Meave Gallagher: Hi, everyone, and welcome back for the fifth week of Camp ToB Summer 2021! As a refresher, this is how it works: Each week from now through the end of August, we're going to discuss a novel (selected by you, the readers), at a pace of two books a month. At the end of each month, you will vote for one title as your favorite, and at the end of the summer, the community will pick one of the three favorites to advance to a berth in the 2022 Tournament of Books (ToB).
Speaking of which, let's announce the winner of the first month's head-to-head: No One Is Talking About This has won in a squeaker and will go on to the big summer finale at the end of Camp. Of course, the five books we read this summer that don't win may still qualify for the 2022 ToB's long or short lists, so while we say goodbye to Detransition, Baby for now, we may see it again come the long list—who can say?
I'll be facilitating the conversations this month, and Andrew will host in August. This week, we're talking about the first half of Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, and our Activity Leader is Connecticut's Ricardo Chavira. Hi, Ricardo! Please tell us about yourself.
Ricardo Chavira: Hi, Meave! I'm Ricardo and am delighted to be here, and by "here" I mean joining the ToB 2021 Summer Camp from my home just outside wonderful New Haven. I've been happily following the ToB for the past five years or so, and about the only thing I don't like about it is that I didn't hear about it before then. ("What, you've been having this much fun for 10 years without me?"). It really is a wonderful time of year.
Meave: I fully agree. Someone should compose a ToB carol we can sing around our homes every March and irritate our loved ones. "No book songs until the Play-In Round is published!"
Ricardo: As for my reading habits, I consider myself a well-rounded reader, but when I look at the yearly numbers (yes, I track my reading data on a spreadsheet, doesn't everyone?), my reading skews heavily toward literary fiction, about half of which is from the current or prior year, and the authors I read are a pretty diverse bunch. For reference, I tend to have four or five titles in the ToB that I really enjoyed and am pulling for and another four or five that are on my TBR pile. And while I love learning about some new books, my Tournament predictions score tends to be pretty poor.
Meave: I would guess a fair number of people here track their reading one way or another, and I get the impression it's practically a Commentariat tradition to blow a bracket within the first three days, so you're in good company.
Ricardo: I mostly read physical books (which is why I'm in the process of building more bookshelves) and have recently been adding more audiobooks (go Libro.fm!) to my repertoire. They're great for exercise but also for mundane tasks, like painting the new bookshelves I built (how's that for book multitasking!).
Meave: Building (more!) bookshelves sounds pretty rewarding, especially while listening to audiobooks. How quickly do you expect to fill them—or are these solutions for existing book piles?
Ricardo: Yeah, so the TBR pile was getting a bit out of hand. By which I mean multiple piles in various locations and overflowing, disorganized shelves. I also like to leave a shelf dedicated to this year's reads and watch it grow as I add books I've read over the course of the year. (A New Year's Day tradition of mine is to reshelve them and reshuffle the TBR pile.) But that takes up space I didn't really have. So the only sensible thing to do was build more shelves. And who doesn't love built-in bookshelves? As I was working on them, I figured that with the net gain in shelf space, coupled with some judicious culling, I should finally have enough space. But really, who am I kidding?
Meave: Best wishes on culling your herd; it's not for the faint-hearted.
This week we start Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, Klara and the Sun. Klara, our narrator, is a solar-powered "artificial friend," or AF, humanoid robots who are sold as companions to children. Klara, whose powers of observation and empathy are complimented by the store manager, is purchased by Josie, a tween girl who lives outside the city with her mother and seems to be ill with an unspecified sickness. At Josie's house, Klara meets the housekeeper and the nearest neighbors: Josie's best friend, a boy her age named Rick, and his mother. The children don't go to school but learn remotely on devices referred to as "oblongs," and class divisions now go as far as a genetic editing process called "lifting," which we find out is both considered necessary for social advancement and potentially risky to the health of the children it's performed on—the lifting process killed Josie's older sister and caused Josie's ongoing health problems. There is a lot of plot packed into this first half!
Ricardo, were you a big Ishiguro reader before Klara? I've read just enough that I was bracing myself for emotional destruction before opening the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books called it his "bomb under the table" technique, a metaphorical device Hitchcock used in his films to add dread to otherwise ordinary ("ordinary") interactions, and I felt that was extremely accurate for how the book has made me feel. How've you found it so far?
Ricardo: Oh, absolutely. Ishiguro creates this world that has crazy, sometimes scary rules that seem foreign (and often terrifying) to us; but it's also similar enough to our own that we can just start to make sense of it. And you're desperate to figure it out, though you know it's not going to end well. I am definitely an Ishiguro fan, but I wouldn't say I'm a true diehard. I'll tread lightly here, but in my experience, Ishiguro fans are often pretty emphatic in their declamations of fealty (not that that's a bad thing). It's often said Ishiguro fans are either in the Never Let Me Go or Remains of the Day camp.
Meave: Ha! I remember liking both books equally; disinterested party or poor memory, who's to say. What's your favorite of his works?
Ricardo: I carry a torch for The Buried Giant. Moody, atmospheric, with subtle prose that is the Ishiguro hallmark, it plays with and subverts conventions of genre, while addressing Ishiguro themes of love, memory, identity, and one's place in community. What's not to like? And Klara definitely has that quiet tension that builds slowly, where you know something sinister is just around the next page. You're simultaneously thinking, "oh, this isn't going to end well," while plunging ahead. The review you mention is right to draw parallels to Hitchcockian suspense. But if I may nitpick, I don't think tension quite comes from knowing more than the characters do. This is something that Rumaan Alam did so well in Leave the World Behind (a darling of this year's ToB), where the narration gives us occasional glimpses of knowledge that the characters lack, which ratchets up the dramatic tension.
Meave: Oh, I did not care for Leave the World Behind at all, but I think that's partly due to the way it doled out the information so sparingly, and every time you thought someone might have some useful knowledge, they didn't.
Ricardo: Here, Klara, the AF, is our guide and we learn things slowly. The characters know all about AFs, and we're just learning about them. They know what it means to be "lifted," and we are scrambling for that information, while a sense of foreboding mounts. They know what the rules of engagement are in this dystopia, to which we are being slowly exposed. Part of the beauty of Klara's perspective is an almost childlike innocence, and the flip side of that is it sometimes feels too slow. I found myself eager to know more, to move faster than Klara's deliberate pace. As always, Ishiguro is so careful and measured in setting up bombshells and then taking his time in revealing them. It can be a little maddening (tell me what's going on!) but it always pays off (gasp! that's what's going on?). So yeah, I'm really enjoying the layers that are slowly being peeled back.
Meave: Oh, that's a good point—we know much less than the characters do, and I'm dying to know more about anything. And yeah, I could do with a little more zip to the pacing. Maybe that has something to do with Klara's ability to learn, or the way she learns? Just an assumption; among his many mysteries, how AFs work is left for the reader to surmise.
Ricardo: Yes, there's a lot going on with Klara's narration. On one level, she's a machine, so has limited perspective and may not pick up on every human social cue. But she's also said to be a very perceptive AF, so we're inclined to trust her. Regardless, I think her deliberate, almost cautious account matches Ishiguro's typically deliberate, steady pacing. His characters often show so much restraint—a servant in Remains, an AF here—and Ishiguro uses that to control the pacing. So while it may seem slow at times, I think Klara is the perfect vehicle for his storytelling.
Meave: The obligatory restraint of the narrators is how Ishiguro controls the pacing—yes! I totally agree, and would just add that Klara's simultaneous insider/outsider status is kind of perfect for these slow reveals and deliberate pacing. She sure can string you along, though; all those hints of doom to come? Very nerve-wracking. What do you think about the world we're seeing through her eyes?
Ricardo: Having Klara as our guide is brilliant because, as you say, she's an outsider so she has to learn and experience things for the first time, so we get to ride along with her. And she has an innocent sensibility that is somehow both vulnerable and unflappable. She has such an even keel about her that it's all the more jarring when she drops a hint about some future event. As a narrator, Klara is pretty straightforward and tells a more or less linear tale, which you might expect from an AF. But those occasional glimpses forward not only heighten your interest/anxiety/pulse about what's to come, they also make you wonder about Klara's motivation. Are these just innocent asides (and they are mostly factual, after all), or do they belie some ulterior motive?
Meave: Oh, that's good, questioning sweet Klara's motives.
Ricardo: I think Klara's a pretty reliable narrator (famous last words, I know), but I love how Ishiguro gets to plant those seeds of doubt, whether or not it affects the story. It's all a potent blend of Ishiguro's signature foreboding, crisscrossed with the layers of Klara's innocent narration that's sprinkled with hints of important things to come. It's a brilliant way to introduce you to a new world.
Meave: Let's get into that deceptively simple narration. Do you think Klara's straightforwardness and (ostensible) innocence are part of her programming, or have the AFs' creators made an AI that is so much smarter than people that it can learn to, say, manipulate their emotions? Because it does seem like Klara is very good at telling people what they want to hear.
Ricardo: The full AF story seems shrouded in mystery. The Manager in Klara's shop tells her she's special, but we don't exactly know how or why she's so special. But now that you get me thinking about it, the fact that not even all AFs of the same line are the same seems troubling. It seems odd that Klara would be special or unusual if the AFs are just a manufactured product. How are they made differently? What unique properties do different AFs have? The fact that they have any kind of differentiating characteristics makes it weirder than if they were just a bunch of cookie-cutter (if highly advanced) robots.
Meave: It's so much weirder the more you think about it, and it's not just about "personality" differences, it's in abilities; Ishiguro gives you little besides hints, gestures, insinuations about the AFs' differences: those super-rude model B3s in the beginning who edge away from Klara and her other B2s in the store display; the Manager telling a customer how the B3s are smarter but not as kind as the B2s. I am hungry for more details about a world in which upper-class children undergo risky genetic editing and are rewarded with incredible AI dolls. Like, were the AFs always meant to be wealthy children's playthings, and not… well, sex workers, or soldiers? This is a dystopia, after all, but seeing through Klara's eyes, the view can feel restricted, claustrophobic, even. I don't know. Why do you think he didn't write about the AFs' creators?
Ricardo: More mystery and cause for speculation (and worry). I also think Ishiguro likes to keep the cast of characters tight.
Meave: Fair enough; it's certainly effective. Let's speculate a little more: Which came first, the AFs or the isolated, genetically altered children doing classwork on their "oblongs" at home?
Ricardo: I hadn't thought to piece together the AFs with the "lifted" kids that way, but it makes sense. We know not all kids get "lifted," and not all kids have an AF. I don't feel like there's a causal connection either way, but it does seem common enough that everyone seems to take it in stride. Which, of course, makes it seem that much weirder given how little we know about those things.
Meave: The longer you think about it, both the stranger and more normal it seems, which feels like a theme. Like, the AFs are solar-powered, which to me makes Klara's sun worship and belief that the sun can heal make some sense. Still, we know the AFs sometimes have trouble seeing, or processing what they're seeing. What do you think she really witnessed through the shop window with Beggar Man and his dog who were "dead" until the sun "resurrected" them?
Ricardo: I was somewhat conflicted with the whole sun worship aspect of the storyline. On one hand, the rational part of my brain kept thinking, "No, Klara, the sun doesn't work that way!" But at the same time, why not? The sun is literally the source of her energy; it sustains her "life." The narration from Klara's point of view has a certain naiveté, so it makes sense that she might imbue the sun with such powers. So when she sees Beggar Man and his dog motionless on the sidewalk and later revived in the sunlight, it's very likely he was just sleeping (drunk? ill? famished?) and eventually woke up. So it makes perfect sense to Klara that the same sun that powers her abilities could have "resurrected" Beggar Man.
Meave: Klara has so much knowledge but she's not at all worldly, and it does seem natural that she'd take such comfort from and attribute so much power to the sun.
Ricardo: Elsewhere in the text, we see Klara constantly making observations about how much light there is in the kitchen. And she and Josie often watch the sunset and describe it in almost mythical fashion. It wouldn't be the first time where what we believe happened is more important than what actually happened.
Meave: So in that case, are we reading a magical realism-tinged dystopia? Or is this an AI in a dystopia engaging in magical realism? Or is applying genre labels unhelpful when Ishiguro is dipping into so many of them?
Ricardo: I feel like what Ishiguro is doing is less magical realism and more a kind of indulging in some ambiguity with the reader's perception. We're in speculative, sci-fi territory here, so maybe that opens the door for other interpretations. And as is often the case, I think Ishiguro is playing with our expectations of genre. Klara is in the near future, with more advanced technology than we currently have, so it feels like sci-fi. But Ishiguro always likes to subvert the expectations of genre. In my fave, The Buried Giant, he's playing with the fantasy milieu by giving us dragons, ogres, knights, and wizards. But it's not the fantasy we've come to expect; he's not going to give you what you think you should have according to conventions of the genre.
Meave: He's never going to give me what I think I should have, i.e., more details. But that's a me problem, please continue.
Ricardo: With Klara, we get a near-future dystopia with some advanced technology and some really weird social structures. But again he defies conventions of the genre. The AF does not (yet?) turn on its masters; its wiring doesn't get compromised or hijacked. Instead, we get a seemingly simple, mild-mannered AF who observes and obeys—
Meave: Oh no, now I have to say it—"so far…"
Ricardo: I'm reminded that, among its many awards, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad won the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction. While it was sometimes described as having elements of "speculative fiction," most reviewers didn't come out and call it sci-fi. And Whitehead's books include a zombie novel, a coming-of-age story, sci-fi, and historical fiction. But as both of these guys have piled up tons of awards, the only label that consistently gets applied to them is "literary."
Meave: Which is a genre too, isn't it? It's so confusing.
Ricardo: Unfortunately, there's often a hierarchy implied that denigrates so-called genre fiction, and most awards tend to go to the "respectable" or "literary" bunch. There's so much fun and insight and joy to be had in talking about books. If all you come up with is "my book is better than your book," that's pretty sad.
Meave: Getting caught up in "genre" versus "literary" may help if you're creating a Hierarchy of Books (ToB's evil twin?), but won't necessarily help you find books you want to read. Are you enjoying Ishiguro's flirtations with genre conventions here? It sounds like you did in The Buried Giant.
Ricardo: The ToB's evil twin, I love it! Well, not exactly love, but that's a good way to show how not to think about books. I do love how Ishiguro plays around with genre and its conventions. It's just as we settle into the familiar sci-fi and dystopia conventions that we start to suspect that there's more lurking under the surface. And what he does so well with so-called dystopia is not just that it's a potentially dark, bizarre future, it's also uncomfortably close to our world. He's holding up a mirror as much as he is projecting a potential future.
Meave: Oh, that makes my stomach hurt. So, let us postulate that we are in a dystopian near-future (or just the near future, ha ha I'm not laughing). Those kids at the "interaction" were utter creeps; are we attributing this to society in general being worse, or the kids' lack of regular social interaction, learning alone on their "oblongs" and having been "lifted" into—something "better?" Fitter, happier, more productive? Did you speculate at all at what lifting might entail? It has to be some kind of genetic therapy, which we have had for a while now, but riskier. What do you make of the relationship between Josie, whose sister died due to the lifting process and whose own lifting has made her mysteriously ill, and Rick, whose mother didn't have him lifted, but who also seems a little, say, kinder than most of the lifted kids we meet?
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.
Book description excerpted from publisher's summary and edited for length.
Ricardo: Oh, we're definitely in dystopia territory here. Of course, part of what makes the story work is how similar it is to our world; it's not that far-fetched. The interaction scene was creepy and had a Lord of the Flies vibe to it. But it may not be that different from annoying, privileged kids in any setting. Think of boarding school brats, mean girls, or any other cliquish social structure.
Meave: Fair enough. Nobody likes a bunch of Future Members of the Federalist Society who aren't mature enough to pretend to like each other for a couple hours.
Ricardo: And it wasn't just the kids; the moms were pretty terrifying. The way they hovered in the next room, all nervous smiles, tight grips on their wine glasses and fancy canapes, and trying (and failing) to stay uninvolved was unnerving. They knew there was something unhealthy going on and seemed to be in deep denial about it all. Which, as a reader, makes you more anxious. What's going on? What are you not telling me? I agree, lifting must be some kind of genetic or biological treatment—and I'm really sorry I clicked that link, Meave, that's a little too on the nose. Some kind of scary "gifted and talented" program ("gifted and lifted?" "lifted and talented?") that will totally change your life, if it doesn't kill you!
Meave: Those moms! Such super-ultra-mega-WASPs. I did wonder what Josie thinks about her whole situation. So far she seems very pliable, until she's absolutely not, which I guess is typical at that age, but I had trouble getting a read on her.
Ricardo: We really do have little of Josie's interiority to go on. Ishiguro seems to play it straight with her as a typical teenager, albeit one in very peculiar circumstances. I mean, she's moody, argues with her mom, and is convinced she and Rick are meant for each other. Check, check, check, she's a teenager, all right. I thought that awful interaction scene showed her as a natural teenager trying to make sense of her changing social world. The way she struggled to integrate Rick with the rest of the group made me feel for her. When the snarky kids remarked that Jose should have gotten the newer AF model, my heart broke a little when she replied, "Yeah, I'm beginning to think I should have."
Meave: Definitely, unpleasantly reminded me of my myriad teenage cruelties.
Ricardo: We know Josie is attached to Klara, that she lobbied strongly for her, and that Klara is somehow special among AFs. I kept hearing a fake laugh in Josie's reply that felt like someone desperately trying to fit in, even if it meant not standing up for Rick and Klara. That was sad, not because Josie's a bad person, but because life will do that to you.
Meave: Give you opportunities to hurt the ones who love you the most? That's like life's whole thing.
Ricardo: And speaking of being too on the nose, it was weird seeing the kids do all their learning on their "oblongs" given the last year we've all had. I was almost a little defensive—yeah, it's weird that Josie is so isolated and spends all day staring at an oblong, but we have a good reason for doing that. We're not that bad, right? Even though Ishiguro wrote this before the pandemic, when you add up the oblongs and remote learning, being lifted and ongoing genetic and AI research, increasing social stratification, it's a little uncanny.
Meave: I felt very sad, thinking about the kids I know, how much their parents love them and want to do their best by them, and what choices they'll have to make to try to ensure their childrens' ongoing happiness and success, however that's defined. Did you feel any pity for Rick here, unlifted and with a mother he seems to have to parent?
Ricardo: I felt bad for Rick. He seemed a bit mercurial, but that was mostly teenage moodiness. As I learned more about his home life and his growing awareness of the growing stratification between him and Josie's world, I began to admire and like him more. He's got a lot going on and seems to be handling it pretty well, especially given his lack of solid parental oversight and care.
Meave: Rick's poor mom. As a fellow flailer, I felt for her. Rick so openly resents her as much as he loves her; the differences between their relationship and Josie's with her mother is striking.
Ricardo: The contrasts between his family and Josie's seem deliberate. One family embraces the "lifting" process, the other rejects it. One family has significantly more financial means and social standing than the other. I have to say, I don't like either mother's situation. Rick's mother really seems hurt not only by her decision not to lift Rick, but also by other life/family issues. She seems really fragile, it's disheartening. Josie's mother has some advantages, but I feel like we're starting to see more cracks in her armor, too.
Meave: Oh, I would bet good money on Josie's mother cracking sooner than later. Now, I have to ask: What's with Melania Housekeeper? It's interesting she's the help and she's the only one who speaks in less-than-fluent English, but she also seems much more invested in the idea of "protecting" Josie, and expresses what you might call more "traditional" values. Do you think any of this is important? Is Melania's speech just another signal of social stratification, like, she's an immigrant, so she has to be in the servant class? Couldn't they have gotten another AI robot to do that? We don't see any other household servants or anyone else speaking accented English, so it's hard to tell.
Ricardo: I know this is petty, but for the longest time, whenever Melania came up, I couldn't help but recall another Melania from recent history and shudder a little. My hangup, I'll own that.
Meave: No, me too. For example, it's not a common name in the US. According to the Social Security Administration, which tracks baby names, it peaked in 2017 at no. 933 of the top 1,000. So, I'm going to say that I don't think Ishiguro pulled it out of a hat. He must have his reasons.
Ricardo: Chalk it up to Ishiguro's mischievousness. Anyway, I do think it's interesting that Melania Housekeeper is so different from most of the other characters. She's incredibly loyal to the family and probably knows a lot about what happened to Josie's sister, but she isn't very forthcoming. Servants in Ishiguro books often have important roles, and I think Melania's work, accent, and behavior tell us about the social layering of Josie and Klara's world. Klara and Melania Housekeeper are both types of servants, but Klara seems to enjoy an elevated status.
Meave: See, I don't know about "elevated" status, exactly. Melania Housekeeper is still always treated like a human being and a person, albeit one of lower social stature, and no human character always gives Klara the same respect: the kids at the party rating Klara versus the newer AFs like gaming consoles or phones; Josie's Mother joking-not-joking about storing her like a vacuum. Maybe Klara's programming makes her feel what we might understand as love for Josie, so she can accept such treatment as part of the job? Is this projecting too much humanity onto an AF, or is that exactly Ishiguro's point?
Ricardo: Yeah, let me reconsider that. True, Klara doesn't have elevated status and she's clearly treated as less than human. But I think what she has that Melania lacks is access. No one thinks it's odd that Klara is always by Josie's side; she even stays in her room while Josie sleeps. It would be weird if Melania (or anyone else) did that, but that's what everyone seems to expect from an AF. It makes Klara seem more like a pet (you could imagine a dog constantly at Josie's side and in her bedroom at night), but of course Klara has more intelligence and ability to communicate.
Meave: Now that you mention it, I don't know why we haven't seen any AI pets in this future.
Ricardo: If asked, Klara's Manager might say it's the AF's duty or programming to be someone's friend. But the language Klara uses is all about wanting to be friends and hoping Josie is happy. It's the language of caring. The more humanity we associate with something, the more attached to it we grow. So yeah, that would seem to be very much Ishiguro's point—the attachments the characters make with Klara, and how they treat her, say more about them than they do about her. We can't help but project humanity onto Klara. Whatever bad stuff is coming in the second half of the book, I'm sure it will be tied to this conflict.
Meave: I don't understand Klara, but I feel very protective of her. Ishiguro makes it so easy to anthropomorphize her and sympathize with her (though I'm a soft-hearted vegan who believes sentient beings are people, which to me includes Klara). What do you think comes next? I'm so worried about this everyone-goes-to-the-city/Klara-attempts-to-call-forth-the-sun trip. It can only go wrong, right? The foreboding is killing me.
Ricardo: I've got a bad feeling about this. It just can't go well. I mean, all those conflicting personalities, quirks, and agendas in one car? I'm feeling claustrophobic just thinking about it.
Meave: A total nightmare even before they get where they're going.
Ricardo: And even though I don't think there's any life-saving power coming from the sun, I'm nervous about what Klara might try.
Meave: So, gnawing your lips with anxiety along with me, then. What will we, through Klara, be facing in the next half?
Ricardo: This whole portrait business is worrisome. Capaldi, the painter, is bad news, I tell ya. "He takes a special interest in AFs. You could call it his passion." If Josie's just getting her portrait done, what's this got to do with his "research?" Clearly there's more going on than just a portrait. Does this have to do with being lifted? Did Josie's sister get her portrait done? What's going on here? Dunno, and don't like it. But can't wait to read more.
Meave: Looks like we're leaving on tenterhooks today. Ricardo, thank you so much, and best of luck with your books and their shelves! Everyone else, we'll see you in the comments and then back here in two weeks—after vacation!—to find out what happens in the back half of Klara and the Sun.
The Camp ToB 2021 Calendar
- June 2: No One Is Talking About This through part one
- June 9: No One Is Talking About This to the end
- June 16: Detransition, Baby through chapter four
- June 23: Detransition, Baby to the end
- June 30: Klara and the Sun through part three
- July 7: VACATION
- July 14: Klara and the Sun to the end
- July 21: Whereabouts through "At the Cash Register"
- July 28: Whereabouts to the end
- Aug. 4: Peaces through chapter eight
- Aug. 11: Peaces to the end
- Aug. 18: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch through page 137
- Aug. 25: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch to the end
- Sept. 1: Announce summer champion
You can find all our summer titles at our Camp ToB 2021 Bookshop list.