"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro treats us lucky readers to yet another take on a dystopian future in Klara and the Sun. And once again, as in Never Let Me Go (2005) he approaches his subject obliquely. He withholds details of world events and resulting dislocations, giving only quick, almost throwaway indications here and there. The main indicator is that Klara, the first-person narrator of the title, is an AF, or Artificial Friend, a very life-like robot blessed with an AI-like ability to learn. But more to the point, Klara can provide companionship to humans. This is a haunting, understated read, the kind we have come to expect from Ishiguro. It is also a brilliant, accomplished fiction, which again, is no surprise, given the author.

Klara’s story leads off with her experience at the store, where she is available for sale to a discriminating teen. In Klara’s case the discriminating teen is Josie, a youngster dealing with an unnamed illness. In these early pages we also learn of Klara’s unusual cognitive abilities: she observes keenly, and from what she sees, makes nuanced and surprisingly sophisticated conclusions about human behavior and desire. In fact, Klara’s narrative reflects her unusual intellect and ranks as one of Ishiguro’s great achievements here.

I came to treasure Klara’s insightful storytelling, and her polite conversation. It’s the slightest bit stilted, coming from a machine, but clearly reflects Klara’s ability to observe, reason, and advise. Putting Klara in the first person is a bold stroke for Ishiguro, and yet it comes across as the only way to present this story. Teenagers are a mystery, and would make unreliable narrators: at some point parents have to decide whether to “lift” their pubescent young, a procedure which alters their genes and marks out the child as privileged—eligible for university training and a professional career—but also carries vague risks. These risks threaten Josie, and her illness lies at the root of the decision to buy Klara.

Humans occupy a central place in Ishiguro’s bleak future: addle-pated, lonely, crushed by circumstance, they struggle with the world they have made. They form up into warring clans again, harkening back a thousand years into a violent past; they try to fix things for themselves by buying artificial companions for their despairing children; they  grasp and grapple in a world obviously resisting any kind of sense or control. Of course Klara had to tell this story. In the author’s world, we could depend on no one else.

I felt this to be somewhat a companion-piece to Never Let Me Go. Its future is just as bleak, and the unfeeling, murderous, greedy, and exclusionary solutions people find to correct their own incompetence are almost as horrifying. As two separate treatments of current trends in the world, these two books are as chilling as they are masterful. Take up Klara and learn!




"How to Disappear" by Bruna Gomes

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Bruna Gomes takes a plunge into the deep end of the pool with her debut work, How to Disappear. Her approach will take an adjustment on the part of readers, but once your adjustments are in place, there are rewards for you here, rewards that promise a bright future for Gomes.

The author does a superb job engaging her readers in the heroine’s stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue. This half clear-eyed, half delusional narrative carries all aspects of the story with it. In fact, while Gomes focusses rightly on her main character’s mental state, in my view her story would benefit from a baby step back from it, to open up a small space for exposition of concrete outside events. Are we sure what happened to her best friend Winnie? There’s room for doubt about whether onetime boyfriend Alejandro is as guilty as assumed. And how does Cille find our protagonist while she’s knocking around in rural Spain? And what of the sister Naomi, who almost inexplicably accepts our hero’s sudden offer of a paid vacation, is shunted off to an exclusive New York apartment and never heard from again?

These may be quibbles, but they strained my suspension of disbelief.

These weaknesses, though, flow from the great strength of the novel. We encounter, up close and personal, a troubled young woman’s journey in which she’s endlessly on the run, a literal outlaw on the lam. Her point of departure seems to be her mother’s untimely death and the resulting deterioration of her relationship with Naomi. But other demons press this young woman into flight and larceny and worse. That we believe and accept these sometimes shocking crimes is clearly a testament to Gomes’s skill in rendering her protagonist’s mental state and motivation.

In fact, I look forward to Bruna Gomes’s future output. She has a grand skill in describing a character’s internal conflict, up to and including a convincingly shaky mental health. She can also describe a physical locale effectively and economically, and the whole sets a mood for the reader quite well. This beginning promises good things to come.




"My Year Abroad" by Chang-Rae Lee

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Two thirds of the way through Chang-Rae Lee’s thrill ride of a novel, “My Year Abroad,” protagonist Tiller Bardmon, midway through his college years, leads off a chapter this way: “Question: What happens to you when you’ve gone way too far? Not just off trail, not even bushwhacking, but venturing into a region where it turns out the usual physics don’t much apply. … To look back at myself during my stay at Drum Kappagoda’s lodge is to slough off every notion of whatever made me me.”

Lee spends almost 500 pages sloughing off every notion of what makes Tiller Tiller in “My Year Abroad.”

The basics, broadly: a wealthy Chinese-American entrepreneur takes Tiller under his wing and after a very short acquaintance flies him from his home in New Jersey to the Far East, pushing him into a key spokesperson’s role for a new health drink he’s hoping to bring to market. Everything they do, every time they consume anything, all is over-indulgence—food, drink, drugs (taken both voluntarily and involuntarily)—and any kind of physical recreation. Gobs and gobs of money are invested, traded, made, or speculated about. Our heroes nearly drown in the surf off Oahu, pay a surprise visit to a brothel, and wind up at a secluded lodge outside of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in China. The owner of the lodge is hosting a competition for Yoga masters.

Tiller bears few illusions about himself: his mother fled the scene when he was barely in grade school, and while he’s friendly and intelligent enough, Tiller has a strong tendency to latch on—and not let go—to anyone who treats him well. The quote leading this review off appears before things really get weird for the young man.

So there’s nothing ordinary about the plot of “My Year Abroad.” We travel to some exotic locales, indulge in mind-boggling (at least for me) pastimes, run across some truly tough customers, and become imprisoned in a ruthless businessman’s workshop. All the while Tiller’s dad, Clark, thinks Tiller’s in Western Europe on the cheap, seeing the sights, dallying with young ladies, and pretending to study lit. The story is told in two threads: one contains the events I’ve described here, and the other occurs afterward, when Tiller has returned to the States, to an unidentified, unremarkable town.

Lee focuses us on the themes of race, slave exploitation (perpetrated by Asian businessmen), and shady modern business practices. Most of all, though, we have the painful growth of Tiller, with its chaotic, threatening nature. After he is drugged and … explored … by the oddly laconic daughter of a Far Eastern millionaire, he would look back on the experience, and utter the quote above, about sloughing off his old identity. Ultimately, one of the Yoga masters, a friendly if atypical practitioner, tells him to keep inviting the sublime that’s flowing around him.
Then she quotes the great Swami Sivananda: “‘This world is your body. This world is a great school. This world is your silent teacher.’”

Tiller says, “I loved hearing her say that, and as unsilently as she did. I loved, too, the idea of learning from the world, this world that was also only you. Was this the secret circularity? That belonged to you as much as it did to anyone? Yes and yes. The most pressing question, I suppose … was whether you belonged first to somebody else.”

This is a fine novel to experience. Everyone who loves a fun read will love “My Year Abroad.” The locations, the cultures, the action, the characters, the mystery, the tension in both narrative threads—all these prove Lee’s mastery and his vision.