A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro
Surrendering to Narrative in The Piano and Klara and the Sun
In 1993, I trudged up Fillmore St. in San Francisco to see the film The Piano with a friend at the (now closed) Clay Theater; I’d heard good things about the movie, the first female director to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and we settled into the rickety seats, chatting before the lights dimmed. When the opening sequence began, I loved it instantly: the roiling sea, Michael Nyman’s aching piano compositions, Holly Hunter with a grave face in black bonnet and billowing dress, a boarded-up piano on a beach, the seamlessly combined tones of fairy tale and realism, and as the story progressed, I felt inside myself a total surrender to Jane Campion’s vision, the rare and enthralling feeling of knowing that wherever she took me, I would go. I trusted her entirely. There are occasional moments when one feels a full affinity with a piece of art in this way, feels taught by it, deeply, in the moment, in a way that changes, and this would turn out to be one of those for me.
This surrender was also very much related to plot; I wanted to see where she took us in the story. I didn’t care where; I just wanted to experience the full shape she made. When, later in the film, as intense events take place, I could feel my friend next to me squirming, seeming to wish that I would look over so that we could bond over the discomfort, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen and was in fact frustrated to feel her, wanting instead to be fully inside my own rapture, learning the whole this director had made. The intimacy was between me and the film right then and I didn’t have room for much else. Even afterward, I could hardly talk about it with her.
Later that week, I perused the reviews, looking to see if my experience was reflected, and in general people heaped praise upon the film, commenting mostly on the beauty of the story, the acting, the cinematography, but one review I recall in particular, likely because I disagreed with it, and in the disagreement could articulate something of my own opinion. This reviewer had struggled with Campion’s choices for the end of the film. (Spoiler Alert #1): At one point, the main character, Ada, played by Holly Hunter, who has suffered a lot over the course of the story, throws herself off a boat; she’s not sure what she has left to live for. The music swells and easily the film could’ve let that be the climax, the rest of the story being the aftermath of her death and its implications, and certainly there have been no shortage of feminist tales that have ended in this way, a tragic no-way-out, still not uncommon at this time, just a couple of years after all the debates over Thelma and Louise.
But Campion lets the moment play out, and with a voiceover in Ada’s pointed precise voice, stating, with wonder, “my will has chosen life?!” (punctuation courtesy of the script) she rises to the surface, and we see how the character is amazed by her own impulse for survival. Something larger than her awareness, larger than her circumstances, larger than her own urge to self-destruct, brings her back. The reviewer didn’t like that choice so much, felt it too “happy” an ending and critiqued that, which I felt, in my bones, was a profound misread—this happiness was the core risk of the film, a move toward living that the character tested and tested fully, and when achieved, was what we might call in workshop, “earned.” I found it a beacon, to think that one could have an impulse to diminish the self, even in a much smaller blander way than Ada’s, and then discover that that impulse had a limit.
I was reminded of this experience—seeing and falling into a story, gaining trust in the artist’s vision, and more, as I was reading Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun. Again, spoilers are coming. Recently, on Twitter, the excellent writer and teacher Daniel Torday mentioned how spoilers don’t matter to him, espousing how the resonance of a second read, of the known plot, reveals better treasures. Many agreed, but the writer Phil Klay responded with a hard no, defending the joy of the unexpected, offering a counterpoint by using a Kafka short with a meaningful twist. I side with Klay for this; I care about spoilers a lot because how a narrative surprises me on the first read is one of the things I search for; I long to be knocked off my own expectations. It is such a deep pleasure, as David Wilson of the singular Museum of Jurassic Technology once said, to read and not know where something is going. But in order to talk about the surprise in Ishiguro’s book, and the impact of this surprise, I will have to reveal plot points directly, so I will plow ahead here, spoiling away.
Ishiguro, in general, sustains suspense with seeming ease, and as I read his books, I’m often wondering what will be revealed. Especially since Never Let Me Go has such a crucial twist, I read along this one prepped for something to “happen,” at once involved in the story and managing my own guesses and anticipations. Midway through Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro answers one of these wonderings by showing us a dark tunnel of narrative down which the novel could go—a child is ill and may die, and in order for the family to cope, he presents the possibility of a replacement of AI for human, an AI so sophisticated one might not even be able to tell the difference between human and robot, a Black Mirror-esque twist into bleakness and despair. Once he introduced this notion, I could see how the book had been preparing us for it all along. Ah, I thought. This is the reveal? Bummer. I could play it out, the painful acceptance of how we connect and the artifice or limits of it. But—wonderfully, brilliantly, Ishiguro introduces this possibility but does not choose it; perhaps he too could play out the inevitable conclusion and find it wanting. He hints at the route and then swerves, and in that, reopens the story.
Instead, he takes several risks that I found actually shocking. He resolves the dilemma of the AI/human merge possibility by making Josie, the sick child, get better for awhile, so that no robot (meaning Klara, her beloved friend-robot) has to replace her. The dark tunnel seals up. But illness is still a threat, and Josie gets sick again, and Klara once again finds herself wondering what to do, how to help her dear friend, and this is where the greater questions, ones of existence, consciousness, spirit, love, become central. Throughout the novel, we’ve heard Klara talk about the sun as a kind of god, and that’s been fine, but it’s an uncomplex God, the old-man-with-the-beard granting-wishes kind of God, easy and superstitious, what a child might think. Klara—who is herself solar-energized—speaks of this sun with reverence, and even tries to summon its help through childlike means, magical thinking, messing with machines, made-up rules. The limitations of all this feel clear, and predictable, but once again, Ishiguro makes the choice to vastly deepen his story.
When Klara is finally compelled to go pray to the sun, to make a true call, the writing shifts. Her robot brain fluid has been diminished by a recent incident, but this vulnerability seems to grant her new access, and we enter a startlingly beautiful and strange chapter in the book, when someone with a robot’s mentality is able to actually transcend her capacity. This time, as she speaks her prayer, she also free-associates, uses memory, has visions, juxtaposes, immerses herself in conversation with worlds both outside and in. Elements from her past suddenly materialize into the present, she moves between imagery of terror and gentleness, she notices facets to the presence of the sun’s reflection she’d never considered before. The section is so vivid and distinct, so mystifying in its immersiveness, and she has broken free of much of the clumsy leaden quality of her earlier prayers, the change here not of amplitude but of kind. Klara, our human stand-in, has entered a whole different—complex, committed, unpredictable, exposed—spiritual world.
I found that barn passage quite beautiful, even amazing to read. The language brightens, fractures. Klara leaves it all on the court, as they say. (As my friend Sarah Shun-lien Bynum states so well, “she bends her consciousness to a purpose.”) But what startled me even more, even shocked me, is what happens next. Weeks pass, Klara waits, and waits, assuring the humans around her that change will come, and then one afternoon the sun floods Josie’s bedroom, absolutely floods it (look to the language here—the stun of it, the soak, the wash), and almost immediately after—Josie gets well. This presence of sun, as confirmed by other characters, who take a step back, is gigantic, overwhelming, “ferocious.” We’ve moved beyond just Klara’s perception, and the sequence of events (which is one of the ways a writer can show us the world beyond its first person), seem to point to Klara’s prayer working. The prose in the novel changed with Klara’s full prayer in the barn, and it seems to follow this change right into the narrative.
We know that deep and heartfelt prayers for a purpose fail all the time, most of the time, almost constantly, and it feels like the usual job of contemporary literary fiction is to reflect that, to help us work with our existential dilemmas in other ways. I happen to think the act of prayer is beautiful, but I don’t expect it to be some kind of exchange, and certainly not in a novel, where cause-and-effect can be so reductive. And yet the book unfolds in such a way that we either see major coincidences at work, giving Josie contact with a giant orange wave of sunshine that occurs at the same time as an improvement in her health—or, we see that Klara’s prayer, this moment of transcendence, made a rupture in the world that affected change. (James Wood writes very powerfully on this book in a recent New Yorker but doesn’t make a distinction between Klara’s earlier, superstitious prayers and this one from the barn, stating “a prayer is a postcard asking for a favor, sent upward. Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels… ” but I disagree with him here, to my own disbelief—somehow, in this book, and to unclear ends, the postcard Klara sends is much more than a postcard and does seem to be—somehow, possibly—read. And it’s not that I think the sun is confirmed as some kind of god, no—it’s not so neat. But a communication of some sort seems to have occurred.)
Even writing about this interpretation feels delicate to me—it’s so easy for it to go sour, to feel sillily theistic, or too bound to linearity, like if only one prays just right, maybe so-and-so can be saved, like it’s a facile lesson, or a pressure. But, to me, the feat—the Nobel-prize-worthy ongoing feat—is that somehow Ishiguro is able to walk this very thin line where no lesson is pushed and no expectations are put into place and Klara is still allowed a moment that breaks with the systems we know, where she seems to rise above the limits of her being, her abilities (—and it would have to be Klara, this most sensitive and observant of robots), even her own belief system—to make contact with mystery and move something in the world. Perhaps, the narrative seems to hint, she is able to put into motion a crucial change for one person who will then get to live out her own life, whatever that life will turn out to be. (And as the Talmudic saying goes, “anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world… ” So even in this harsh world, even with Josie’s adolescent dismissal of Klara by the end—it doesn’t matter.)
The reward is Josie gets better; Klara will never have such access again. We don’t know what kind of life Josie will lead; she is done with Klara, caught up in her own self-centeredness and oblivion, and moves on into adulthood. Klara doesn’t care; she stands in the pasture like an old horse, looking out, content with that defining moment of her life, putting her memories in order. She is defunct, unbuyable, she will turn into scrap metal, and such is the way of the world. But the dignity Ishiguro gives her by this tremendous risk of success—which is what reminds me of Campion and the risk of survival, of letting the character actually, and not cornily, move into something new, even in a society so cruel and split—is what I might define as a kind of true hope, a hope in our capacity, even as we fail constantly, all the time. I found Klara and the Sun a book of actual hope, and when I finished it, I felt—for hours—like something was shining on me.