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The Difficult Balance of Text and Subtext in “Klara and the Sun”

The Difficult Balance of Text and Subtext in “Klara and the Sun”

  • A review of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, "Klara and the Sun."

Kazuo Ishiguro is an author at the top of his craft. But rather than rest on his laurels, the knighted, Booker Award winning, and Nobel laureate author is back with Klara and the Sun, his first new work since winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017, and his first novel since 2015’s The Buried Giant. Klara and the Sun will be very familiar to fans of Ishiguro’s work, as he’s once again using a fabulistic, science-fiction lens to look at existential questions humanity has pondered for millennia. The novelexplores what it means to be human through how we connect with others and come to understand ourselves. The questions are as compelling as they have always been, but occasionally this fabulistic framing becomes a crutch, as Ishiguro’s hand at times weighs a bit too heavy on the scale.

Klara, the novel’s eponymous main character and narrator is an AF, or “artificial friend”. AFs are solar-powered humanoid robots, designed to offer companionship to the children of parents who purchase them. The world of the novel seems to be a slightly more futuristic one than our own, though it’s characters seem as prone to isolation and loneliness as the people in our world, hence the AFs.

The novel’s first section of six begins in a store selling AFs, and Klara faithfully documents not only the personalities of the manager and her AF peers, but also the rhythms of the store, and the manners of the perusing customers.

Each AF varies slightly, and the manager says each model is unique. Luckily for us, Klara’s secret talent is her perceptiveness, not only finely tuned to the minutia of sensory experiences that many contemporary novels deal with, but also the specific feelings of those she encounters.

Klara’s perspective is critical for the novel, but this lens often feels like a weakness. Many scenes in the book involve Klara describing something she’s seen or heard, and then immediately musing about the events to other characters. While this is standard-fare for the modern novel, Klara often goes even further, detecting and relaying the emotions of the characters as they happen. After witnessing two elderly people embrace outside the store, Klara has this conversation with the manager:

“Those people seem so pleased to see each other,” Manager said. And I realized she’d been watching them as closely as I had. 

“Yes, they seem so happy,” I said. “But it’s strange because they also seem upset.”

“Oh, Klara,” Manager said quietly. “You never miss a thing, do you?” 

The novel is rife with similar scenes, and often I found the effect to be a bit heavy-handed, as Klara’s narration inherently leans heavily to the “tell” side of show and tell.

“Show don’t tell” is a flawed technique, and I certainly won’t be someone to extol its doctrine as the only way. However, one of the most beautiful things about art is the unique connection each individual has with a work, their interpretation of the piece, and how it relates to their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Leaning more into “telling” doesn’t shut this down, but in providing a singular interpretation—especially from a largely truthful narrator such as Klara—it does at least narrow down the massive perception an audience may have of a piece of work into a limited range.

Klara seems to be the only AF with this ability, at least among the few she becomes close to at the store, and contrasts her ability with her closest friend, Rosa, a cheerful and perhaps more ignorant AF. Klara and Rosa are chosen to sit in the window display—a perfect people-watching opportunity—but the two are surprised how few AFs they see in the wild. When they finally spot a girl with an AF, Rosa is overjoyed; but Klara looks a bit deeper. “But Rosa missed so many signals. She would often exclaim delightedly at a pair going by, and I would look and realize even though a girl was smiling at her AF, she was in fact angry with him, and was perhaps at that very moment thinking cruel thoughts about him.” I wonder what the novel would be like if Rosa were to narrate it, perhaps allowing just a little more space for a reader to bring their own ideas into it.

While sitting in the window seat, Klara forges a bond with a girl named Josie, who spots her while passing in a taxi. Josie is taken with Klara immediately, and promises to return soon to purchase her with her mother. The days pass, and another child becomes interested in Klara, but Klara can’t forget the pact she made with Josie. Eventually, Josie and her mother return to purchase Klara, after the mother tests her observational ability by having Klara precisely reproduce Josie’s manner of walking.

The two become friends, in Josie’s fairly typical home, consisting of her housekeeper Melania and her mother. Josie is frequently ill, which in her case makes her bedridden. While the specifics of her condition are never known, it’s heavily implied that her illness is a side-effect of artificial gene editing, a process known in the novel as “lifting”. Additionally, Josie lives in an isolated area, with her schooling coming via virtual lessons, and socializing limited to scheduled get-togethers with other lifted kids, and her interactions with the neighbor boy, Rick.

Rick is Josie’s closest friend and confidant, and the two have the sort of deep bond that goes beyond friendship. They talk to each other about the “plan”, which seems to be a sort of loosely-conceived idea for sticking together through adulthood.

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It’s through Rick the novel also explores class and the ways the world works differently for those with money and those without. Rick and his mother don’t live in abject poverty, but their home is a far-cry from Josie and her mother’s. Even more so, Rick isn’t lifted. While this doesn’t seem to have a noticeable effect on his cognitive abilities (he holds his own at a gathering for lifted kids, despite their bullying), though it does greatly impact his future prospects. 

A large part of the back half of his story is his and his mother’s attempts to get Rick into a school called Atlas Brookings, allegedly one of the only institutions that’s receptive to students who haven’t been lifted. At a meeting with someone connected with the college, he pitches a fleet of robotic birds he’s developed as possible surveillance tech, just one of the ways this scene nods to the way non-lifted or underprivileged kids are forced to sell out just to get by.

There’s a balancing act going on in Klara and the Sun, between the subtext and the text. While Ishiguro has no qualms about being extremely forthcoming about the emotions characters are experiencing, he has managed to build a sense of intrigue under the surface. We’re never quite given the full picture behind the state of the world, nor Josie’s illness, or the death of her sister Sal, though again gene editing is implied to be the cause. These mysteries are deeply compelling, and they keep the pages turning. It’s unfortunate Ishiguro doesn’t keep the rest of his cards as close to his vest here, as the effect is powerful.

In a way, Klara is reminiscent of Ishiguro’s earlier narrator character Mr. Stevens, from Remains of the Day. While Klara doesn’t serve the family in the same sense that Mr. Stevens does, her position within the family is something of a step below, and she considers it her mission in life to be as good of a friend to Josie as she can. She’s developed a sort of heliocentric religion for herself, stemming from the fact that she draws power from the Sun (in an even more linear sense than we do), and assuming the same must be true for people, hopes to appeal to the Sun directly to cure Josie. This becomes something of a quest for her, which she looks for opportunities to work towards, finding moments to herself to make her appeals.

There’s a lot at play in Klara and the Sun, and like many of Ishiguro’s novels, I find it’s taken up an outsized position in my mind in the days since I’ve finished it. When the book manages to get out of it’s own way, the effect is stark, like layers of papers with patterns cut into them, forming a collage. The book opens up when given the space to breathe. But this makes it all the more frustrating in the doors Ishiguro closes, in the stilted dialogue between characters, in the unsurprising plot. Here, Ishiguro seems to be acting on his theory of storytelling more than ever before, which he described in his Nobel Lecture, saying, “This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” I just wish at times the question wasn’t so direct.

Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Published March 2, 2021

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