We all need a Jeffers in our lives, a person for whom we can write our stories. We all desperately want to be heard by someone. To be heard gives our story legitimacy, a palpable reality. The reader of Cusk’s novel may be more intrigued by Jeffers than any of the six characters who populate the novel. The chosen rhetorical convention suggests Robinson Jeffers, the faithful correspondent in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s epistolary treatment of D. H. Lawrence, but Cusk is doing more than simply celebrating Luhan’s life and writing. .
Cusk is using a slice of the 30’s modernist literary scene to filter her study of the Covid-laced world of 2021. The voice in her novel writes to a nonjudgmental listener who gives her perfect isolation. The anonymous reader is utter plasticity. It shapes and reshapes the experience lurking under a life laboring with the perceived judgment of a pandemic. None of this is spelled out as the novel works as extended metaphor. Jeffers is one clue, and the title is another.
Ishiguro’s novel probes the ethical issues inherent in artificial intelligence. There is a certain audacity that is unleashed when man presumes the god-like power of creating the mental facility for thought and feeling. The brain, the heart, the soul–these inner resources have always been thought to be the sacred ground at the core of humanity, but that threshold has been breached. Is it possible to engineer love?
Klara, in contrast to the human characters in the novel she narrates, demonstrates the capacity to respond to the Sun on a level that differs markedly. She alone has the capacity for both ontological and theological perception. She alone understands that the Sun is the ground of all being for her. He is the source of her power, and she sees in him the power to arbitrate the distance between life and death.
Her growth in devotion is one of the charming parts of the novel. From personal perception of life source, she moves to the conclusion that he restores life to the Beggar Man and his dog. This understanding, then, becomes the basis for her eventual appeal to the Sun to restore health to Josie. Like the classic devotees of antiquity, she makes her pilgrimage to the Sun’s holy place, Mr. McBain’s barn. Her own spiritual enlightenment is characterized by self-renunciation and a clarified sense of love. She willingly gives up a part of her own P-E-G Nine solution to disable the Cootings Machine in what she believes to be the will of the Sun. Despite the near-death struggle of Josie, her complete faith in the Sun engenders hope in the certainty of healing.
Ishiguro suggests that the ideal can be programed even though it cannot be lived by a faltering human community. In fact, that community does not recognize the worth of the artificial, cannot value its understanding of humility. It cannot live in perfection or understand perfection.
All of the pundits seem to believe that Kazuko Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun will undoubtedly be named to the longlist to be announced on July 29. Certainly four previous Booker nominations and the 1989 prize for The Remains of the Daywould add credence to that guess.
Reading Part 1 of the novel, asks the reader to reimagine the role of the imaginary friend in the life of a child. Rather than the fruit of an over-active imagination, the possible friend becomes a commodity that can be purchased from a store, a selection that basically reduces the child to buyer, the friend to abstraction. This has the interesting effect within the authorial choices that Ishiguro makes of reducing the human to automation while exploring the accessibility of feeling within the commercial object. Narrated from the point of view of the AF who would choose her own buyer if she could, the story reveals an awakening to space and time that exceeds a buyer’s limitation. Klara, a mutant in her own right, delights in her days in the shop window, days that enlarge her vision. Longing for the dictates of her senses to be realized, she somehow knows that her hope exists in being chosen.
Klara’s focus on the Beggar Man and his dog becomes the vehicle for a dawning understanding of the nature of life and death, a deepening realization of the power of the Sun that transcends mere functional energy. That Ishiguro holds the identity behind the initialism AF until the end of Part 1 and the completion of the saga of selection is both rhetorical and symbolic. It is rhetorical in that it mimics the mystery of identity in the reader’s mind, and it is symbolic in the sense that the birth of a friend, albeit artificial, comes only in the ritual of choice.
In an interview with Heather Cleary for Literary Hub, Scweblin comments that the opening story “Headlights” is “a story that contains all the different genres, all the different atmospheres in the collection.” That story was not the opening story in the original Spanish edition, but it was moved at the suggestion of the English editor and renamed by her translator. Scweblin comments that she had written the story titled “Desperate Women” when she was a young writer, and she admits to its being more prescient than she had realized. In many ways its recognition and its placement is evidence of the positive dialogical nuance of the translation process.
While it would be fun to pull out the threads of this story that make up the tapestry of the collection, to explore the genres and the varied atmospheres, that task could not be completed as we might like. Instead, we might find ourselves confronted time after time with snarled thread, knots that resist our prying fingers. Perhaps, that’s what compels our attention. Just when we think we see the clarity of image, the inscrutability of a life turn defies what we thought we saw.
Images of growth are inevitably countered with dread rather than hope. For example, in “Rage of Pestilence” when Gismondi enters what appears to be an abandoned house, he encounters death in life. The somnolent residents are beyond response, and can only respond with anger toward the intrusion of someone who might redeem them. When a child reaches out for the sugar he offers, the specters who have emerged from everywhere freeze. The “memory of hunger” is awakened but more feared than embraced.
In “Butterflies,” the memory of the insect Calderon has inadvertently mangled functions as an objective correlative to the paralyzing fear that surrounds his delight in his daughter’s vibrancy. Children with their natural innocence and embodiment of the life force remain inscrutable to the adults who parent them.
When the father in “Mouthful of Birds” cannot redeem his daughter, cannot find a way to lure her to eat what he believes to be normal food, he finally succumbs to what he cannot understand and buys her a small bird. He retreats in horror as he hears the shriek through the closed door as his daughter consumes the live bird. The tension between life and death exists in reality and horror.
Stephen King’s 1984 novel, Children of the Corn, burned the stark sense of horror into the minds of American readers with its graphic image of field and children whose innocence was forever lost. Samantha Schweblin’s opening story, “Headlights,” brings that field trope into the discussion of gender conflict. Her story marries King’s instinct for horror with Flannery O’Connor’s theological humor in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” But Schweblin probes a level of psychological complication that surpasses the grasp of either King or O’Connor. She moves relentlessly through the unique horror of the abandoned bride to the siren chorus of sisters singing in the field of renunciation. The darkly comic reversal magnifies the gender breach at the base of the story. The commandeering of the clown car passes on O’Connor’s sense of automotive power and identity. Tom T. Shiftlet can only wait for the light of redemption.