Never Let Me Go
Vintage Canada: January 31, 2006
The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
Harper Perennial: November 1, 2005
The Memory of Running
Penguin: December 27, 2005
Mirror book critic
Browse the New Paperback Fiction table at any bookstore and you’ll be struck by how many books have fallen prey to the tried and true Screenplay Plot Formula. Barreling along at the fastest pace imaginable, Act I establishes the characters and starts the plot’s rising action. Act II focuses on characters pursuing a central conflict or goal despite obstacles. Act III starts with the big climatic confrontation scene, and ends with a resolution. So many novels read like screenplays these days, it’s no wonder fiction readership is down.
That said, it is quite refreshing to read the three novels chosen for this Roundup. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon, and The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty all depart from the direct to DVD storytelling format. These authors focus heavily on their characters’ inner lives, particularly on their relationships, motivations, melancholia and minutiae.
The Final Solution: A Story of Detection has very little to do with mysteries or detectives, although both appear in the novella. In the last year of World War II, a nine-year-old German Jewish boy is rescued at the last possible second from cattle trains bound for Auschwitz. He ends up orphaned and mute in a Sussex boardinghouse, his only companion an African gray parrot that squawks an odd series of numbers in German.
In the first few pages, one of the boarders tries to steal the parrot and is killed in the attempt, the murderer making off with the bird. An eighty-nine year-old famous detective, referred to only as “old man,” comes out of retirement not to solve the murder, but to help the boy retrieve his beloved pet.
While this book’s premise is both engaging and humorous, Chabon’s dense, overly verbose writing style renders the book virtually inaccessible to the average reader. Unlike the elegant and beautifully clear language evident in his Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in The Final Solution: A Story of Detection Chabon employs a nineteenth-century narrator who is both meandering and maddening. Chabon circles around the action, delving into irrelevant minutiae rather than illuminating even the simplest plot points, and although the book is novella length, it feels like an overly long short story. While Chabon’s choice to experiment with language is admirable, in this case the experiment sadly fails.
Kazuo Ishiguro, on the other hand, crafts a mesmerizing character study in his most recent novel, Never Let Me Go. Told from the perspective of clone Kathy H., Never Let Me Go takes place in a casually constructed alternate-universe England of 1998 where clones are engineered, raised in isolated government facilities, and then harvested for their vital organs. Most “complete” or die by their thirtieth birthday. Kathy H is a “carer,” a clone who helps donors get through their donations. Nearing the end of her career, she decides to tell her life story before she begins her own series of donations.
Kathy H. tells her story to a fellow clone living in the same alternative England as herself, thus assuming a great deal of knowledge on the part of her audience that the reader obviously does not possess. Thus, Ishiguro hooks readers from the first page, as he gracefully dangles a tantalizing lack of information. Readers expecting an epic battle between clones and their government handlers will be disappointed. Never Let Me Go does not have a conventional plot. It is a true page turner, however, as readers are pulled into Kathy H.’s life, first as a student in a government school that tries to bring out the souls of its clone students through art, then later as a carer for her dearest friends. Thus, Ishiguro has crafted another masterpiece in yet another genre. Like Remains of The Day, the characters in Never Let Me Go will stay with readers for years to come.
Crafting memorable characters is the hallmark of a good writer. Unfortunately, while Ron McLarty’s debut novel The Memory of Running boasts dozens of characters from all walks of life, none of them is truly memorable. Forty-three year old Smithy Ide is overweight and depressed, living the solitary life of an alcoholic factory worker in Rhode Island. On the same day his parents die in a car accident, he finds out that his sister has died of exposure in Los Angeles. After the funeral, he drinks himself to the point of oblivion, jumps on his bicycle and begins the long ride to Los Angeles to claim his sister’s body.
Along the way Smithy meets a deliberately diverse cast of characters, all of whom recite their life stories to him from beginning to end without stopping. After his third such encounter, readers will feel like Smithy is watching a stage play in which all the action suddenly stops so a character can step forward into the spotlight and deliver his or her soliloquy. This artificial construction gets in the way of the more interesting aspects of Smithy’s journey, which primarily involve the creative logistics of cycling cross country with no money, support or training. In another stilted construction, every other chapter relates Smithy’s life story— the story of his family from beginning to end. Smithy’s tale is involving and heartwarming, easily the best part of The Memory Of Running.