Kazuo Ishiguro Uses Artificial Intelligence to Reveal the Limits of Our Own

In the early nineteen-eighties, when Kazuo Ishiguro was starting out as a novelist, a brief craze called Martian poetry hit our literary planet. It was launched by Craig Raine’s poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” (1979). The poem systematically deploys the technique of estrangement or defamiliarization—what the Russian formalist critics called ostranenie—as our bemused Martian wrestles into his comprehension a series of puzzling human habits and gadgets: “Model T is a room with the lock inside— / a key is turned to free the world / for movement.” Or, later in the poem: “In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps, / that snores when you pick it up.” For a few years, alongside the usual helpings of Hughes, Heaney, and Larkin, British schoolchildren learned to launder these witty counterfeits: “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings / And some are treasured for their markings— / they cause the eyes to melt / or the body to shriek without pain. / I have never seen one fly, but / Sometimes they perch on the hand.” Teachers liked Raine’s poem, and perhaps the whole Berlitz-like apparatus of Martianism, because it made estrangement as straightforward as translation. What is the haunted apparatus? A telephone, miss. Well done. What are Caxtons? Books, sir. Splendid.

Estrangement is powerful when it puts the known world in doubt, when it makes the real truly strange; but most powerful when it is someone’s estrangement, bringing into focus the partiality of a human being (a child, a lunatic, an immigrant, an émigré). Raine’s poem, turning estrangement into a system, has the effect of making the Martian’s incomprehension a familiar business, once we’ve got the hang of it. And since Martians don’t actually exist, their misprision is less interesting than the human variety. The Martian’s job, after all, is to misread the human world. Human partiality is more suggestive—intermittent, irrational, anxious. One can crave a more proximate estrangement: how about, rather than an alien sending a postcard home, a resident alien, or a butler, or even a cloned human being doing so?

But it’s one thing to achieve that effect in a poem, which can happily float image upon image, and another to do so in a novel that commits itself to a tethered point of view. It would be hard not to personalize estrangement when writing fiction. The eminent Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky was interested in Tolstoy’s use of the technique, noting that it consists in the novelist’s refusal to let his characters name things or events “properly,” describing them as if for the first time. In “War and Peace,” for instance, Natasha goes to the opera, which she dislikes and can’t understand. Tolstoy’s description captures Natasha’s perspective, and the opera is seen in the “wrong” way—as large people singing for no reason and spreading out their arms absurdly in front of painted boards.

The twentieth century’s most ecstatic defamiliarizer was Vladimir Nabokov, who had a weakness for visual gags of the Martian sort—a half-rolled and sopping black umbrella seen as “a duck in deep mourning,” an Adam’s apple “moving like the bulging shape of an arrased eavesdropper,” and so on. But in his most affecting novel, “Pnin” (1957), estrangement is the condition and the sentence of the novel’s hapless hero, the Russian émigré professor Timofey Pnin. In Tolstoyan fashion, Pnin is seeing America as if for the first time, and often gets it wrong: “A curious basketlike net, somewhat like a glorified billiard pocket—lacking, however, a bottom—was suspended for some reason above the garage door.” Later, we learn that Pnin must have mistaken a Shriners’ hall or a veterans’ hall for the Turkish consulate, because of the crowds of fez wearers he has seen entering the building.

In the English literary scene, both Craig Raine and Martin Amis have been, in their devotion to Nabokov, flamboyant Martians. Such writing is thought to prove its quality in the delighted originality of its rich figures of speech; what Amis has called “vow-of-poverty prose” has no place at the high table of estrangement. Cliché and kitsch are abhorred as deadening enemies. (Nabokov regularly dismissed writers such as Camus and Mann for failing to reach what he considered this proper mark.) Kazuo Ishiguro, a consummate vow-of-poverty writer, would seem to be far from that table. Most of his recent novels are narrated in accents of punishing blandness; all of them make plentiful use of cliché, banality, evasion, pompous circumlocution. His new novel, “Klara and the Sun” (Knopf), contains this hilarious dullness: “Josie and I had been having many friendly arguments about how one part of the house connected to another. She wouldn’t accept, for instance, that the vacuum cleaner closet was directly beneath the large bathroom.” Aha, we say to ourselves, we’re back in Ishiguro’s tragicomic and absurdist world, where the question of a schoolkid’s new pencil case (“Never Let Me Go”), or how a butler devises exactly the right “staff plan” (“The Remains of the Day”), or just waiting for a non-arriving bus (“The Unconsoled”) can stun the prose for pages.

But “Klara and the Sun” confirms one’s suspicion that the contemporary novel’s truest inheritor of Nabokovian estrangement—not to mention its best and deepest Martian—is Ishiguro, hiding in plain sight all these years, lightly covered by his literary veils of torpor and subterfuge. Ishiguro, like Nabokov, enjoys using unreliable narrators to filter—which is to say, estrange—the world unreliably. (In all his work, only his previous novel, “The Buried Giant,” had recourse to the comparative stability of third-person narration, and was probably the weaker for it.) Often, these narrators function like people who have emigrated from the known world, like the clone Kathy, in “Never Let Me Go,” or like immigrants to their own world. When Stevens the butler, in “The Remains of the Day,” journeys to Cornwall to meet his former colleague Miss Kenton, it becomes apparent that he has never ventured out of his small English county near Oxford.

These speakers are often concealing or repressing something unpleasant—both Stevens and Masuji Ono, the narrator of “An Artist of the Floating World,” are evading their complicity with fascist politics. They misread the world because reading it “properly” is too painful. The blandness of Ishiguro’s narrators is the very rhetoric of their estrangement; blandness is the evasive truce that repression has made with the truth. And we, in turn, are first lulled, then provoked, and then estranged by this sedated equilibrium. “Never Let Me Go” begins, “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.” That ordinary voice seems at first so familiar, but quickly comes to seem significantly odd, and then wildly different from our own.

You can argue that, at least since Kafka, estrangement of various kinds has been the richest literary resource in fiction—in Kafkaesque fantasy or horror, in science fiction and dystopian writing, in unreliable narration, in the literature of flâneurial travel as practiced by a writer like W. G. Sebald, and in the literature of exile and immigration. Ishiguro has mastered all these genres, sometimes combining them in a single book, always on his own singular terms. Sebald, for instance, was rightly praised for the strange things he did with his antiquarian first-person prose, as his narrators wander through an eerily defamiliarized English and European landscape. But Ishiguro got there before him, and the prose of “The Remains of the Day” (1989) may well have influenced the Anglo-German author of “The Rings of Saturn” (1995). Here, Stevens describes the experience of driving away from familiar territory, as he sets out from Darlington Hall:

But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries. I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land. I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration often described in connection with this moment is very similar to what I felt in the Ford as the surroundings grew strange around me. . . . The feeling swept over me that I had truly left Darlington Hall behind, and I must confess I did feel a slight sense of alarm—a sense aggravated by the feeling that I was perhaps not on the correct road at all, but speeding off in totally the wrong direction into a wilderness.

This might well be one of Sebald’s troubled intellectuals, his mind full of literature and death, tramping around a suddenly uncanny Europe—a “wilderness.” Stevens is, in fact, just driving to the blameless cathedral town of Salisbury.

Klara, the narrator of Ishiguro’s new novel, is a kind of robot version of Stevens, and a kind of cousin of Kathy H. She’s a carer, a servant, a helpmeet, a toy. “Klara and the Sun” opens like something out of “Toy Story” or the children’s classic “Corduroy” (in which a slightly ragged Teddy bear, waiting patiently in a department store, is first turned down by Mother, and finally plucked by her delighted young daughter). Klara is an Artificial Friend, or AF, and is waiting with anticipation to be chosen from a store that seems to be in an American city, sometime in the nearish future. As far as one can tell, the AFs, which are solar-powered and A.I.-endowed, are a combination of doll and robot. They can talk, walk, see, and learn. They have hair and wear clothes. They appear to be especially prized as companions for children and teen-agers. A girl named Josie, whom Klara estimates, in her pedantic A.I. way, to be “fourteen and a half,” sees our narrator in the shopwindow, and excitedly chooses Klara as her AF.

Two kinds of estrangement operate in Ishiguro’s novel. There’s the relatively straightforward defamiliarization of science fiction. Ishiguro only lightly shades in his dystopian world, probably because he isn’t especially committed to the systematic faux realism required by full-blown science fiction. Still, we must navigate around a fictional universe that seems much like our own, yet where people endlessly stare at, or press, their handheld “oblongs,” where adults are somehow stratified by their clothes (“The mother was an office worker, and from her shoes and suit we could tell she was high-ranking”), and where roadworkers are called “overhaul men.” In this colorless, ruthless place, children are fatalistically sorted into losers and winners; the latter, who are known as “lifted,” whose parents decided to “go ahead” with them, are destined for élite colleges and bright futures. Josie’s best friend, Rick, wasn’t lifted, and it will now be a struggle for him to get a place at Atlas Brookings (“their intake of unlifteds is less than two percent”). The parents of Josie’s privileged peers wonder why Rick’s parents decided not to go ahead with him. Did they just lose their nerve? It seems significant that the lifted Josie has an AF for companionship and solace, while the poorer, unlifted Rick does not.

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James Wood