A Return to Form?

Ever since his debut in 1982 with A Pale View of Hills, Japanese-born novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has certainly established himself as a household name in the world of literature. Since then, he has won a score of prestigious literary prizes such as the Whitbread Prize for An Artist of the Floating World, and the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day. All but two of his previous works have been shortlisted for major literary awards. He was also awarded as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His accolades speak for themselves and In 2017, he reached what can be surmised as the zenith of his literary career when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 2021, six years since his last published work, Ishiguro made his long-awaited literary comeback with Klara and the Sun. The titular Klara is an artificial friend (AF) prominently displayed at the store. However, despite days of being featured at the front, she hasn’t caught the attention of any child who would be willing to take her. As days passed by, she was a witness to how her peers were being sold in droves, accompanied by willing and elated children giddy with the anticipation at the experience of having an AF. With her chances of finding a companion, she found herself relegated to the back of the store, replaced at the front display by the newer generation of AFs, the B3 units.

Klara was a B2, an earlier variant of humanoid. She is solar-powered and relies on the sun for her nourishments but with the B3 units in vogue, the B2’s relevance was undermined. Klara’s fortune changed one day when a young girl child walked in the store and spotted Klara. As their eyes linked, an indelible connection between them was established. The young girl, Josie, promised that she will come back for Klara. Weeks passed by but there was not one sign of Josie ever coming back. Still, Klara held on to her promise, even subtly rejecting offers from other prospective customers. Her loyalty was rewarded when Josie and her mother came back with the sole purpose of finally bringing home an AF. Josie’s mother, Chrissie, was at first apprehensive but eventually yielded to her daughter’s wishes.

“But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?”

~ Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

In 2005, Ishiguro made waves with his first venture into science fiction. Never Let Me Go was both a critical and commercial success. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the same year and was a close shave from winning the award; John Banville’s The Sea eventually won, a reversal of the 1989 Booker Prize which Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day won over Banville’s The Book of Evidence. It was for this that many a reader deemed Klara and the Sun to be an extension or, at least, a further exploration of the world of artificial intelligence and its growing influence in the contemporary. But whilst there paths have converged, down the road, the paths have again diverged.

Buoyed by this unexpected success, Isighuro returned to one of his landmark literary accomplishments. It cannot be denied that the advances we have made is owed to the fast-paced developments in technology. Nearly everything that requires manual labor have been replaced by machines which make them easier to complete. Robotics, artificial intelligence and technology have merged to make our lives easier and more comfortable. Are there more facets of our daily lives that technology has not influenced, altered or transformed? In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro grappled, yet again, with uncomfortable, treading the lines between reality, and science with a tad of fantasy.

Told entirely through the perspective of Klara, the novel gave the readers intimate glimpses of the daily lives of a score of characters. From her post in the front display of the store, she drunk all the scenes before her – the human and car traffic, the sun, the beggar, and even the impact of the Cootings Machine to her environment. Akin to a sponge, she took in every detail. Slowly but carefully, Ishiguro established Klara’s knack for observation and insight. It was this uncanny ability for observation that she also took with her as she entered a new world, Josie’s household. In her new environment, Klara was like a fish out of the water but she quickly adapted, relying on her keen sense of understanding human activities through observation. Her keen sense of observation was seminal in the flow of the narrative.

Klara and the Sun, however, does not reduce itself into a mere exploration of artificial intelligence and robotics. In his first major literary work since winning the prestigious literary award, Ishiguro explored the frailties and the strengths of the human spirit through an unusual and unexpected character. Ishiguro explored the dynamics of mother and daughter relationship through Josie and Chrissie. In Chrissie, Ishiguro painted the picture of a mother who loves her children unconditionally that she is willing to go above and beyond in order to ensure her children’s happiness and long life. She will do everything to preserve her. But as fate would have it, except for parents’ unconditional love, nothing in life is permanent and nothing is also certain.

“Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go.”

~ Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

The novel explored darker themes of grief, sorrow, and acceptance. To a limited extent, the book grappled with timely and relevant themes such as climate change and pollution. As the veil of artificial intelligence is pierced, the novel’s grander theme begun to surface. In writing the story of Josie and Klara, Ishiguro tried to grapple dealt with the feasibility of robots, or artificial friends, replacing and replicating other individuals. It is human nature to wish for something or someone we love to stay for as long as we want. However, the impermanence of life made this virtually impossible to achieve. In our desperation to preserve things and people we love, we resort to unorthodox and unprecedented means and, as Ishiguro posited in his novel, the solution lies in the latest development vis-à-vis artificial intelligence.

Is a machine truly capable of mimicking and replicating the subtleties and the nuances of human emotions? Whilst this is a seminal theme that hovered about the narrative, the bigger question, however, lies in our willingness to embrace this unfamiliar and uncomfortable idea. Dealing with the uncomfortable, Ishiguro portrayed several discomfiting scenes such as the scene between Chrissie and Klara at Morgan’s Falls. Moral intersections form a seminal part of the narrative. There were also some discourses on the ethics behind the idea. However, rather than expound and elaborate on these ideas, Ishiguro started to digress. Just when the readers started to adjust to the idea, he retreated to the predictable and the familiar.

The premise was grand and promising but the ground it was built on lacked stability from the onset. Klara propelled the narrative, and at the start, she was a compelling character. However, rather than an artificial intelligence that she was marketed to be, the clarity of her thought processes point to the opposite direction. Her observational skill was often praised as topnotch. With the vividness of her thought processes, one can easily forget that she is but a humanoid. It was only when conversing with humans that her robotic-qualities surface, almost like an afterthought. This made her sound more ordinary rather than distinct. Majority of the characters lacked substance and nuance; most came across as caricatures. There were some character developments – such as Josie maturing from a whiney daughter – but they were undermined by the looseness of the plot.

There was little to be desired about the writing. It was juvenile and was bereft of the nostalgia and the nuances of Ishiguro’s earlier works. Whilst Ishiguro’s conviction to introduce an uncomfortable subject was admirable, the execution was mediocre at best. There were no backstories to compliment the main narrative. Readers, for instance, are asked to simply accept Josie’s disability. But what is her illness? Except for the prevalence of artificial friends, there is very little to indicate the timeline of the story. Plot holes often characterize Ishiguro’s prose, however, it was in Klara and the Sun that such holes were more glaring. As the narrative started losing its grip, one can’t help but question the necessity of such undertaking.

“We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now.”

~ Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

For all its faults, Klara and the Sun redeemed itself with its navigation of the complexities of emotions. Loyalty and hope were two qualities prevalent all throughout the narrative. Even when Klara was asked not to put weight on the promises of children, she remained resolute and, in the end, it paid off. Whilst it wasn’t how she was depicted at first, Klara was also the embodiment of hope and positivity. Although she was devoid of human emotions, she was willing to sacrifice for the people she cared for. When everything turned south, Klara never wavered in her faith. Just as darkness started to settle around the household, the sun broke through the dark clouds, and ushered in hope. As always, hope springs eternal.

Ishiguro is a crafty storyteller who is never afraid of venturing into the uncomfortable, of deviating form what one perceives to be his comfort zone. He has demonstrated this in his most recent works. In his first major literary work since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ishiguro, unfortunately, failed to deliver. Klara and the Sun relied on the promise of its premise but Ishiguro failed to play to its full potential, unable to give a new perspective or insight into a banal subject. There were semblances of Ishiguro’s brilliance but they were far and few in between. For all the noise it generated, Klara and the Sun simply was not the return to form that it was expected to be.

Ratings

38%

Characters (30%) – 10%
Plot (30%) – 11%
Writing (25%) – 11%
Overall Impact (15%) – 6%

I was one of many devout fans that got excited when Kazuo Ishiguro announced the publication of a new work. The Japanese-born novelist has won me over with the poignancy of his works such as A Pale View of Hills, The Unconsoled, and An Artist of the Floating World. However, I wasn’t too keen on his latest work, The Buried Giant. I was hoping that he would redeem himself with Klara and the Sun. It was also going to be his first novel since he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. I am not a fan of science fiction in general but I was hoping that Klara and the Sun will help me overcome this apprehension. But I guess not. Klara and the Sun started fine, like any typical novel. However, I started feeling the cringes when I realized the direction Ishiguro is steering the narrative. The scene at Morgan’s Falls left a bitter aftertaste for how it was portrayed. Nevertheless, Ishiguro tried to make it up for it as the story moved forward. However, the story started meandering and the atmosphere got more grotesque page-by-page. Whilst I admire Ishiguro’s effort to grapple with the uncomfortable, the execution was less than stellar.

Book Specs

Author:  Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 303
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

Synopsis

From the best-selling author of Never Leg Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a stunning new novel – his first since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature – about the wondrous, mysterious nature of the human heart.

From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warmed not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

About the Author

To learn more about Nobel Prize in Literature winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, click here.