Monday, November 28, 2005

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I had Thanksgiving dinner with a former president of Providence College, who now teaches one course, on contemporary ethical issues. We didn't have much of a conversation about any of those issues, partly because I don't know much about ethics and partly because he quickly derails any conversational give-and-take into a story. He's one of those older men who have an endless supply of stories to tell, and tell them fairly well, and jump at any slight excuse to tell them. The problem is the stories themselves aren't that great, and have to do mostly with law suits the college won, and students who come to class in baseball caps. John Heineman was like that too.

My point? None really, except that after reading Never Let Me Golast week, I've been thinking about contemporary ethical issues.

I'm not sure how much Ishiguro intended this novel to be part of the debate over cloning issues, and how much he simply wanted to write one of those poignant, frustrated love stories that he seems so fond of, which just happens to take place in a slightly alternate reality. The title is taken from a touching, intimate scene in the novel that has nothing to do with cloning at all, so it suggests that the balance is meant to be towards the latter. But remember that Remains of the Day used a seemingly apolitical love story to comment on democracy and fascism, themes which very rarely popped up explicitly, and bore very little of the plot's weight. Same here.

I don't mean to say that this is an anti-cloning novel, because despite the obvious inhumanity of the society depicted, it isn't. But it's not really a love story either. It's a story about how acceptable certain horrific injustices can feel. Ishiguro reveals the details of the cloning scheme slowly, which emphasizes the fact that none of this seems particularly shocking to the characters. It does to us, of course, but there is no preaching about the evils of cloning--to us, as they are to themselves, the characters are fully human and individual. The effect could just as well be to remind that there are real-world injustices which are nearly as horrifying, and which we block out the best we can.

The controlled, slow reveal has fooled some people into thinking of it as a mystery story, but there's really not much suspense. Unfortunately there is one of those climactic scenes in which all is revealed, a la Miss Marple, and in my opinion this is the least successful passage. But it's ambiguous and unsatisfying enough to not cheapen the experience of the book up to that point.

It's a bit to easy to find a "live life to the fullest" message for my taste. I know, it's probably good advice. But if I were living life to the fullest, I probably wouldn't have had time to read the novel, now would I?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Two hacks

In an attempt to put that embarrassing letter to behind me (seriously, I need to work on my web presence) I responded to this here.

He blames the riots in France on socialism. I'm not sure if he knows whether or not the French government is not in fact socialist, not even in name. In fairness, I suspect that he might not have written the title of the piece, which is the only place in which he states (rather than implies) that Chirac is a socialist. I didn't write the title of my piece either, which was a mistake on my part, because it does a very bad job of explaining my point.

I wish I'd known about Timothy Smith's bookbefore I wrote it. Smith's point is that as much assistance as the French government gives, it's not redistributive in an egalitarian way. So while the middle class gets great pensions, the banlieux get the CRS. More on this later.

Wait, high school students having sex is a bad thing?

George Will starts out this stupid stupid column by saying "let's be good cosmopolitans and offer sociological explanations rather than moral judgments..." and then offers up moral judgements in the guise of sociological explanations. Tricky.

A numbered list of the problems I have with the column:

1. He argues that having rules simply for the sake of having rules is a good thing, instead of a totally arbitrary constraint on entirely value-neutral forms of culture.

2. Turns out that one specific form of culture that is destroying politeness is black culture. How convenient for Will that he happens to be white and catholic and rich. Also, he puts scare-quotes around "street" and "gangsta" and "edgy." George, just because you have no idea what those concepts are doesn't mean the concepts don't exist.

3. Using the iPod as an explanation for any (non-musical) cultural trend is so two-years-ago. He needs to go read Steven Johnson.

I think the (supposed) decline of manners might have more to do with a growing realization that moralists like George Will are full of crap.