Book review: ‘Klara and the Sun’ | Community
“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro. New York, Knopf, 2021. 320 pages. $28 (Hardcover).
Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel laureate for literature, is as much a horror novelist as Stephen King. He just works more quietly. In “Remains of the Day,” perhaps his best-known work, a devoted butler gradually learns the employer he has served so selflessly for years is a Nazi sympathizer. “Never Let Me Go” slowly reveals that its compelling teen narrator is a clone, born and raised to have her organs harvested to be transplanted into ailing “real” humans. In “Klara and the Sun,” a wonderfully relatable android exists in a parallel future only to be an AF, an artificial friend, for a sickly teenager.
We first meet Klara in an AF store, where she earnestly welcomes the sun (she’s solar-powered) and just as earnestly tries to understand the outside world during her occasional stints in the shop window. Who are those people in taxis and on the street? What are they doing and feeling? Sometimes her guesses are right on the money. Sometimes she misses wildly. The dangerous constant in her reactions is a willingness to assume the best about everything. When a spindly teenager spots her in the window and promises to come back for her, she believes implicitly and even spoils a sale to another party in order to remain available.
But the teen, Josie, does come back and convinces her strangely stiff mother to buy Klara. The sale hinges on Klara’s gift for empathy and, oddly, her ability to imitate Josie’s halting way of walking.
In true Ishiguro style, what’s wrong with Josie gradually emerges. Her world is rigidly stratified between the “lifted” and the “unlifted.” Early in promising children’s lives their parents must choose whether to have them genetically “optimized.” Gene modification carries a risk of disease. Josie’s sister died from it. But rejecting modification means the child will always be a second-class citizen. Josie has been lifted and is suffering the consequences. Her boyfriend Rick’s mother was afraid to let him undergo the procedure, and so like many fictional lovers they are divided by class concerns.
That’s one strain of the novel. Another is pollution, which may be a factor in Josie’s mysterious illness. Then there’s her father. A talented engineer, he has been “substituted,” displaced by artificial intelligence, and now lives in an outcast community fearing elimination. One result of this budding takeover by technology is a swelling resentment of androids. When a mother of one of Josie’s friends meets Klara, she wonders out loud whether she should treat her as a fellow guest or something on the order of a vacuum cleaner. “First they take the jobs,” laments another woman. “Now they take the seats at the theater?”
Ishiguro is at his best – and that’s saying something – at tracing the unspoken tensions his stiffly structured world generates. Josie’s prickly mother’s guilt feelings make her unpredictably abrasive. She sentenced one daughter to death by genetic tinkering and now sees her other daughter fading for the same reason. Tormented by the fear that she will lose Josie, she nurses a demented fallback plan. (I won’t spoil it for you.) Rick’s mother, also alone, like almost everyone else in this world, is incapacitated because she didn’t give Rick a chance to be lifted. Afraid of dying, Josie snaps at Rick. Rick sulks. And poor, wide-eyed Klara tries her naïve best to help everybody.
But how can she? Here comes the sun. Back when she was in the shop window, Klara saw a homeless man passed out drunk and assumed he was dead. But when the sun rose and brought him “special nourishment” she saw him come back to life. If the sun would do the same for Josie, surely she’d get better. Klara’s brave attempt to bring this about is as moving and profoundly mistaken as a toddler’s belief that holding a stick in the water will catch a fish.
The moment she leaves the shop, Klara is set adrift in a dystopia and struggles to negotiate its hazards. Children in her world don’t go to school. They’re instructed by “screen professors” on their “oblongs.” From time to time they have “interaction meetings” to work on their otherwise neglected social skills. The planet is choking on pollution. Unemployed and unlifted people live in pariah camps armed against prospective pogroms. The lifted themselves rightly fear being replaced by technology run amok. Little wonder that even a heroic little android like Klara is unable to cope with any of this.
Ishiguro’s special genius is to let this world unfold layer by layer through the bemused perception of Klara the AF. His language is deceptively matter-of-fact, even as he plumbs one important issue after another. Where will genetic meddling lead us? How will people avoid succumbing to pollution, growing isolation and social and economic inequality? Are our beliefs ultimately just magical thinking, like Klara’s faith in the sun? How will we coexist with ever-evolving technology? What does it even mean to be human? Here being human decidedly involves being inhumane. Sweet-natured, earnest Klara is a notably better “person” than any of the humans she encounters. If technology replaces us, Ishiguro seems to say, it may be all to the good.
Ishiguro’s innocently shattering novels share a bleak vision that is all his own but arguably a perfect fit for our vexed times. “Klara and the Sun” is a prime example. I believe people will still be reading this book 50 years from now.
– Reviewed by Joe Glaser, Western Kentucky University English Department.