Monday, March 19, 2007

Fiction and Philosophy

I love to read a good story that simply is a good story. But there is something even more compelling about about a good story that is also a foray into philosophy. Not long ago, I wrote about The Secret, by Eva Hoffman. I was extremely interested in the philosophical questions raised in the book, and Sherry from Semicolon suggested that Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro might be interesting because it considered similar questions.

There are some minor spoilers here for both books, so be forewarned.

As it happens, Ishiguro is a popular enough author to be carried in English at the biggest Polish bookstore in Krakow (Empik, if you want to know), and so I picked up a copy to read and compare. The narrator of the story is a young woman who has been cloned--the same arrangment used in The Secret.

In The Secret, individuals are cloned by choice--commissioned, you might say. In Never Let Me Go, individuals are cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants. The cloned children are raised together, apart from society. As adults, they continue to live in their own small communities and are trained to be "family" to each other so that they can support each other through the process of donating organs, which eventually, of course, results in "termination."

The narrator of The Secret always felt like an outsider looking in at the real world, in spite of being a part of the world. The narrator (and her colleagues) of Never Let Me Go always seemed to feel that she was a real, normal person and couldn't understand why anyone would doubt it. It's hard to say which of these two reactions would be most likely.

Without entirely giving away the plot of the book, I would say that Never Let Me Go reaches somewhat different conclusions than The Secret. I found it to be less plausible in many ways. Ishiguro's book shows us a world which denies (for its own convenience) that cloned humans have souls, although they certainly do. Hoffman's book questions whether anyone at all has a soul, but concludes that clones have as much of a soul as anyone else. Never Let Me Go never really lets you see the world outside of the cloned humans' experience, and they are not a part of society at large. I found it difficult to imagine reality matching the setting. The Secret showed a world that was entirely too plausible--easy to imagine, but not a reality I would want to materialize.

Overall, I definitely preferred The Secret to Never Let Me Go, but both books are worth reading, and I am interested enough in Ishiguro's work to want to read more. Both of these books raise interesting questions to think about and discuss. Books like these are certainly a symptom of our postmodern world, which is full of uncertainties and questions, and denies that answers are even possible.

Being fully convinced, as a Christian, of the intrinsic existence and value of the human soul, I find it interesting that such post-modern books as these reach the same conclusion--that man has a soul.


At 4:55 PM , Blogger John Mutford said...

Hi there, I just followed your link from my blog. Thanks for posting it!

I think what you said about Never Let Me Go "never really [letting] you see the world outside of the cloned humans' experience" really nails a core problem with this book, as I see it. As you said, there seems to be some pretense from the narrator that she is "normal"- the problem is that normality seems to be judged or defined by the outside society of which the narrator really wouldn't have known much about- so it must be the author, Ishiguro, speaking. And that is the way, I'm feeling the whole way through it (note that I haven't finished it yet!), that I can't get into it because I am far to aware of what appears to be the author's own sentiments.

It's interesting to me that you looked at the book through a "soul searching" sort of frame. You say that the book raises a lot of questions where that topic is concerned, but for me it hasn't. For me, it has raised more questions about education and its role. Then again, I'm a teacher. I guess my point is that the book itself may not be raising the issues, it might be us the readers.

At 2:49 AM , Blogger John Mutford said...

Ooops, that's what I get for posting before I finished the book I guess. I had assumed that the soul issue was raised by you, perhaps looking for an underlying theme. Of course, it ended up not being underneath at all. I liked the way Ishiguro explored the soul as individuality.


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