Dystopian fiction is a genre I avoid. So is science fiction. However I found myself allured to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, despite its classification as science fiction, and unwitting of its classification as dystopian literature. Why did I read so far outside my usual preferences? Because (perhaps because the classroom was such an exotic world to my homeschooled childhood) I often have a strong pull toward school stories. A book about a unusual school for gifted children proved irresistible.
Never Let Me Go is charged with the pleasure of unwrapping surprise after surprise. True, there is a gradual unveiling of a dimly understood horror. But there is also the miraculous development of friendship and love, of complex and beautiful characters. The true texture of childhood, with its concomitant menace and tensions, is given here: the piecing together of clues about the adult world, sometimes very wildly; the significance of “games” as apparatus to interpret the universe, to reconcile it with the interior world where we know what *ought* to be.
Ishiguro’s novel, as few do, meshed with my own thought processes to the extent that I dreamed about the book regularly during the period in which I was reading it. However, the other recent read that affected me that way was also oddly a dystopian school story, the kid lit book The Mysterious Benedict Society. It has some striking similarities to Never Let Me Go, being about gifted children, in a “privileged” school setting, working together to unmask the real motives of the adult authority figures they deal with.
As a high school age reader, I absorbed a lot of Sozhenitsyn’s writings. These too are dystopian but they are dystopian literature of witness. Like the two books already mentioned, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich took over my dreams during the week I read it. It lingered in my mind a long time afterward, as if the prison camp had been a personal memory.
School is for many children a dystopian experience: a totalitarian system, a social concrete jungle, an indoctrination camp. Within and outside this world, the growing soul struggles for its nourishment. Joseph Brodsky, who grew up in Soviet Russia, relates the experience of childhood behind the Iron Curtain to the lives of school children everywhere in the closing words of his essay “Less Than One.” On his way to school, “if he had two extra minutes,” the little boy would pause “slide down on the ice and take twenty or thirty steps to the middle. All this time he would be thinking about what the fish were doing under such heavy ice.” Then he runs the rest of the way to school and gets settled in his seat. “It is a big room with three rows of desks, a portrait of the Leader on the wall behind the teacher’s chair, a map with two hemispheres of which only one is legal. The little boy takes his seat, opens his briefcase, puts his pen and notebook on the desk, lifts his face, and prepares himself to hear drivel.”
It is those two extra minutes the authorities have disregarded that will be their downfall. It is that fleeting experience of what is real that exposes their entire project as “drivel.”