Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17

Issue 17 of the Quarterly Conversation has just gone up, and it's full of good stuff. I already mentioned Jordan Anderson's piece on two I've Been Reading Lately favorites, Proust and Javiar Marias, a few days ago when I was proofreading it; if, like me, you're breathlessly anticipating November's English-language publication of the final volume of Marias's trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Anderson's piece will serve to remind you of why you're so excited. If, on the other hand, you're a Proust fan who's never encountered Marias before, Anderson's take on Marias's use of Proust can't help but pique your interest.

I contribute a brief overview of the career of Kazuo Ishiguro, who is one of my favorite authors despite a somewhat vexed relationship to his work; his new story collection, Nocturnes, which will (finally!) be published here in the States later this month, provides the occasion--and some glimmers of hope for those of us who look back at his messy masterpiece The Unconsoled with frustrated fondness.

And my stable of poetry reviewers keeps contributing good work: the estimable Patrick Kurp weighs in on a new collection of the work of one of his favorite poets, Geoffrey Hill; George Fragopoulos responds appropriately--and thus oddly--to the endearingly strange For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, by Takashi Hiraide; Andy Frazee addresses Joshua Harmon's Scape; and more.

Head over there and while away your afternoon. You won't regret it. I, meanwhile, will start laying plans for Issue 18 . . . good god, how does David Remnick survive forty-seven issues per year?


  1. Hi, Levi, I enjoyed your review essay on Ishiguro, though I'm writing to offer another opinion on Never Let Me Go, a book I love and one that I'll be teaching this semester. While it's true that Ishiguro seems to be returning to the tropes of denial and repression he worked up in The Remains of the Day, I think that there are significant differences that make Never Let Me Go a book that charts new psychological terrain.

    In particular, it needs to be remembered that the main characters (SPOILER ALERT) are clones. They are, and are not, human, at least as described in this book. They have been raised to eventually donate their organs to those who are considered actual human beings, and they do so, organ by organ, until they die.

    These characters could easily run away, go underground, defy the fate assigned them, but they do not; not, I think, because they are in psychological denial, but because their denial seems to have been imprinted into their being. They worry, they complain about this fate, but make no dramatic moves to escape what faces them. It's as if the idea never seriously engages them, as if it's not possible to think this thought through.

    I'm reminded of a stunning passage in a little-known novel by Jack London, Before Adam, a work about near-human creatures, an evolutionary backwater. In one section they come upon logs in the water, learn to lie on them and float on the water, but the idea that these logs could be used for navigation, a method to get to the other shore, is beyond them. Their minds, at least initially, cannot grasp this concept. As London writes, "We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem."

    It seems to me that Ishiguro is offering a portrayal of a mind up against its limitation, one that perhaps was designed for it. Kathy and her friends seem human, but they are not, not completely, and for this reader at least, to follow those inner paths close to but not quite like us is haunting.

  2. Philip, thanks for offering this take, which also jibes with the way my wife read the characters. It's a convincing argument, and it would definitely make the book more impressive and emotionally powerful--while also explaining why so few people other than me were disappointed by the novel.

    It seems like a case of my having read too much Ishiguro, and too many times, over the years: I encountered these new characters who are emotionally stunted and pathologically self-denying, and--despite their status as clones--read them as simply further iterations of Ishiguro's familiar psychological types, whereas he meant for us to think more about those deficiencies and their relation to our own.

    {Oh, and while I've not read Before Adam, there is a scene in Watership Down that is similar, and similarly effective: the rabbits need to cross a stream, and the smartest one figures out that they can float across on (I believe) a loose raft. The rest of the rabbits are incapable of even conceiving this operation--they go along, but they don't understand what's happening even for one second, and within hours they've even forgotten the whole thing.