Why “Never Let Me Go” is Boring As Hell

Jen Pelland has read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and she is unimpressed:

I’ve made it to the halfway point, and I still have no idea why people are being raised as organ donors. Why? Because the book is both claustrophobic in its focus, and the POV character is disinterested in the world outside. The claustrophobia comes in the settings. Part 1 takes place entirely on the grounds of the boarding school, and Part 2 takes place (so far) strictly at the protagonist’s post-school home. We don’t get to see what’s happened to the rest of the world that’s made them so desperate for organs that they’ve turned people into cattle. And the POV character (and just about all the other students around her) are given opportunity after opportunity to ask questions, but they don’t. Worse, they then spend time privately mooning over why they didn’t think to ask that question that they really wanted to have answered. What do they do? They worry about grades, teachers, and sex.


This is supposed to be science fiction! You’re supposed to tell us all the cool stuff that’s happening in this crazy world you’ve invented!

I read Never Let Me Go a year back, and it bored me too — I barely finished it. That said, it seems unlikely that Ishiguro wrote Never Let Me Go specifically to piss off SF readers. The simpler explanation is: Ishiguro was trained to write in a genre that cares only about well-turned sentences and phrases, and doesn’t give a rip about plot or pacing. Therefore, the book is boring.

Also, keep in mind CLONING! and ORGAN HARVESTING!! are very very intrinsically exciting to someone who’s never bothered to read any of the thousands of SF stories that have already covered this ground. So it doesn’t occur to Ishiguro to go further — to him and his audience, these subjects are already very daring. We can deduct points for lack of curiosity and laziness, but I doubt we can chalk this up to malice.

Comparing Never Let Me Go to, say, The Road, the latter comes off far better. Like Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy hasn’t bothered to read any of the thousands of post-apocalyptic SF stories out there, and so he ends up writing a novel that doesn’t really tell an SF fan anything new about the apocalypse. But McCarthy at least has a plot — not a very fast-moving or complicated one, but at least there’s some there there. His characters actually do stuff. Even better, McCarthy does a fine job fleshing out his nasty post-apocalyptic world. We don’t find out how exactly the apocalypse happened, but we at least have a good sense of how this world works and how people try to live in it. So we at least get something readable, even if it makes us want to drop off a pile of books at McCarthy’s house with a note saying, “Please Read.”

20 thoughts on “Why “Never Let Me Go” is Boring As Hell

  1. Oh, I don’t think he wrote it that way deliberately, but honestly, if you’re going to write a genre book, then you owe it to yourself to actually try to write something that genre readers will enjoy. And if you’re not trying to write a genre book, then you should tell your publicity department to downplay the sci-fi angles when talking up the book.

    I think I’m mostly just irritated that I put off starting Maggie’s book so I could read this before the library wanted it back.

  2. Maybe in this case, it was a screw-up by the publicity department. :) I don’t remember *The Road* or *The Plot Against America* (which I haven’t read yet) being marketed really heavily as SF. But I might be misremembering.

    Actually, as noted above, I think *The Road* does work as a genre piece. It’s not the most innovative take on the apocalypse, but it’s interesting. That might just be because McCarthy has always been more plot-heavy than the others who work in his genre.

  3. That, and the Road has heart to it. A big one. I haven’t read the Ishiguro book, so I can’t comment on it. But I feel like when I read McCarthy’s stuff, it comes off as honest, if nothing else.

    I’m curious about what genre books you would give to Cormac McCarthy?

  4. When I read Pelland’s statement that the POV character was “disinterested” in the world outside, my inner editor cringed. Please, People, the word is “uninterested.” “Disinterested” means unbiased while “uninterested” means doesn’t care, as in, you want a disinterested judge, not an uninterested one.

  5. I was wondering about the story of Never Let Me Go…

    Why did they never just run away?
    They could, if they wanted, or well at least I couldn’t see why not:p
    It annoyed me a lot at the end of the book because it sounds so daft if you “choose” to die, if you could have left just as easily…?

  6. Late to this discussion, but…
    I didn’t see this book as sci fi or speculative fiction as much as just a novel that happened to have those elements in it. I think the author was trying to explore what makes us human and makes our lives worth living. These characters are sterile, can’t have kids, aren’t allowed to have real careers, and know their futures are grossly circumscribed. How they accept – or fight – that reality is what made the book interesting to me.

  7. Hello! This is not a simpe Science Fiction novel. It is postmodernist novel about hopelessness and is more focused on asking philisophical questions about the meaning and value of human life. Yes it is Science Fiction in part but it’s not OBVIOUSLY not meant to be a Science Fiction novel exclusively because there is no mention of any pysedo science or scientific practices of any kind. It is more about humanity. Read a different genre once in a while and you might realise that it is soo much more than science fiction.

  8. Nah, I don’t like different genres. I tried reading a Roberta Gellis novel once because it supposedly had knights and stuff, but it turned out it was really all about kissing.

  9. Thank you, I found some one that agrees with me. the only reason why i read this book is because some website had it as #1 book to read before dying. Now i wished i never read it. This book sucked! Shiguro as a writer is nothing impressive. throughout the whole book he hides information, letting them out little by little. when he did introduced one key clue i had the whole story figured out from the early chapters. Shiguro failed at evoking the necessary emotions, his lines were bland, and the end was a total let down.

  10. Ishiguro’s novel has nothing to do with science fiction, the medical industry, or anything so pop-ish. His book is about human nature; about how we often don’t question what is laid out for us. Your feelings of frustration are entirely correct – that is what Ishiguro wanted you to feel. But if you were feeling frustrated that it wasn’t a sci-fi or a thriller, then you had the wrong expectations. I go into it more here: http://www.viaregiaproductions.com/video-film-blog/2010/9/25/the-hidden-meaning-of-ishiguros-never-let-me-go.html

  11. Evan – to each their own. There’s plenty of literary fiction without much of a plot, though. I can get your point, though – if Ishiguro hadn’t kept me as interested as he had, I would have felt like I wasted my time. But the stunted psychological point-of-view kept me engaged. Read Remains of the Day if you want some Ishiguro you’ll appreciate – it has more of a plot and it’s very witty.

  12. Hi again Zachary — I actually did see the movie version of Remains of the Day a number of years back, and I enjoyed it. So okay, maybe I should give the novel a shot. :)

  13. It’s funny. Here I am trying to get through Never Let Me Go, having finished The Road a few days ago. Quite a contrast in style, and in my interest in finishing a book. I’m actually developing a whole new method of scanning through this book, something I would never do for a book I enjoy. I want to skip to the end to see if something will finally catch my attention. Boring! Tedious! As someone else said, this should have been a short story. Rant over.

Comments are closed.