Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel address, which I have listened to, in ten-minute intervals, while walking outside, folding my laundry, and scrubbing my stove, has turned out to be the ideal soundtrack for a housebound COVID winter. “Throughout the winter of 1979-1980,” the author explains, in a voice as measured and soothing as his writing style, “I spoke to virtually no one.” He then describes a season of solitary, anesthetic activity. (He buys groceries, writes.) The feelings that he inspires are mild, like the brief stab of sentiment, or twinge of nostalgia. As a rule, Ishiguro eschews the “melodramatic or plotty.” His novels concern muted emotions and minor events.
Before the year 1995, Ishiguro wrote tight social novels, set in actual—if mythologized—settings: the Japan of his childhood in A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, the England of P.G. Wodehouse in The Remains of the Day. Since then, he has appeared to abandon the subtle novel of manners, in favor of genre fiction’s less refined delights. In 2000, he published the quasi-detective novel, When We Were Orphans; next came the sci-fi-inspired clone book, Never Let Me Go (2005); finally, in 2015, he produced The Buried Giant, a quaint, Anglophilic fantasy in the vein of Neil Gaiman’s work. But genre fiction’s flashy trappings have been for Ishiguro a Trojan horse—an apparently up-to-date vessel through which to smuggle the Victorian novel into the 21st century. His post-2000 books, despite their exotic rudiments, still follow the twisting vicissitudes of interpersonal relations (schoolyard romances, competitive friendships). They still foreground the tempered, tender feelings that such relations inspire. Even the most eventful of the three, The Buried Giant (ironically also the most boring), centers on the testing of an older couple’s love. Some battles with ogres, and the like, are scattered throughout. But these, we learn on page one, are “everyday hazards.”
With Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s first post-Nobel Prize novel, his pattern calcifies. Again, the author writes a work of quasi-genre fiction. Klara, though originally conceived as a children’s book, becomes a bread-and-butter sci-fi: the story of a sentient AI, or “Artificial Friend” (AF), named Klara, who lives in the future version of the United States. Again, Ishiguro eschews his chosen genre’s “plotty” elements in favor of the minor, emotive and everyday. It’s as if Ishiguro—who is also now at work on a graphic novel and another film adaptation—is engaged in an aesthetic version of the British imperial project that Remains elegized: to remake every genre, one by one, in his own serene image.
Klara opens on a sequence that reflects its origins as a children’s story, an amuse-bouche reminiscent of a Pixar short (think, if you’ve seen them, of Wall-E or Up). Klara and her fellow AFs, who live in a store under the care of their stern but kindly Manager, await the special day when a family will purchase them. In a whizzing cartoon operetta of heady triumphs and frustrated hopes, they are chosen or passed over by passersby. At this point, Klara is, as she refers to it, “new”: though intelligent and observant (we are told), she knows little of her surroundings. She is also, by nature, an innocent, and the world, as seen through her eyes, is Disney-fied: stark, 2D and rosy-hued, with sinister undertones only fully discernible to the adults in the audience (us). Like many a sensitive robot before her, Klara is on a sentimental journey. She wants most to understand what these humans call fee-lings. Each new day brings a new, minor incident—another opportunity to investigate.
Here, for example, is “Rex,” a “Boy AF” who sits near Klara on the shelf. Rex is mean and says harsh things to Klara! “That was greedy,” he tells her when she spends too much time absorbing the sunlight that powers them. “You girl AFs are always so greedy.” But Rex, we soon learn, has troubles, too. One day, as Klara watches, he locks eyes with a human girl, strolling through the store with her mother. Sparks fly, and a love match is made. “Oh, Mother, he’s perfect,” the girl cries. But mother demurs. An “office worker,” she hails from the big, bad world of adults. She won’t buy an AF like Rex, who—we here learn—has “solar absorption problems.” Now, Klara understands why Rex was so tetchy about the sun. Hurt robots hurt robots, it would seem. Other experiences yield similarly profound lessons, like: “Sometimes … at special moments … people feel a pain alongside their happiness.”
A plot begins to take shape with the arrival of Josie, an adolescent girl who, in addition to having a “face filled with kindness,” possesses the perpetual air of being about to say the phrase “Gee whiz!” Klara and Josie, like Rex and his paramour, make an immediate love connection, exchanging tender glances through the storefront window. But Josie’s boss-lady mom—yet again—has pragmatic reservations. After multiple sputters and starts, Josie gets her way, and takes Klara home. Our overture now over, the curtain goes up.
Is this novel intended for adults? As of now, it’s genuinely hard to tell. Hobbled by its own unpromising premise, Klara, much like Josie, who—did I mention?—has a limp, seems predestined to run out of steam. On a good day, the trope of the tenderhearted robot who learns how to love is unoriginal. On a bad day, it’s cringe-worthy. There’s something inevitably, comically grotesque about a sensitive cyborg, like Robin Williams’s gently smiling, eyelash-batting Bicentennial Man, or Klara’s closest physical correlate, the female C-3P0 from Spaceballs. Klara and the Sun, as a result, begins as a high-wire act, a book always on the verge of tumbling into sentiment, banality or sheer ridiculousness.
And yet somehow, with every wobble, the book stays—for now—on the wire. Because even in its first, faltering moments, it possesses something of the compelling quality that marks Ishiguro’s best works. It’s not that the prose style dazzles. Here, as in Ishiguro’s earlier books, the language is impressively fluid—simply lyrical, even—but essentially milquetoast. Nor is it—quite clearly—the characters’ depths. Even Ishiguro’s more complicated protagonists, like Stevens in The Remains of the Day, have something of the cyborg quality, as if carefully simulating human complexity for the reader, rather than experiencing it. Yet the story, for all its uneventful everydayness, possesses a hypnotic capacity. It would be wrong to say of Klara—as of Never Let Me Go—that it grips me. More modestly: it holds my attention.
Many have been puzzled by this latter stage of Ishiguro’s career. Before 2000, he seemed an author unlikely to embrace the au courant—the cutting edge of futurist sci-fi, or the populist pastures of genre fiction. The novel that made him famous, The Remains of the Day, was—in its depiction of the aging mid-century English butler Stevens—not just a swan song of the waning British Empire. It was a monument, too, to her key cultural export: the novel of manners. Here was a modernist take on that classic Victorian form so clean and consummate as to suggest its own finality. Reading it, you felt almost as if you could write one.
But Ishiguro’s early aesthetic, as it turned out, would be strangely suited to coming times. When, in 2005, he published Never Let Me Go, narrated by the clone Kathy H., it at first appeared an astonishing swerve. And yet hadn’t the author always—to some degree—written about quasi-humans? In his first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), Ishiguro developed the first-person voice—here belonging to a Japanese mother named Etsuko—that would become his signature: placid and even, with a simplicity that bordered on uncanny. Klara, like Kathy H. and Etsuko before her, speaks in this voice. Ishiguro, for all his proto-Victorianism, seems to have been born to write books about cyborgs.
In other ways, too, Ishiguro has turned unlikely spirit of the age. Klara, despite being one of the only books I’ve read this year that wasn’t marketed as a COVID-19 prophecy, is also the only one that feels like one. When Klara first arrives at the spacious, secluded home that Josie shares with her mother, she—and we—learn more about their futuristic world. Wealthy families now conduct their lives largely remotely, through portable devices. Klara and Josie, confined to the house, live in the manner to which many of us have now grown accustomed. They organize their days around the limited set of activities that, for them, are major events—walks outside, coffees with Mom. Every evening, they sit on a couch by the window and watch the sunset.
Ishiguro is not the type of author who—like, say, Don DeLillo or Richard Powers—regularly attracts the label techno-prophet. But Klara foresees what COVID has clarified: that our technology has been carrying us on a course not toward proximity and connection but away from them. COVID is itself, after all, a sort of late Ishiguro novel—a banal, benumbed dystopia. People are dying, in the hospitals. The rest of us (if we’re lucky) are on the couch.
Klara, in fact, was inspired by big tech. Ishiguro says the book expresses his concern that “we are living in a time when the most powerful companies in the world … can map our behavior.” Yet the aesthetic effect of Ishiguro’s recent work can seem—in less sinister fashion—to lay bare Google or Amazon’s lessons: that our attentions are primally manipulable, almost all-too programmable. The author’s uneventful novels—genre labels aside—may at first call to mind works by great novelistic chroniclers of the diurnal, like Woolf, Proust or Knausgaard. But his approach aligns him more closely with popular digital artists of the everyday—creators of vlogs, unboxing videos or ASMR. His fictions boast little by way of vivid, external description (à la Knausgaard) or deep psychological acuity (à la Proust). But they do become strangely mesmeric in all their mundanity. The hypnotic effect can feel ineffable. And yet, it is methodical. There are visible gears at work in the gently swinging clock.
The first tool that Ishiguro uses is narrative voice. Throughout the past few years, I’ve noticed the persistence of a particular style, and especially among younger American writers. The style—which I call “In those days we were always”—appears, for example, in the openings of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Teju Cole’s Open City and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It involves a sort of placid, meticulous cataloguing of diurnal routines. Leopold Bloom woke one day and decided to cook a kidney; Lerner’s Adam enacts the “first phase” of a focused “project” while making his coffee and rolling his spliff. One inspirator of this style, beyond Sebald (for Cole) and Javiar Marías (for Lerner), may be Ishiguro, whose alert, curious narrators describe almost everything in this mode of taut attunement. Here, for example, is Klara, introducing us to her new owners’ house:
The kitchen was especially difficult to navigate because so many of its elements would change their relationships to one another moment by moment. I now appreciated how in the store—surely out of consideration for us—Manager had carefully kept all the items, even smaller ones like the bracelets or the silver earrings box, in their correct places. Throughout Josie’s house, however, and in the kitchen in particular, Melania Housekeeper would constantly move items around, obliging me to start afresh in my learning. One morning, for example, Melania Housekeeper altered the position of her food blender four times within as many minutes.
There is always, in Ishiguro’s version of this voice, an element of the unheimlich. The effect is of a wakeful relaxation—of being carried along, with ears pricked.
Structure, too, has a role to play. When Ishiguro was a child, he says, he didn’t read many classic novels, but he did devote himself to Sherlock Holmes. Since then, he’s written only one book that presents itself as detective fiction (When We Were Orphans). And yet all of his novels draw inspiration from that ur-form. They begin, typically, with twin mysteries: Who is this bizarre narrator? And what are the features of their world? They then proceed, not so much through events, as through accumulating clues. In a tactic borrowed from the Victorian (or TV) serial, Ishiguro anticipates each new divulgence with a preview (“but it wasn’t until tomorrow that I would understand…”). We sail, on such breezes, through Klara, collecting facts that will lay the groundwork for her final big reveal (which I won’t spoil). We learn, for example, that privileged children in this society undergo a process called “lifting”; that Josie once had a sister named Sal; that every few weeks, Josie goes into the city to sit for her “portrait.”
But information alone is insufficient; Ishiguro’s strongest adhesives are emotional. Much like our attention economy—which runs as much on cat videos as on controversy—Ishiguro’s novels owe their primal pull in large part to sentiment. Take, for example, one of Klara’s central set pieces, recalling early schoolyard sequences in Never Let Me Go. In a rare event, some wealthy children come to Josie’s house for a party, where Klara and Josie’s childhood sweetheart Rick are also assembled. Not much happens at this party, as per usual—except, that is, for the things that might tug at tender heartstrings. Some children corner Klara, wanting to see what neat tricks Josie’s new toy can do (they are hoping: none). But Klara, despite her prodigious capacities, is reluctant to perform, freezing in the face of the adolescents’ taunting commands. As Josie becomes more and more embarrassed, the pressure builds. It is only alleviated when Rick, in an act of noble chivalry, comes to the rescue. The flutters of emotion that we feel, throughout the course of a scene like this, are not deep, or enduring, but they are diverting.
To call Ishiguro what he is—a sentimental novelist—implies no insult. He has written two successful works of sentiment, in the Dickensian or Sternean vein. Remains works—qua sentimental novel—on the level of character. Stevens, however sappy, is vibrantly so. Never Let Me Go tempers sentiment with tight composition. Its structure acts as a girdle around its more saccharine set pieces, disciplining them into a respectable shape. Klara, in many ways, combines those two novels, reclothing Remains’s emotional plotline—a tinny domestic servant is devoted to a master—in Never Let Me Go’s sci-fi accoutrements. But where the prior books prevailed, Klara tips gently, incessantly, between success and failure, never decisively landing on one or the other.
Klara’s characters, for example—as per usual—are not quite photorealistic. Instead, they wear markers of complexity, in a child’s-eye view of adult personality. Do they make up for their relative simplicity with sufficient vitality? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Mother’s menacing streak can be compelling—in one scene, she asks Klara to imitate her daughter’s limp. But Josie, the pure of heart, is dull as wood. Klara is more absurd in her innocence, and so more capable of charm—along with irritation. At times, the robot is limned by a lyrical loneliness.
As for the novel’s broader framework, it too is precarious. A final reveal is impressively neat, tying together threads formerly threatening to go haywire. But the substance contained by this structure is, relatively speaking, uninspired. The sci-fi plotline is boilerplate (sentient AI compel questions about humanity’s uniqueness). It is also to some degree marred by its origins as children’s story. Klara believes, for example, that the sun is a god, and that he lives in the barn where he nightly appears to retire (Josie, inexplicably, supports these inferences); and so she sets out to request that the deity spare her young ward’s life. This plotline, alas, can go only two places: nowhere, or even worse, toward some cringe-worthy coup de grâce.
Which does Ishiguro decide? I’ll say only: in the end, Klara confronts death. The best diurnal novels, too, by the likes of Woolf, Proust or Knausgaard, approach this point—the place where all solitary, attentive meditations must end. We can glimpse, through a curtain of banalities, life’s final, main event. We can feel, on the other side of numbness, fear’s ecstatic surrender. A man “flung [his life] away,” thinks Mrs. Dalloway, by the window. Now, she can go live her own. From a certain solipsistic perspective, we connect best to others—to all of existence—when we probe our own interiors. The couch can bring us closer to the hospital bed. But Klara is too cloying a book to pull off that translocation. For now, it’s a decent distraction.