This is unbearable.
I wrote that one-sentence review to myself about half-way through reading Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro's just published eighth novel.
Lest you think that doesn't sound like much of an enticement, know that I've probably written something like that sentence about every Ishiguro novel I've read. He is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.
Like a medieval pilgrim walking a cathedral labyrinth in meditation, Ishiguro keeps pacing his way through these big existential themes in his fiction. Klara and the Sun is yet another return pilgrimage and it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written.
The story is set in a United States of the near future, a place riven by tribal loyalties and fascist political movements. Technology has rendered many people "postemployed" and created a blunt caste system where the so-called "lifted" are on top. That's the wide-focus social backdrop of this novel; but most of the time, we're seeing things through the narrow view of Klara, our first-person narrator.
When we meet her, Klara is on display in a department store window: She's an AF or "Artificial Friend." To call her a robot diminishes her, because Klara, as the store manager says in a sales pitch, has an "appetite for observing and learning ... [and] has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store."
The AFs have been designed as companions for the children of this brave new world who, for some reason, don't go out much. One day, a pale, thin teenager named Josie comes into the store with her mother, a woman who, Klara notices, carries an "angry exhaustion" in her eyes. We soon learn the mother's expression is connected to a mysterious illness that's weakening Josie. Immediately drawn to Klara, Josie chooses her to be her best friend, and Klara is packed up and sent to Josie's house.
Loneliness is one of the signature emotions that Ishiguro's novels fathom, and in her new position, Klara has many opportunities to observe the strategies that humans devise to fight off loneliness and conceal vulnerability. Here, she describes a contrived gathering of teenagers, called an "interaction" at Josie's house. Klara is at first puzzled by the meanness of the kids including, uncharacteristically, Josie. Then, slowly, Klara grasps that:
They fear loneliness and that's why they behave as they do ...
I'd begun to understand also that ... people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by — as they might in a store window — and that such a display needn't be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.
Klara's voice, her sensibility — if you can say that of an Artificial Friend — is pure and devoted, a little like a service dog. The question of whether Klara, indeed, has a "sensibility" is a crucial one here, as it was in Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go where the young female narrator is a clone. Klara is such a compelling presence that I think most readers of this novel will say, yes, she's a sentient being. But, what does our intense connection to an Artificial Friend do to the belief that, as one character puts it, there's "something unreachable inside each of us [human beings]. Something that's unique and won't transfer."
Without question, Klara certainly seems capable of loving. In the unbearable sections of this novel I referenced earlier, Josie grows weaker and Klara, who's herself solar-powered, beseeches the "kindly" Sun for "special nourishment" for Josie and, then, bravely sets out to make an offering to the Sun. Klara's misperception of the Sun as a caring deity calls to question our own limited human understanding of, well, everything. Like Klara, who sees the world through grids that sometimes go haywire, we humans only see through a glass, darkly.
But great artists, like Ishiguro, are distinguished by their more expansive vision. I know that's something of an old-fashioned conceit, as is the word, "masterpiece"; nevertheless, I'll go for broke and call Klara and the Sun a masterpiece that will make you think about life, mortality, the saving grace of love: in short, the all of it.