Saturday, March 06, 2021

Klara and the Sun: New from Ishiguro

All my books by Ishiguro.
Nourishment is a key to everything in Kazuo Ishiguro’s just-published novel, Klara and the Sun. However, nourishment comes not from food or drink, not from consumption, but directly from the sun. On the first page of the novel, Klara, the narrator, says she could walk up to the window display in the shop where she begins, 

“And if we were there at just the right time, we would see the Sun on his journey.... When I was lucky enough to see him like that, I’d lean my face forward to take in as much of his nourishment as I could.”

Klara and the others in the shop are AFs — Artificial Friends. They are awaiting the humans who will come and purchase them, and incorporate them into their lives. The shop Manager recognizes a particular sensitivity in Klara, who is especially adaptable to being a friend to a lonely human child in a world where (it will turn out) children are often very alone and friendless. Unsurprisingly, life for the humans who purchase Klara is in a new world beyond the one we current humans are living: but plausible. Of course the humans eat food — and drink coffee! But to Klara this is just part of the buzzing, busy world of sensory inputs that she has to process with her obviously artificial intelligence.

You could categorize this book as a dystopian fiction, but that wouldn’t help to see what Ishiguro is doing here, as Klara the AF describes the way she learn to interpret the input that comes from her world. First we read of her observations of the shop where she is becoming conscious of her surroundings and of the other AFs for sale there. Then we slowly learn of a new and rather painfully organized and controlled society where most of the humans are living in a frightening controlled existence, which we never grasp fully.

Klara’s vision is a fascinating theme of the novel, because her mind “sees” with machine intelligence. Sometimes she’s aware of a grid when the objects in her field of view are very numerous or confusing, and it often takes her a while to figure out what she is seeing and hearing. Frequently, she will list what she sees, and will include objects that a human observer would find irrelevant to what’s going on — for example, she’s very aware of Tow-Away Zone signs and “anti-parking” signs. As for other sensations: she admits at one point that she was not built with any sense of smell at all, and obviously has no sense of taste as she never eats (and views meals as social occasions, such as tense Sunday breakfasts). She doesn’t seem aware of much in the way of tactile sensations, either. Klara’s exceptional emotional intelligence, like her sight, still requires her to use reasoning in order to grasp feelings that humans seem to apprehend directly. The AF point of view on perception is kind of a tour-de-force of writing and imagination of the novelist.

Klara’s human, once she is purchased, is named Josie, a girl in her early teens, who lives in near-isolation with Chrissie, her mother, and Melania Housekeeper, their housekeeper. (I was never 100% certain if Melania was real or if she was “artificial.”) Only once do a group of adolescents gather, in an event that’s chaotic both for them and for Klara. At the end of the book, a few more characters become important, but no spoilers here. In Klara’s world, the most intelligent being is the Sun, creator of nourishment and all-seeing provider, and she believes deeply that she can communicate with the Sun and influence him to use his powers that she believes in. This becomes very central as the novel progresses to have an actual plot!

Here is the hardest question that Klara has to consider, posed by Josie’s father:

“Then let me ask you something else. Let me ask you this. Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense.The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” (p. 215)

The total impact of the book, it seems to me, is the consideration of this question, though the theme of alienation in Klara and the Sun is stronger than in any of Ishiguro’s other books. The behavior of her Sun emphasizes this point: Klara always watches the setting Sun, her idol, as he drops below a building on the horizon beyond the windows of Josie’s house. Sunset as she observes it is always in the same place. There’s nowhere on planet earth where this would be the behavior of the sun, which intensifies the alien mood. 

Review © 2021 mae sander.


Harvee said...

Tremendous review! I am not a fan of dystopia in general but am a fan of Ishiguro, so I will read this.

bill burke said...

Sounds interesting. I hope our library will have it when it reopens.

DVArtist said...

Fabulous review. I love this type of story.

My name is Erika. said...

I haven't read any Kazuo Ishiguro so these are interesting reviews.

Jeanie said...

I'm not racing to put this on the list but it does sound intriguing.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I visited you earlier this week, this post and the previous, went off to read more about this book and Ishiguro (I have read only his *obvious* one somehow.) And realize now that I never did come back say thank you (for the reviews, the background, and the additions to my library wish list). This latest one I’m not actually sure of because I swore off of dystopian fiction a few years ago after reading too much of it. And that was before it felt like we were living in it the last few years. .... I’m going to catch up first and see how I feel by the time I work my way to the top of this wait list.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Did you enjoy the book? Is not the type of novel I prefer so I did not request it.

Harvee said...

I adjusted slightly my thinking about Klara and the Sun after reading both your reviews of this book and Never Let Me Go. I see that Ishiguro might be wondering if it's more rational to be empathetic, as the purely intellectual Klara is, than to be like the human, the man partly governed by his senses and with a "human heart," who constructs a shell of the dying Josie for Klara to inhabit. What do you think?

thecuecard said...

Nicely reviewed. I like the Quote you give about the heart. I do think he's one of our best living authors! Klara is both simple and gripping.