While walking through a college campus recently, I noticed several small white plastic boxes on wheels. They scurried along the sidewalks, crossing the streets when the traffic cleared, obviously heading somewhere. They were take-out robots, summoned by students on their smartphones to bring tacos or pizza or tandoori chicken to residence halls. One of them approached me, flashed his headlights and waited for me to pass. He refused to tell me where he was going.
The central character of Kazuo Ishiguro’s virtuoso 2021 novel is a robot of a completely different kind. (Think of this year’s smartphone compared to a cell phone from the 1970s with its bulky battery.) Klara is an “artificial friend” with a girlish body, able to act, speak and think for herself. As the novel opens, she hopefully waits for someone to pick her from the showroom where she and her AF friends are on display, though she knows she’s a generation behind the new ones. nearby models.
Philosophers and poets have long wondered what it’s like to experience the world as a dog, bat, or beetle, but Ishiguro attempts something even riskier and more ambitious. The story that takes place in Clara and the sun is told from start to finish from inside the mind of a – what shall we say? Robot? automaton? Artificial person? Animatronic doll? Each is true in some sense, but none do justice to the richness and complexity of Klara’s life.
It is Ishiguro’s eighth novel and first since his 2017 Nobel Prize. It is set in an unidentified large city, where the fabric of urban life is familiar. There are cars and buses, office buildings and parks, downtown apartments and suburban homes. But the essential systems are managed by computers. Although there are a few refuges in nature, the city’s air is sullied by the emissions from the gigantic industrial devices – “Cootings Machines”, Klara calls them – scattered in the streets.
The world of the novel differs profoundly from ours in its approach to childhood, education and human relations. Klara exists in a world where all children take their lessons from home on “oblongs”, which seem to be small wireless tablets. Josie, the 14-year-old girl who picked her, hosts a mandatory gathering to improve the teens’ socialization skills, and Klara isn’t surprised by the bickering and backstabbing that ensues. Whenever Josie, usually a close friend and confidante, coldly dismisses her, Klara stays there and waits – for an hour or a few days, until she is needed again. We can recall Stevens, the butler who narrates Ishiguro’s most read novel, Leftovers of the day, always ready to help his employer, ignoring his moral failings. But this AF seems more self-aware than the human butler was.
Critical parts of the environment emerge in an elliptical fashion as Josie and Klara’s story unfolds. One of the central concerns of this altered world is the “facelift” of certain young children, which seems to be a kind of genetic editing to boost intellectual capacities and open the door to high-level professions. Not every family can afford it. Josie was lifted, but her friend Rick was not, drawing scorn from Josie’s party guests and concern from her mother, Chrissie.
It turns out that AFs are not only assistants for children and teenagers, but also backup models ready to replace them if necessary. It’s part of Josie and Klara’s relationship, and it’s the reason for Chrissie’s obsessive insistence that Klara “learn” about her daughter. A subject matter expert tells Klara that she can “learn Josie. Not just superficially, but deeply, completely. Learn it until there is no difference between the first Josie and the second. But can an FA really “carry on” a child, Chrissie wonders? The expert reassures her:
The problem, Chrissie, is that you’re like me. We are both sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carries the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to continue to believe that there is something inaccessible in all of us. Something unique and that will not be transferred. But there is no such thing, we know that now. . . . The second Josie will not be a copy. She will be exactly the same and you will have every right to love her as you love Josie now. It’s not the faith you need. Only rationality.
The inner self, the heart, the soul, these are all relics of a prescientific mentality.
However, Josie’s father has his doubts. He asks Klara, “Do you believe in the human heart? Could Klara learn not only Josie’s thoughts and habits, but “what’s deep inside her?” Klara replies thoughtfully:
The heart you speak of. . . might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It could be like a house with several rooms. Even so, a dedicated AF, in time, could walk through each of these rooms, carefully studying them in turn, until they feel like their own home. . . . If it was the best way to save Josie, I would do everything I could. And I believe there is a good chance that I can succeed.
The themes and the narrator of Clara and the sun remember Ishiguro’s novel from 2005 Never let Me Go. This story begins as the memoirs of an English boarding school, but the school is strangely isolated, its students closely watched. The narrator, Kathy, looking back decades later, leaves breadcrumbs along a trail that leads to the dystopian tale’s gruesome premise: the problem of organ shortages has been solved by breeding human clones to provide them. Internship is a short-lived philanthropic experience aimed at enriching the short lives of future donors. Kathy and Klara, two not-quite-human narrators with five-letter names beginning with K, are reminiscent of a writer of nightmarish 20th-century metaphysical fables: both of these novels have Kafkaesque elements.
But while the mood of the previous book is dark and creepy, Clara and the sun is brighter and warmer. We’re drawn to its quirky storyteller, admiring both his relentless cheerfulness and his ability to think outside the circuit board. Its answers to questions about meaning and identity are far more illuminating than, say, Siri or Alexa. There are, however, details and unanswered questions, such as what the Cootings machine does. Maybe it’s because Klara can’t fully explain everything.
At the age of five, Ishiguro left Japan for a town near London where his father was a civil service oceanographer. Interviewer Giles Harvey wrote in the New York Times last year that teenager Ishiguro aspired to become a singer-songwriter. “He and his friends would sit for hours nodding [Bob] Dylan’s obscure words as if they understood every word. . . . From Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, he learned the possibilities of first person: how a character can be summoned with just a few words.
Klara’s speech, which has nothing to do with Dylan’s, is formal and precise. On an outing to see a waterfall, she notes that “because it was my first time getting into a car, I couldn’t make a good estimate of our speed. It seemed to me that the mother was driving abnormally fast. At times, his narrative evokes the uninterpreted sensory data that analytical philosophers such as AJ Ayer and GE Moore posit as the foundation of empirical experience. Indeed, Klara’s visual world – for reasons never specified – sometimes turns into a matrix of boxes and then reunites.
As he imagined Klara’s inner life, Ishiguro may have drawn insight into consciousness and self not only from folk songs, but also from philosophers who share his bewilderment. He does not say. Here and in other works I have read, he addresses deep theological issues while avoiding any reliance on religious language or tradition.
There are, however, supernatural elements in Klara’s world, which she sees as a Manichaean battleground between the Sun and Pollution. When Josie falls ill, Klara goes to the barn where the sun appears to her each day to bed and begs, “Please make Josie better” because “Josie is still a child and she hasn’t done anything. evil”. Then, like Job and Elijah, Klara offers a deal: “I know how much the Sun doesn’t like Pollution. How it saddens and irritates you. Well, I saw and identified the machine that creates it. Suppose I am somehow able to find this machine and destroy it. To put an end to its Pollution. Would you consider, in return, to bring your special assistance to Josie? »
Klara later returns to the sacred site and offers a prayer so long that any congregation listening to it would become nervous. She destroyed a Cootings machine, but Josie’s condition is worse. Now she pleads:
I know I have no right to come here like this. And I know the Sun must be mad at me. I dropped it, completely failing to stop Pollution. . . . I sincerely apologize for having underestimated my task. It was my mistake and no one else’s, and while the Sun is right to be mad at me, I ask him to accept that Josie herself is completely innocent. . . . I have never forgotten how kind the sun can be. If only he would show his great compassion to Josie.
Does Klara speak here for all of us, acknowledging the little we have done to stem the evil we have set in motion – the forces of technical sorcery uprooting the community, the fantasies of machines to take our place, the selves who appeal to rationality to deny their ipseity?
In an extensive essay on this and other recent works by Ishiguro, James Wood wrote last year in the New Yorker“Theology is, in certain forms, only the metaphysics of favouritism: a prayer is a postcard asking for a favour, sent upwards. That our postcards are read by anyone has become the deep doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so totally different from his peers, strives to create his ordinary, strange and impious allegories.
Klara’s faith in the Sun is finally rewarded. In the final pages of the novel, Klara finds solace in a place readers may not expect. With her, and with the author, we move a little away from the edge of nonsense.