In the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a ruler parades in front of his townsfolk nude, somehow having become convinced he is wearing elegant clothing. The people, not wishing to suffer his ire by telling him the truth, oooh and ahhh over his imaginary new outfit. It falls to a child, honest and unafraid, to tell the emperor he is wearing nothing.
Adulation is perhaps one of the most consequential of human foibles. The townspeople in this parable begin by playing the game the Emperor has set before them, willingly and knowingly. Eventually they must acknowledge among themselves that the Emperor wears no clothes, all the while hoping not to reveal the embarrassing fact. The Emperor himself, once he realizes the truth, carries on as if it is not. Hubris runs deep in some people.
I was a hundred pages into Charlie Kaufman’s extraordinary, seven-hundred-page first novel, Antkind (mull that over), when Kazuo Ishiguru’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published. A great hue and cry went up from the literary community (both readers and marketers). I ordered a copy (from Barnes & Noble) and within a few days was turning its pages.
A sensibility began to spread around the literary community that Klara was a novel of “deep symbolic consequence,” just the kind of book I love to read (as had been the case with Antkind, up until the point I set it aside in my eagerness to read Klara). As I read deeper into Ishiguru’s novel, what I found instead was a story rather like “The Emperor Has No Clothes” (as it is also named). It is, intentionally or not, very transgressive. (*PI https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgressive_art)
I’m not privy to Ishiguru’s intent, only to his words printed on paper. Note: As you read the following, look for the social interpretations and references to Popular Icons wherever you see a (*PI). It’s clearly not a parable, for it lacks any defining quality of either (a) the characters learning from their behavior or (b) imparting insights or lessons. This is perhaps due, in part, to of the novel’s first-person narration by a non-human. I set to trying to understand the author’s reason for writing, especially from his non-human AI’s point of view—which is the essence of simplicity and innocence itself. So I asked myself: if the novel’s primary characters are a robotic naïf and children, then is it a children’s or YA book?
As I read, I continued to ruminate on the author’s intent in telling this story. Was I missing those deep, symbolic matters some readers/reviewers had mentioned? It seemed possible, but not really apparent. I’m aware that some authors write the same novel over and over, perhaps trying to get to something that had eluded them in earlier works (*PI John Irving and Gillian Flynn come to mind), which led to my return to the author’s previous novels which I’d read, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. I determined the author was not playing a one-note samba, but still . . ..
Since I earned my Master’s degree in Comparative Literature, I was also aware that writers from differing cultural backgrounds think and write differently (*PI Ha Jin’s Waiting is a novel I’ll ever forget, as is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain).
Failing to understand this novel thematically as (a) contemporary malaise, (b) science-fiction, (c) a bildungsroman (for Klara, or Josie, or Rick, or even all three as a unified composite literary messenger), (d) a robot’s protest against environmental pollution by humans, or even (e) an anti-technology diatribe, I fell back on the old, tried-and-true story analysis tool, the archetypal hero-journey (*PI Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Since this archetype is most often found in an unconscious form in storytelling (*PI Grendel by John Gardner, Demian by Herman Hesse), it had never yet failed (at least for me) to explain direction and purpose. Perhaps archetypes would reveal the author’s true intentions, which he himself and/or his AI narrator could not.
Klara (*PI clarity? Get it?) is the innocente who, standing in a shop window, hears the call to adventure. She embarks upon a hero-journey through human society. If we scratch the surface a bit more, we see she is born from mercantilism, a domestic slave-companion sold to a human as if a vacuum cleaner. Also, scratching must take into account the fact that in Ishiguru’s near-future world, slavery still exists; the job’s just been transgressively passed on to androids.
Josie (*PI Steely Dan’s “Josie”) is isolated from mainstream life, presumably because she has some undefined malady, but when she encounters the classical old-woman archetype who can either help or kill her, she retires to her bedroom and declines the call to adventure.
Rick (*PI Casablanca) is Josie’s and Klara’s yang to their yins, but Josie won’t allow their symbolic three-way partnering—which would assure a successful hero-journey–to work itself out. Instead, they symbolically play the Bubbles game in which they can’t mesh or agree. It’s like a New Yorker cartoon contest that can’t be won with genuine brilliance.
Klara, now bereft of a helpmate, becomes the solitary archetype-clone and in short order finds herself thwarted in her pursuit to become . . . a human? What else could happen? She is (*PI) Pinocchio; strings must be pulled by Josie or the Mother, but nothing ever really happens. Klara cannot effect change because she isn’t human. So once again, and even at the very end of the novel, she is denied transcendence by dystopian, transgressive irony which, again, may or may not have been the author’s intent.
There are other possibly conscious and archetypically-unconscious attempts to enrich the story with archetypal symbolism. A few examples:
Rick and his mom live next door to Josie and the Mother: two isolated houses, like their inhabitants, next to one another (*PI “Only You Know and I Know” from Dave Mason’s album, “Alone Together”) where they live in isolation from society, from self, paired in various expressions of awkwardness and angst but never able to connect and reconcile with one other—in other words, (*PI “Peter Pan”) rejecting the call to adventure, in this case a refusal to grow up.
The “Sun,” used awkwardly as a symbol of life or energy but decidedly not as a masculine archetype, yet . . . recall that Klara = clarity, so perhaps the author was giving rebirth to the female sun-goddess Aralk, which is likely pre-Indus in origin (*PI Graham Hancock, Underworld, the Mysterious Origins of Civilization) or is perhaps a scatological reference to (*PI The Fugs’ “Slum Goddess.”)
McBain’s Barn. Klara, we are led to assume, thinks it is the resting place of the sun, but there is, apparently, difficulty getting there (*PI Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.) An alternate interpretation rests on the fact that the barn is the birthing place of farm animals, dogs, cats, and smaller creatures (*PI David Wroblewski’s novel, The Story of Edward Sawtelle), could be seen as the source of life, e.g., the rising of the sun, (*PI Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises) but certainly not, iconically, the sun setting through the cracks between boards.
Josie’s portrait. The portrait represents a way to remember the dead, and apparently how the Mother wants her daughter memorialized as she’s dying. What emerges is a “plan” for Klara to take her place (*PI Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray). It is, in two words, absurd and grotesque.
The novel at its most transgressive takes place in the scenes with Capaldi (*PI Charon), the shrink and software architect of the Jodie-Klara doppelganger (*PI Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak). He is the archetypal ogre under the bridge in his Frankensteinian attempts to render and recreate the Mother’s obviously impossible wish for Jodie’s transfiguration (viz. again “Pinocchio”). Note: this could be a spoiler alert.
The Cootings Machine. Obviously a machine used to pave streets and such with asphalt, transliterated as a contrived reference to the deus ex machina in The Wizard of Oz (*PI viz. novel by L. Frank Baum.) (*PI viz. viz. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road;” viz.viz viz. Alex Garland’s 2011 film, “Ex Machina”).
Why did the townspeople think, however briefly or insincerely, that their emperor was wearing a fancy new outfit? Was it because they feared how he might react if they were honest and forthright? Probably. Were they just cows of the now-notorious herd mentality? Quite likely. Did they see only what they wanted to see, beautiful garb around the emperor’s shoulders, so that they might in some way bask in their lord’s beauty? Sure.
But what of the next time the fat old crowned head of state tries to pull such a stunt again? Will it be like the aphorism, “Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me”?
Of course, such a conclusion can only be reached if one has taken the time, given the attention to detail, and applied the critical faculties, to come to a true, honest and original conclusion–if only for oneself. Only then can the freethinker stand away from the herd with a conviction that is not the crowd’s but theirs and theirs alone. This particular individual will not be fooled, as had been so many others, into believing they are seeing something where there is in fact nothing. (*PI The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”)