense of purpose, but limited consciousness that entails. Klara has a restricted emotional range — there are many incidents that she could feel rage, grief, or happiness about — yet nevertheless feels a tremendous sense of obligation and mission, like Stevens. The world of post–World War II decorum might seem a long journey from the futuristic dystopia of Klara and the Sun, but Ishiguro’s obsession with the loss engendered by a world that is forever dying, forever being forgotten, has a timelessness that’s hard to beat.
The bomb is always ticking, and then when its specific presence is revealed, it continues to provide tension up to the last page. There can be a looseness to Ishiguro’s novels, whether structurally or in terms of long dialogue that too closely mirrors actual speech. Klara and the Sun, however, is elegant and haunting and taut. It is best read as a keen, suspenseful inquiry into the uniqueness of the human heart. Is there a soul, something, anything that’s beyond the reach of technology as it marches toward a destruction of everything we know? Through the novel’s drama, Ishiguro offers us an answer. It’s a profound one.