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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 3, 2006
When I first received word that my match-up for this year’s Tournament of Books was going to be Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land versus Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, my initial reaction was “You bastards.” Because here are two novelists I admire—two novelists who could not be more different in voice and style. And although I’d read Home Land and touted it as a Recommended Title at my blog, The Elegant Variation, Never Let Me Go was a Booker shortlist that has garnered some of the best reviews of Ishiguro’s career, including a love letter from James Wood in the New Republic. It promised great things. Clearly, I had a Gordian knot ahead of me, and hell if I knew what I was going to do.

As it turned out, the choice was considerably easier than I expected.

Home Land is a profane, hilarious, and wise look at misfired aspirations as seen through the eyes of one Lewis “Teabag” Miner. His declaration on the book’s first page—“I did not pan out”—sets the tone for all that follows. The book consists of Miner’s dispatches to his alumni newsletter—none of which are ever actually published. Miner shares his predilections, including masturbating to internet images of girls in leg warmers, in scabrous detail as he juxtaposes his own dead-end existence against the glossier lives of his more successful classmates. Yet he manages, by the end, to come off with more nobility and grace than the Beautiful People who have left him behind. It’s a wicked, heartfelt delight, and you’ll read it in a sitting if you have an ounce of soul.
Ishiguro once again has pulled the deft trick
of fully inhabiting this entirely alien
personage and, as he did in Remains,
allowing awareness to dawn only gradually.
Never Let Me Go also exhibits a kind of brilliance but it’s the brilliance of a parlor trick. Ishiguro displays his continued fascination with ventriloquism, a talent that finds its apotheosis in the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day, in which he seamlessly—and heartbreakingly—inhabits the voice of a staid English butler. Here the voice is of a young woman, Kathy, and she’s reflecting on her short life, which includes her memories of school, but it’s a school unlike any you or I have ever attended. Hailsham is a training ground for clones, who are raised solely for the purpose of providing replacement organs. (This scarcely constitutes a spoiler, since we learn this within the first 100 pages, and frankly it’s pretty damned obvious to begin with.) To his credit, Ishiguro once again has pulled the deft trick of fully inhabiting this entirely alien personage and, as he did in Remains, allowing awareness to dawn only gradually. But what was heartbreaking there is merely grating here. Kathy’s voice is flat and bland, and so one essentially endures it, along with chapter after chapter of faux-cliffhanger endings, to get to what amounts to little more than Ishiguro’s “gotcha!” Ishiguro has a clear purpose in mind that he executes faultlessly, so in the end it’s a book one can admire—but is unlikely to love.

Home Land is a messy, unpredictable, loose cannon of a book, alive and vital on every page. Never Let Me Go is a virtuoso display of icy control but is finally as flat as the voice that narrates it.

Never Let Me Go has gotten the critical props but Home Land should have gotten the Booker nod (it doesn’t qualify because Lipsyte’s not a Brit, but it was released in the UK two full years prior to its release here when Picador finally had the balls to take it on, so that should give it some kind of honorary status). But if I have anything to say about it, Lewis Miner will pan out at last, and get a much-deserved goddamn Rooster.

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