Sophie Henry

I didn’t read much fiction in high school. I remember feeling that I was lost and that I needed grounding — a point of orientation around which my life would start to make sense, around which I could make my decisions. And I thought that this point of orientation couldn’t be found in fiction. I demanded something more concrete and definitive. I turned to philosophy and history, believing that they would offer me the answers I wanted. While I never found these answers, I always assumed this was because I hadn’t yet found the right author, or the right book, and that when I did, everything would click.

It wasn’t until I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes From the Underground” that I realized what I was looking for couldn’t be found in nonfiction — that illuminating the human condition can’t be done once and for all, definitively and conclusively. Rather I began to rediscover fiction as a means of digging away and uncovering — of thinking and feeling with characters and stories so as to see myself in other and others in myself. While fiction doesn’t — or perhaps shouldn’t — attempt to offer easy answers as to the meaning of life or the nature of existence, great literature brings light to places within us which remain unseen. We get closer to understanding ourselves when we come across great literature. This happened for me when I read Dostoevsky for the first time in high school, and it also happened to me when I first read Kazuo Ishiguro in the fall of my first year at Yale.

When Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, the Swedish Academy wrote that “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Indeed, Ishiguro has carved out a space for himself as a generational talent, and for me, a source of much needed existential insight through his writing. From his early work in “An Artist of the Floating World” to the Booker Prize-winning “Remains of the Day” and the highly acclaimed “Never Let Me Go,” Ishiguro uses sensitive, complex, dishonest and fragile narrators, allowing the nature of remembrance and recollection to weave complex emotional textures and grammars, granting his readers moments of heartbreak and bringing light to the experience of being human.

Ishiguro’s newest novel is called “Klara and the Sun.” It is a story of loneliness and love told from the perspective of AF Girl Klara, an artificial intelligence programmed to offer friendship to a lonely teenager named Josie. The continuities with his earlier work are clear — between Klara, the service robot and the butler, Mr. Stevens, from “The Remains of the Day”; between Josie, who is genetically modified to receive intellectual advantage and Kathy, the genetically modified clone who narrates “Never Let Me Go”; and in the themes of collective memory and fascism, which make themselves felt in the shadows cast by almost all of Ishiguro’s major works. The most important continuities, however, lie in the book’s emotional sensibility and its fundamental questions.

The project at the core of “Klara and the Sun,” if there can be said to be one, remains the same as the rest of Ishiguro’s work: to explore the universal nature of the human experience in all of its emotional and intricacies and ambiguities — to dig away at the immediate world which surrounds us and to examine what lies below. In this context, the uniquely inhuman approach offered by Klara’s perspective proves insightful, and the distinctive character of the novel emerges through her voice.

In her journey to understand Josie, her teenager, Klara must try to understand humanity itself. She acts as a fly on the wall, taking in her human surroundings in a manner which brings the reader into unique positions of distanced intimacy with Josie’s family and friends. Although Ishiguro certainly humanizes Klara in this process, he maintains a separation between the artificial narrator and the human characters. While she seeks to comprehend humanity, Klara never quite does. In the novel’s most sensitive moments, the narrator herself fails to grasp the emotional depth. Among the most touching of such moments is when Klara, still in her store, witnesses what seems to be the reunion of two long-separated friends on the street. “‘They seem so happy,’ I said. ‘But it’s strange because they also seem upset.’” Klara doesn’t understand why this moment is special, yet Ishiguro makes it clear that it is. He allows the human reader to feel something that the inhuman narrator doesn’t.

This approach is what allows “Klara and the Sun” to get at such important questions — his work, while far from philosophical doctrine or nonfiction exegesis, places us in positions from which we understand ourselves better by allowing us to read ourselves into the story. What Klara misses we don’t, meaning the emotional weight is ours, not hers.

Klara watches, reports and analyzes, but it is left to the reader to connect the dots. This implies an important distinction between human and inhuman — Klara doesn’t generate her own meaning, but rather can only define her life in terms of others. These others are us, humans, who rely on ourselves to project meaning into our surroundings. Of course, with this human possibility for independence comes the possibility for loneliness, a specter which permeates the text. As much as she misses about her human companions, Klara is apt to acknowledge that “all humans are lonely. At least potentially.”

With loneliness, as with all the human elements of the book, the most insightful implications come from what Ishiguro in fact leaves out of Klara’s internal monologue. One of the most heartbreaking characters is Miss Helen, the mother of Josie’s best friend Rick. After Helen asks Klara to help Rick prepare his application to a prestigious university, the only chance at a successful life he has as an “unlifted” (not genetically modified) child, Klara expresses her surprise that “someone would desire so much a path that would leave her in loneliness.” It strikes Klara as unusual, and perhaps selfless, that a mother with little to cherish and love beyond their child should work so hard just for their son to move out and away to attend a distant school. However, we come to learn that Helen believes Rick’s chance at admission rests on an interview with a man named Vance, who, while on the university’s board of admissions, is also a former lover of Helen’s, and about whom Helen seems to have unresolved feelings and lingering regret. What Klara narrates as an act of love and sacrifice takes on the tone of something deeper, perhaps tied more to Helen’s past than Rick’s future.

Josie’s Mother is equally layered. While unlike Helen, Josie’s Mother did choose to have her kids “lifted,” the procedure has left Josie debilitated by a chronic and potentially deadly disease. So while Klara first understands the Mother as hoping to alleviate her daughter’s sickness and to strengthen their bond, it becomes painfully clear that the Mother’s love is equally selfish as it is selfless, driven by the prospective guilt that Josie’s death would bring. What on the surface are symbols of love — her commissioning of Josie’s portrait, her asking of Klara to learn everything possible about Josie’s personality and past and her hesitation to allow Josie to spend time with her father —  are slowly revealed to be emotional manipulation, self-loathing and guilt begging to be relieved.

Ishiguro’s characters are haunted by their past, by the weight of decisions which they have already made and the consequences of which they must accept. In this sense, the essential condition of humanity is indeed loneliness. Helen is possessed by her guilt: “I’ve become…fragile. So fragile that I’m liable to break into pieces in a puff of wind. I lost my beauty, not to the years but to this fragility. But Vance, dear Vance. Won’t you forgive me now at least partially? Won’t you help my son?” We each carry a responsibility for our decisions, a responsibility which can result in guilt as easily as it can bliss. She feels guilt for not lifting Rick, and she feels guilt for hurting those she used to love. It is never clear whether she acts out of love or out of regret. “Vance. I’d offer you everything, anything, but there’s nothing I can think to offer you. Nothing at all, other than this pleading. So I’m begging you, Vance, to help him.”

Regret permeates the very being of the adults in “Klara and the Sun.” They seek redemption or punishment — some way to avoid the sheer and constant loneliness of guilt. And this is where Ishiguro widens his lens, moving away from the individual to the collective, for it is in the dangerous desire to overcome guilt, to deny responsibility, that the weight of loneliness is traded for an artificial and violent collectivity. Lurking in the background of Ishiguro’s novel are ambiguous communities, at some points suggested to be fascistic, which individuals enter to find solidarity. These are not new themes for Ishiguro. “An Artist of the Floating World” offers us a glimpse into a Japanese artist’s struggle to come to terms with his role in developing Japanese fascism; “The Remains of The Days” is narrated by a butler complicit in the rise of Nazi sympathy in Britain; and “The Unconsoled” and “The Buried Giant” deal directly with how collective uncertainty, guilt, loneliness and aversion to personal responsibility allow violent collectivities to put us under their sway.

Klara is such an important narrator in Ishiguro’s work because she widens the question of “What is humanity?” She unmasks the possibility that, while on the one hand it may be impossible to recreate human nature, on the other hand, it may be perfectly possible to lose it. Or to betray it. While Klara doesn’t have the capacity to live her life with the existential character of lonely responsibility, the humans in the novel, particularly the haunted adults, struggle with the desire to reject this condition, to sink into a collective identity and to lose what makes them individuals. Part of what makes Helen’s emotional breakdown so poignant is the self-destructive nature on which it’s based. She seeks to absolve her guilt at any cost, even at the cost of punishment. 

However, Helen’s existential guilt also points to an answer which lies at the heart of the novel’s uniquely optimistic character: forgiveness.

Helen wants forgiveness. Forgiveness from a mistreated lover and forgiveness from her child, who lives “unlifted.” What Josie’s Mother wants is forgiveness. Forgiveness for a decision which has left her daughter in a state of perpetual precarity. Forgiveness is what makes “Klara and the Sun” a novel as equally hopeful as regretful. It is what makes the novel equally about love as about loneliness.

But again, the spiritual redemption which comes from forgiveness, and the hope which it gives to the novel, cannot be teased out of Klara herself. While she may be the most hopeful of the characters in the novel, Ishiguro presents her hope as an almost mystic faith in the power of the sun. Klara constantly repeats, at Josie’s most fragile moments, that “it occurred to me that this was the ideal time for the Sun to send his special help,” and her relationship with the sun is what she perceives as the key to her quest. However, we can again find a more fleshed out sense of what truly drives the novel by looking not at the internal monologue Klara offers us, but at the subtext of what she actually says. After Josie and Rick begin to fight and drift apart, Josie draws a picture for Rick, which Klara seems to know may help move the two towards reconciliation, suggesting that “I’d very much like to take Josie’s picture to Rick. It would be good for me to explore the outside. And if Rick receives this special picture, he may forgive Josie and be her best friend.” While she doesn’t say as much to the audience in her narration, Klara seems to understand that forgiveness carries with it significance, that it offers, particularly between two teenagers with more future than history, a way to create love.

Forgiveness contains a unique capability to transcend the lonely responsibility which haunts the adults in the novel. Indeed, it seems that only the young truly have the power to forgive in “Klara and the Sun,” reminding us of the politics of generational memory which Ishiguro holds so importantly. We, as human beings in the year 2021, certainly live in a world defined by collective guilt for the past, and perhaps forgiveness is the only way forward. Or perhaps the only human way forward.

In her philosophical text “The Human Condition,” Hannah Arendt writes that “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.” We cannot act out of genuine solidarity if we continue to be haunted by guilt. For Ishiguro this seems to be true on the level of the individual, and for Arendt, at the level of the community. The only way Rick and Josie’s mothers can truly love their children is if they know that they, as complex and imperfect parents, have been forgiven. And perhaps forgiveness can play some part in reorienting the 21st century around human dignity and respect.

Arendt warns us that “the alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment.” Which alternative will we choose?

The characters in “Klara and the Sun” choose the right path — the path of forgiveness, but as always, this is not something which is immediately clear in the text. When Josie ultimately gets better, Klara believes she’s been saved by the sun, and by the healing power it brings, choosing to present as the catharsis the moment in which the blinds to Josie’s room are lifted, seemingly reviving the teenager. But again, perhaps even Klara on some level understands that the truly significant moment comes earlier, when Rick relays a message that Josie has asked him to tell her mother.

“She says that no matter what happens now, never mind how it plays out, she loves you and will always love you. She’s grateful you’re her mother and she never even once wished for any other. That’s what she said. And there was more. On this question of being lifted. She wants you to know she wouldn’t wish it any other way. If she had the power to do it again, and this time it was up to her, she says she’d do exactly what you did and you’ll always be the best mother she could have. That’s about it.”

Josie forgives her mother. And so Ishiguro’s novel ends not with the suggestion that technology is destroying humanity, or that genetic modification is a mortal threat to our existence, but with a sense of hope.

Of course, Ishiguro remains an artist, not a theorist nor a philosopher, so to read such concrete questions and answers into his work is, on some level, to miss the point. But what he does with his newest novel is to continue the essential work of digging, illuminating and clarifying what lies inside of us. And at least part of what lies inside of us, as individual human beings and as communities, is the capacity to forgive.

For all she gets wrong about the human condition, Klara in this sense understands more than we when she reminds us that “in the morning when the Sun returns. It’s possible for us to hope.”

Daniel Edison |