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Jul 12, 2010

Never Let Me Go

I just finished reading Never Let Me Go, which apparently, though unsurprisingly, has now been made into a movie. It's of particular interest to me because it's a crossover genre: science fiction, but clearly literary. In fact, it starts from the same premises as The Island.

The Island is not as bad as the trailer makes out (kick! kiss! crash! bam!). Despite appearances, it's not devoid of deeper philosophy. And frankly, if I go see Never Let Me Go, in the theatre, I may rent The Island the next day to prevent myself from committing suicide, because, I can tell you, I was crying so hard after reading the book, I really needed a helicopter chase scene to cheer me up.

I think Kazuo Ishiguro is amazing. I have a love/hate relationship with him. The reader in me loves his books. The writer in me hates him because he is racing a unicycle in the Tour de France and I am still using training-wheels on my 3-speed.

So in between sobbing into my cheerios as I finished the story over breakfast, I attempted to absorb writerly lessons from the book. I'm still trying to distill it, so pardon the painfully obvious notes below. (Training wheels, my friends -- and aren't you glad I didn't use the potty training analogy? When you have toddlers, infantile scatological jokes are an ever-present temptation.)
Mystery: A good deal of the tension in the book comes from the slow unfolding of the mystery. I knew nothing about the book before I read it, so it worked its full magic on my. I apologize to anyone reading this post who feels I may have revealed too much about the plot and this spoiled some of that. Don't worry, the book is still worth reading.

Micro-tension: In addition to the larger mysteries raised by the story, the ending line of each scene introduced a new, micro-mystery. The scene which followed was a complete story in itself, with tension, conflict and resolution, followed by a new micro-mystery.

Understatement: This particularly struck me in the dialogue, but it was true throughout. Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of understatement. (I am a master of overstatement. We all have our talents.) In prose, the narrator (it's told first person) says less than she knows, and much less than the narrator knows. In dialogue, the characters did not say everything they were thinking. The unspoken understandings underlying the patina of chitter-chatter makes the dialogue believable.

Details: In every little micro-drama played out, usually between the same three characters, we learned a few more details that defined them as people. Toward the middle of the book, I felt a bit impatient, as I often do with literary novels, because each drama, in and of itself, concerned some trivial matter -- a lost cassette tape, a pencil case, a nasty comment one girl made about the other in front of the boy, etc. Okay, a part of me was thinking, can someone please blow up a helicopter now?

The thing is, though, I wasn't about to put the book down. And all those accumulated details gave me the illusion of knowing the characters intimately, so when Bad Things began to happen to them, it didn't take vehicular explosions to pack emotional punch.

There's a lot more I could say about his marvelous technique. I'll stop gushing for now.

How can I put this into my own writing? I can appreciate it when I see another writer do it, but how can I do it?


Ban said...

Good question - when you discover the secret, please share!!!
Off to find that book :)

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one sobbing into my cereal when I finished reading Never Let Me Go - for exactly the same reasons! Partly because of the melancholy Ishiguro always weaves into his books, an partly because I have the same love/hate relationship with him that you do! Loved your bike analogy (especially as I"ve just finished watching Tour de France again).

When you find the answer to your question, please share it with us!! :)