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Sunday
Sep262010

The Hidden Meaning of Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go'

I was moved to write my thoughts on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) after seeing that a movie version was just released. I read David Denby’s movie review in The New Yorker, and I've read several book reviews in the past, and none have talked about what I understood to be Ishiguro's central message.

First, a quick spoiler: Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate world where the main characters are clones raised solely for their organs. Called Carers, they live a truncated life, dying in middle age as they are called upon to give up one organ at a time. The bulk of the story takes place in the past, when they were children living in a small, strange boarding school, sequestered from the world.

Reviewers of the book (and now movie) have focused on the sci-fi/thriller elements of the story – the cloning, the raising of people for organs, what Ishiguro might be saying about the future of our society and our medical industry. But this book has nothing to do with science, or the medical establishment, or problems of the future. This is a story that uses these pop-ish elements as a mere backdrop to examine human nature.

As Ishiguro did so expertly with The Remains of the Day (still one of my favorite books of all time - also a good movie but the movie is not even in the same ballpark as the book), he paints a portrait of characters seemingly lacking in “normal” affect. The most noticeable feeling you have as you read Never Let Me Go is a feeling of frustration. As the characters grow into adolescence and then into young adulthood, slowing realizing (as we realize) what is in store for them, you want to scream at their complacency. “Fight back!” you want to say. “Do something! This isn’t fair!”

But the characters accept their lot. As their destiny is slowly revealed to them over years, they spend their days embedded in rituals, in gossip, in small dramas, in petty arguments and jealous rivalry. Ishiguro weaves a realistic and placid account of their lives, so hypnotically tedious that it’s maddening when you snap to and remember what has been done to these people. This leads the reader to think, “What idiots. If it were me I’d fight back, do something. I wouldn’t just take this injustice lying down.”

Or would you?

Ishiguro is a psychological genius. Do you see what he’s done? His subtle framing of this story in such terms leads you to question the complacency with which we all (some more than others) live our lives. Aren’t all of us embedded in rituals and past-times we have never examined? How many of us are surrounded by injustice and madness that we accept as par-for-the-course on a daily basis?

I felt a similar existential claustrophobia when I finished Remains of the Day for the first time – that sense of how trapped we humans can be – by our past, by our mind, by our roles assigned, by what is expected of us. And as with that book, I felt a strong aversion to that claustrophobia – to living a life that is too defined.

Ishiguro’s mastery of language and the human mind cannot be overstated. With the unreliable narrator, which he uses in all of his books that I've read, he seems to have found the perfect narrative device for sneaking inside the mind of a reader and setting up shop there, twisting screws and loosening sockets all while the reader might be unaware of what is going on. I have read that Ishiguro is well-versed in Freudian psychology and I believe his books show this.

I am of the opinion that many people who read his books, even when they don’t see the intricate crafting that has been done, still finish the book with Ishiguro’s messages lodged in their unconscious.

Friday
Oct232009

Where The Wild Things Are: The Hidden Meaning

Guest Review by Molly Johnson, author of Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows

I can’t tell you how long I’d been waiting for "Where the Wild Things Are". When I saw the trailer, I knew that I finally had a movie to look forward to. I talked to everyone about it. I downloaded the Arcade Fire song that played on the trailer. I made plans with a childhood friend and we saw it together, the first Saturday it came out, grinning side-by-side, while a peanut gallery of 6-year-olds sat behind us, narrating every scene.

There are some great reviews out there about what worked and what didn’t (Salon.com and The New Yorker, for a start). But none I read touched on the larger meaning of the movie: What was the message? I’ll tell you my experience following the movie, the conclusions I jumped to…and the interpretation that came to me, two days after the movie had time to swim around in my brain.

My initial reaction was that the movie was very self-indulgent. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers had to imbue the monsters with many characteristics that were not there in the 300-word children’s book. I understand that. What I didn’t understand was why the whole thing had to be so damn sad.

I understand the jealousy and the fighting and the breaking things (they are beasts, after all), but I don’t understand the moping. Oh god, did they mope. Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon aptly describes them as EMOnsters (as in Emo) —and they really are.  Brooding and dejected, they shuffle through the woods or sit alone on a cliff, shoulders rising with every painful sigh. Max sits quietly beside them, very confused, as were we.

“Why is he sad?” came a small voice in the theater behind me.

“I don’t know,” answered the bewildered mother.

“I don’t know, either,” my friend whispered to me.

One monster in particular, the giant bull, lurks in the background for the entire movie. Nothing broke my heart more than at the end when the Bull creature finally speaks, telling Max goodbye in a defeated voice, his furry hands reaching out uncertainly in the obvious “I want a hug” gesture... and Max just walks away. We can only assume the Bull committed suicide shortly after Max left.

Many children's movies can go back and forth between exultation and melancholy, but this movie stayed mostly down in the dumps. What kind of masochistic kid would enjoy this strange trip? It really seemed to me like perhaps the filmmakers had used the chance to extrapolate the original story to express all of their own feelings of a lost childhood. Or perhaps it was Dave Eggers’ post-modern influence: I can imagine him sitting around in the brainstorming session, saying “Okay, we got to make this thing dark!”. Was this really what Maurice Sendak had been intending?

However, all of that was before I slept on it, before I was able to pinpoint the undercurrent I was sensing beneath the surface. I respect Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers a lot, and I know they are smart guys, and I know they didn’t make this movie without putting a lot of thought into it. I could feel a meaning hidden there at the edge of all that melancholy and confusion, similar to that feeling I get after watching a David Lynch movie. There’s something going on there, but what is it?

Max’s trip is obviously a dream, and as in dreams, you can see parallels between Max’s experiences in real life and his experiences with the beasts. There is a fort-building, there is a fort-destroying, there are strange, confusing creatures that are meant to represent Max’s family as well as parts of himself. I got some of that. But why do the beasts want Max to be their king? Why does Carole, the main monster, want Max to “keep out all of the sadness”? Why are they so unhappy with him not being able to deliver on this tall order? What is the movie saying? You always hurt your family? You should leave them when things get bad?

It finally came to me two mornings after watching Wild Things. There is a scene when Max tells an upset Carole, “You need a mom.” Suddenly, it clicked: Max’s role as “king” of the beasts is the same role that children assign to their parents: this enormous, unachievable task. “Keep out all of the sadness.” “Keep us together.” Max’s journey, and the point of the movie, is the unfolding of his realization that his mom is not all-powerful, and that there is no one who can fully protect a family from being unhappy. Max leaving those ‘wild things’ behind is symbolic of his maturation, of his better understanding of the difficulties of ruling a kingdom (or family).

I believe that this is what Jonze and Eggers were going for, and I’m surprised I haven’t read anything about this interpretation. The subtlety of the movie, and the way it leaves a meaning lodged in your unconscious, lead me to like it a lot more than I did right after seeing it. But my reservations are still there, and that's because, no matter the worthwhile meaning, it’s still just so damn depressing.

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