Ishiguro’s Unreliable Narrators [Klara And The Sun]

A lot has already been said about Ishiguro and his new book, Klara and the Sun– the consistency of his tone and theme, the simplicity of his prose, his foray into many literary genres, and his return to science fiction, the role of inconsistent or conflicted narrators in complicating his stories. And this last point appears to be the element of Ishiguro’s writing canon that Klara and the Sun most advances.

Because in some ways, Klara, the Artificial Friend for the very-ill Josie, is a unique narrator for Ishiguro, but one that perfectly fits the rest of his book’s voices.

Ishiguro’s narrators have taken on legendary proportions in the literary world. They present a Masterclass of unreliable storytelling. Three of them stick out to me (before we add Klara to the mix), as an excellent overview of how Ishiguro uses their voices to tell his story, Stevens from Remains of the Day, Kathy from Never Let Me Go, and Etsuko from A Pale View of Hills.

Stevens represents a narrator at the end of the story, looking back on what transpired, and wondering if he had screwed it all up. His unreliability lies in his desire to justify his life’s work as well as a social blindness he adopts in the name of service. He eschews love, friendship, and in some ways his own values for the sake of serving Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer. His inability to make sense of what he did only grows our empathy for Stevens, since it is so clear to readers what is so often not to him. In some ways, this type of narrator also appears in Artist in a Floating World and makes a side appearance in A Pale View of Hills, which both include older Japanese men of a generation that served the Empire, an act that the younger generation brings into question. 

The world moves on from what once was considered venerable, leaving these men to look at their life’s work, once valuable and respected, and question what it all meant. Their obvious conflict brings every recollection and conclusion under scrutiny, and often puts the reader in direct disagreement with their assessments.

This unreliability is similar to Kathy but different enough for Kathy to represent a different category, especially considering what Klara adds to these voices. Kathy was never honored, or doing work considered valuable- quite the opposite. She was on the lowest rung of the social ladder her whole life, and at the end of her shortened life (I am tiptoeing around big spoilers here), she is not shocked at the shifting view of society around her, like Stevens. Instead, she tries to make sense of the value of her life in the face of a blatant lack of humanity towards her. 

For both narrators, society advanced and left them behind. But for Stevens this happened at the end of his career, calling into question actions committed at a time where no one would question him. For Kathy, this happened at the beginning of her career, leaving her to wonder how the world could normalize such behaviors, and what her life meant amidst that new society (one he paints as an alternate present). 

The third, Etsuko, is a more standard unreliable narrator (it is worth noting she was the narrator of his first book). She has lapses in memory, provides obviously incorrect commentary on concrete events that she does remember, and, in the end, shows a break with reality that calls even all of that into question. As standardized as she is, she provides less insight and commentary into the role of the narrator in the story, but she set the standard for Ishiguro’s blending of narrators, their memories, and a reader’s role in sifting through the story for the truth that eludes the storyteller.

At this point, I could and would enjoy diving into Ishiguro’s social commentary based on all these elements, but instead, I would like to ask the question of how Klara, the AF, fits in with these narrators.

Klara, in some ways, is the most reliable of Ishiguro’s narrators. She is AI, at the mercy of fact and observation. She will not tell a story wrong or provide commentary that is manipulated by wishes and fancies. But this does not mean Klara is always objectively correct. She is often wrong, unable to make sense of the quintessentially human experience she observes. But when she is wrong, readers can easily recognize the errors. So her lapses in understanding provide the same tension as Ishiguro’s other storytellers, but her commitment to that which she can understand, and her painfully unbiased opinion on what she sees, allows the reader to take her at face value.

It is a brilliant narrative choice by Ishiguro, that reveals how important his selection of a voice is to his stories. Those who criticize Ishiguro, often complain about nothing happening, about the boring sentences that construct such a plain façade- a butler reflecting on his life of service, an artist questioning his life’s work, a woman wondering about her role in a society that treated her poorly- and they only allow his stories vindication because of his flair for twists at the end of some of his books. But these twists are supplemental to his stories, a sugar high after a main meal of nutritious food. The twist is the result of an entire book of reading between the lines, learning a narrator intimately through that which they cannot grasp, leaving the twist as a last fitting of a puzzle piece. Ishiguro is not a detective novelist, but these twists are good enough to make us believe they are the point of the story.

However, the main meal is always that narrative voice constantly trying to make sense of a world that either moves too fast or normalized too quickly. Amidst this backdrop, Klara enters as the most trustworthy storyteller in some respects, and in others, the most flawed. Where she is utterly reliable, she is limited, and therefore allows for the elements of Ishiguro’s narrators I like best, room for the reader to do meaningful work interpreting and guessing, and in the cases of some of his stories, including Klara and the Sun, guess and wait to see what comes next, to fill in those blanks that nag at the reader like a word on the tip of a tongue.

Klara is a wonderful narrative voice that, as time goes on, will settle amongst Stevens and Kathy as one of Ishiguro’s best, and it also, as all his narrators do, enhances the meaning of the story.

Klara and the Sun deals with the question of what makes someone human, a droll question as far as stories about artificial intelligence goes, but complex enough in the hands of Ishiguro. To oversimplify it a bit, Klara comes to the conclusion that a person is made human by their relationships to those around them. The love of a mother or friend or husband or wife solidifies a person’s place in the world, a powerful conclusion to draw considering where Klara ends up at the end of the story. Therefore, the idea that Klara is never quite in on the complexities of the relationships in the room, that she is overly optimistic at strange times, or thoroughly confused at social gatherings, helps show all of the ‘humanity’ that transpires in our interactions with each other. 

Amidst this commentary, is one similar to Never Let Me Go, of a society that has normalized behavior that dehumanizes some, and therefore all. The world Klara inhabits is not made better by AI, it only enhanced all the technological problems we see today- the disparity between the elites and the working class grew, accelerating the difference between the haves and the have-nots, more ethical questions are raised about genetic engineering and how to treat an AF, more controls are put in place to deal with the problems created by the initial technology that was supposed to solve a completely different problem. And in the midst of this, relationships- the elements that throw Klara for a loop- take a back seat to these advancements, causing more confusion between mother and daughter and young boys and girls. Sometimes, Klara seems to be the clearest headed amidst humans made less and less adept at their relationships to each other through the technology they created to advance themselves, the part of them that Klara determines makes them most human and her not.

As a quick overview, I do believe Ishiguro has done it again. Of his eight novels, this will certainly be in the top half, and I think it will probably be considered his third best as time settles. That is in large part due to his narrative choice that is both new and consistent with what came before.

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Collective Memory: [The Giver] And Literature For Our Youth
Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
Book List For Young Readers: Nurturing Literacy In Our Youth
Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]

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