Klara and the Sun
  • March 17, 2022

    Opening Round

  • Kazuo Ishiguro

    1Klara and the Sun
    4Nervous System

    Lina Meruane

  • Judged by

    Rosa Lyster

Nervous System

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun has one of the most misleading first pages I’ve read in ages. Narrated by a little solar-powered robot named Klara, the novel opens with her and some of the other Artificial Friends (AFs) languishing hopefully at the robot store, waiting to be noticed and taken home by the children whose loneliness the AFs were built to assuage. Klara describes what she sees: her friend Rosa (robot), her friend Rex (robot), the insistently capitalized Manager (person), passers-by outside (people), and, most significantly, the Sun (the sun), whose passage across the floor Klara tracks with devoted attention: “When we were new, we used to worry that because we often could not see the Sun from mid-store, we’d grow weaker and weaker.”

Rosa Lyster (she/her) is working on a book about the global water crisis. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Sally Rooney is a friend.”

I thought I knew where all this was going: The Manager will abuse the robot’s startlingly human capacity for love, which will trigger a meditation on What It Means to Be Human, or the Sun will turn out to be a robot term for something sinister and manmade, which will trigger a meditation on extractive capitalism and ultimately What It Means to Be Human Now. Rosa and Klara will find ways to be touchingly brave together, unlikely alliances will form, and as readers we will be forced to consider what makes us different from machines, and maybe some of us will have to write reviews where we bow to convention and write the sentence, “Ultimately, the novel is about what it means to be human.” I was wrong. At every point in the novel where you’d expect an escalation, or a grandiose attempt to put to bed a question that no one has ever known how to answer, Klara and the Sun slows down, or turns its attention elsewhere. Through drip-fed revelation, it does emerge that the world of the novel is far uglier and sicker than the sunnily naïve narrator, whose powers of observation far exceed her powers of interpretation, might have hoped. The children whose families can afford it are “lifted,” or genetically enhanced, and the fact that they sometimes die during these procedures is justified in horrible ways:

Everything about Josie, from the moment I first held her, everything about her told me she was hungry for life. The whole world excited her. That’s how I knew from the start I couldn’t deny her the chance. She was demanding a future worthy of her spirit.

Field NotesThe first Field Notes Limited Edition for 2022 is the “Signs of Spring” Edition.

Bright and warm, the covers of these Memo Books are heavily debossed with graphic patterns based on flowers that are among the very first to appear each spring, and then stamped with three luscious, reflective foils. The dot-graph insides are made from a superb paper from Strathmore.

Available now in 3-Packs and as part of a year-long subscription.

There is no moment of revelation, though, despite the occasional imputations that one is coming, and there are parts of the novel that are frustratingly opaque, where Ishiguro declines or neglects to help the reader out even slightly, so that essential terms and concepts are not enlarged upon for hundreds of pages, and information about what is happening and why seems pointlessly withheld. This is part of its brilliance, I think, where Ishiguro’s anticipatory control of the narrative both raises and extinguishes the possibility of a more flashily satisfying outcome. Still, despite my awareness that my frustration with Klara and the Sun had much more to do with my own inadequacies as a reader than any innate deficiencies, and despite knowing that it is childish to want to have the point of a novel spelled out for you in nice big letters at the end, I did end up longing for that, and as I read, I did end up making one too many arguments to myself about the intrinsic value of something being confusing and hard to parse.

This is not at all to say that I think there is anything wrong with being made to feel stupid by a book. We are all so needy and demanding now, with way too many terrible ideas about how valuable our time is and what an author needs to do in order to “earn our attention.” Please! Everyone spends hours and hours online doing nothing but having troublingly intense meltdowns when someone makes an anodyne observation about public transport or the popularity of the short story as a form! We can’t go around insisting on the value of our time if we spend so much of it engaged in obviously worthless and mutually diminishing conversations with strangers we think are insane, and no one who spends even 20 minutes a day on Twitter is allowed to say anything about attention being “earned.” This idea has seeped into the water, though, which meant that Lina Meruane’s Nervous System came at first as an uncomfortable surprise, with its refusal to pander to the reader and its author’s apparent confidence that this is a novel worth working at.

Ella is an astrophysicist, trying to finish her doctoral thesis in the United States. (The novel has some of the best descriptions of the specific hell that is trying to finish a doctoral thesis that I have ever read: “It was while thinking about blackouts and bottomless holes that the desire to get sick ignited in her. Ella considered it, but couldn’t decide on an illness. A cold or a flu wouldn’t give her the time she needed to finish her thesis. Pneumonia would keep her from working. Cancer was too risky.”) Her partner, El, is a forensic anthropologist who analyzes the recovered bones of the victims of the Pinochet regime, and who is actually sick in the way that Ella, at the beginning of the novel, only wishes she was (an explosion at the dig site in Chile almost kills him). The narrative setting shifts between “the country of the past” and “the country of the present,” and as it unfolds, Meruane pulls its apparently disparate elements tighter and tighter together, until they are pressed against each other as claustrophobically as family members. Ella’s wish comes true—she gets sick, in a way that scares her and everyone around her, especially because she cannot work out why. In an effort to work out what is happening to her, she goes back to Chile, where the past is working on the present, just like it is everywhere.

As in Klara and the Sun, revelations are drip-fed, so that what happened to Ella’s family is only made gradually clear. The difference though, for me, is that the novel’s obfuscations and elisions never felt like they were being employed for some obscure salutary purpose, to bore and frustrate the reader just for the hell of it. Toward the end of the novel, Ella is thinking about her failure to actually sit down and write her dissertation, to come up with a question worth asking and then to answer it: “Ella had ended up accepting that she cared only about what she didn’t understand, what couldn’t be seen, the conjectural, fumbling her way through the dark room of the cosmos. Not putting her eye to telescopes so powerful they let you read an open newspaper on the moon.” Both novels have baffled protagonists, but Ella’s bewilderment is used as part of Meruane’s wider insight about the way past violence distorts and compromises our ability to clearly perceive the present, whereas Klara’s bewilderment seems to emphasize nothing more than the idea that it would probably be quite confusing to be a robot.

TODAY’S WINNER: Nervous System

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Susan Messer & Andrew Womack

Andrew Womack (he/him): Today we’re again joined by one of our reader commentators, and this time it’s Susan Messer! Hello Susan, please introduce yourself to the readers.

Susan Messer (she/her): Hi, Andrew. Being invited into the booth at the ToB is such an honor and a pleasure for me. It’s like having the Beatles call me up onto the stage to sit in with them. So, thank you, thank you.

Andrew: We’re so happy you are here, and where is “here” for you?

Susan: I live in Oak Park, Ill.—the former home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway—on the western edge of Chicago. Here I want to mention the Book Table, the indie bookstore where we buy our books in this town. When my novel was published, the Book Table had a big, beautiful display in the front window, and they had me come in several times to sign books. When I got teary-eyed—“Oh, this is wonderful, you’re so nice”—Jason, one of the owners, said, “I’m not doing it because I’m nice. I’m doing it because they’re selling.” So there’s that, the business side of publishing.

Andrew: Kudos, Jason! Is there anything else we should know about you before jumping into today’s judgment?

Susan: In addition to publishing short stories and creative nonfiction and that one novel, I have had a long career as a self-employed editor. Lately, I’ve been writing articles for the One Earth Collective, and thus learning about environmental (in)justice, the circular economy, and all kinds of other disturbing and interesting topics. The other big, relevant thing related to me being here in the booth is the many years I’ve belonged to reading groups. The Oak Park group I belong to has been going for around 30 years. And then there’s the Proust group. My husband and I and two friends have been engaged in a very close reading of Proust’s great novel for at least a decade. I could say a lot about the Proust group (the marvelous array of appetizers and wines that accompanies our discussions, the seriousness and commitment of our little clan), but I would like to mention the Proust limericks I’ve been writing as we go along—attempting to compress something huge and complex into something small and summative. (If there are any illustrators out there who would like to collaborate on something based on these limericks, please get in touch.)

Andrew: Hahha, love it. So now let’s dig in! I want to start out by noting Judge Lyster’s assumptions with how Klara and the Sun might play out, and to say that I particularly love when a book—or really, anything else—shatters my expectations of what it’s going to be. Usually, as is certainly the case here for Judge Lyster, it does not work out. Still, upending my expectations is definitely at or near the top of my litmus tests for whether I like a thing. How about you?

Susan: I’m not sure I enter books with expectations. Well, maybe that’s not true. Sometimes I have a bad attitude about particular authors (e.g., because they’re so annoyingly successful, and I don’t get why), and then right from the start, I’m reading with my hand on my hip, looking for the stuff to complain about—

Andrew: Same, honestly.

Susan: I am very interested in noticing my experience as I read, where I’m most engaged or emotional, or where my attention is flagging, what makes me anxious, what delights me. I’m impressed with how closely Judge Lyster monitored her reading experience, though it was very unlike mine. I’m usually comfortable staying open to where the author is taking me, accepting that certain things are not yet—and maybe never—knowable. But now, getting back to your earlier statement, I’m trying to think of an example of a book that shattered my expectations.

On a related note, a strategy called “predict and verify” is taught to college students who need to improve their reading skills. The idea is to encourage active engagement with the reading experience and interaction with the text. I learned this from editing college reading textbooks. (And I wrote a novel about a man who taught a reading class at a community college, but it couldn’t find a publisher.) With predict and verify, you’re asked to stop, consider what you just read, guess where it might be going, and make a note of it. It’s okay to find out later that you weren’t right. That’s part of the process of discovery. And, in fact, Andrew, it sounds as though that might be the experience you most favor—to find your initial assumptions were wrong.

Andrew: It is! So, do you ever employ this technique?

Susan: I don’t do it with intentionality. What I learned from editing those textbooks, writing that novel, and reflecting on my own life experience is that people who were fortunate enough to be raised in a book- and reading-rich environment intuitively know and use such strategies. They operate in some substrata of consciousness formed because a parent or some other adult pointed to a picture in a book and asked, “Why do you think the duckie is wearing rainboots?”

But I do a lot of annotation (another reading strategy), especially with Proust, making notes in the margin, numbering items in those long, winding multi-subordinate-clause sentences, circling and drawing arrows between subjects and modifiers, to help me follow the flow.



Andrew: Have you read either of today’s books?

Susan: I did read Klara and the Sun and I began Nervous System. And one thing is clear: What goes on in the relationship between a book and a reader is highly individual. I know this point has been made and demonstrated many times in the ToB. A person’s life experience, reading history, stage of life, events in the larger world… all weave into that relationship. Even with people I know very well, there’s almost no predicting whether they will believe the novelist’s plea that “this is a novel worth working at,” as Nervous System convincingly whispered to Judge Lyster.

At the outset, based mostly on blurbs, the idea of Klara and the Sun (AI, robots) did not seem like a book I would want to read. But throughout, one word hovered over it for me—a word and an experience I was so hungry for—and that was benevolence. At the end, rather than being left with “nothing more than the idea that it would probably be quite confusing to be a robot,” as Judge Lyster said, I was left to consider how it might feel to be like Klara—untainted by ego, by grudges and begrudging, by the need for self-promotion. Of course, the book has plenty to worry about, plenty that’s sinister, including environmental degradation—all the things that Judge Lyster mentions—but overall, for me, it was about Klara’s benevolence. And while Judge Lyster saw Ishiguro as declining or neglecting “to help the reader out even slightly, so that essential terms and concepts are not enlarged upon for hundreds of pages,” I thought he might be saying to me, “Klara is placed in this world and must unravel all these puzzles of human behavior. Now you do the same, see how it feels.” Perhaps it’s what it’s like to be an immigrant. Or what it’s like for me when I travel in a foreign country/culture, finding my footing, trying not to be stupid.

Andrew: In terms of the novel, did you find that effective?

Susan: If you mean, did it help me accept some of those mysteries in Klara and the Sun, I’d say yes. I was comfortable with some things remaining uncertain—e.g., what exactly the Cootings Machine was doing. Other things I think I may have parsed out—that Klara’s fragmented way of seeing might be due to pixelating. The big mysteries and tensions that surrounded Josie and the photographer… well, I trusted that I would eventually find out. Trust is an important part of it, trusting that I’m in good hands.

Andrew: And what were your impressions of Nervous System?

Susan: I was recently editing an article by a psychologist, and she mentioned a study that caught my eye. The finding was that people who like horror and suspense—movies, books, TV shows—were having an easier time of it during the pandemic than those who aren’t into those genres. The point being that the horror fans already imagined and inhabited the anxiety of those worlds. But that’s not and never has been me. Especially during the pandemic, I avoided anything that ups my anxiety level. So, for me, the world of Nervous System—being stuck, obsessing over the vulnerable body, the anxiety around not knowing what ails it—these are things I can’t tolerate right now. Had to put it aside. If I had been the judge, or if this was a book-group choice, I would have finished it, because of the commitment to the group and the process, though not without a lot of discomfort.

Andrew: What’s been your media antidote to combat pandemic-induced anxiety?

Susan: One day I was driving to the dentist, and NPR had a segment discussing books novelists had recommended for calming and soothing during the pandemic. The one that called out to me was a 1931 novel called The Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff, and it was actually Ishiguro who recommended it. This was way before I’d been invited to be part of the ToB. It took my bookstore forever to get a copy for me (supply chain), but I did love it when it got here. As with Klara and the Sun, I found plenty to worry about, and plenty that was sad or troubling in The Fortnight in September, but over it all was a sweetness, people savoring the simplest pleasures and each other’s company. My husband also read Klara and the Sun and The Fortnight in September, and we had the best time reliving the small moments and lovely details.

As for other media, my first guiding motto during the pandemic has been “Do not disturb,” as I have needed to carefully curate inputs that might further ramp up my anxiety. In this spirit, I had to set aside three novels in a row that were too brutal or upsetting for me in my delicate state. If I can’t get through the first 15 minutes of a film without a knot in my throat and stomach, it’s a no. And social media doesn’t hold much interest for me because my second motto has been “If I can’t go far, I’ll go deep,” and so I tried and in many cases succeeded in cultivating deep and deepening connections with the people around me. This is not to say that I’m a complete purist. During the pandemic, my husband and I binged on Madam Secretary, and although things could get pretty tense in those episodes, our hero managed to solve and diffuse every international disaster that presented itself. Oh, to have Madam Secretary out there now. She’d know what to do about Russia/Ukraine.

Andrew: I particularly appreciated how Judge Lyster was able to draw fairly direct connections between certain aspects of the two books. This is a pretty rare needle for Tournament judges to thread, I’ve found. Usually the books don’t allow for that level of comparison, but I think it says even more about how much Judge Lyster dove into these books—and as a reader of the decision, I got a lot out of the judgment. How about you?

Susan: I agree. It is impressive, the way she made those connections. Makes me wonder whether she’d be able to do the same with a different match-up or whether it was something specific to these two books. And I really admired the way she let us see the top of her head kind of blow off there, in the midst of it, about social media, and everything vying for our attention, how hard it is to maintain focus, remember what really matters.

Andrew: Wonderful. Any parting words?

Susan: On many Saturday mornings, my husband and I attend a Torah study on Zoom. Before the reading and discussion, the group offers a blessing for the process of wrestling with and soaking in text. Whenever and wherever I engage in literary conversation, I like to think of that blessing, and I’d like to bring that blessing to the ToB. Let’s shower the ToB and those who make it possible with blessings for this space where we can all gather to wrestle and soak.

Andrew: Agreed, and thank you so much for joining us today, Susan!


2022 Tournament of Books merch

New 2022 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we’re asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


Welcome to the Commentariat

Population: You

To keep our comments section as inclusive as possible for the book-loving public, please follow the guidelines below. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate or abusive comments, such as ad hominem attacks. We ban users who repeatedly post inappropriate comments.

  • Criticize ideas, not people. Divisiveness can be a result of debates over things we truly care about; err on the side of being generous. Let’s talk and debate and gnash our book-chewing teeth with love and respect for the Rooster community, judges, authors, commentators, and commenters alike.
  • If you’re uninterested in a line of discussion from an individual user, you can privately block them within Disqus to hide their comments (though they’ll still see your posts).
  • While it’s not required, you can use the Disqus <spoiler> tag to hide book details that may spoil the reading experience for others, e.g., “<spoiler>Dumbledore dies.<spoiler>”
  • We all feel passionately about fiction, but “you’re an idiot if you loved/hated this book that I hated/loved” isn't an argument—it’s just rude. Take a breath.
blog comments powered by Disqus