Attack of the Clones

Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go. Knopf. April 2005.

Michel Houellebecq. La possibilité d’une île. Fayard. August 2005. (The Possibility of an Island. Knopf. May 2006.)

The narrator of Never Let Me Go has a soft plain style: “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we used to have some form of medical every week. . . .” This is how you might talk to an equal, someone similar to you socially or economically, or, as it turns out, biologically. The strange thing about this ordinary sentence is that the narrator, Kathy H., is a clone, and when the reader discovers this, that “you” opens out beyond the mere conventional second-person to become part of the novel’s drama. You, dear reader, are also supposed to be a clone among clones. And really, who’d be the wiser? Phenotypically we’re the same.

Kathy H.’s Hailsham is a boarding school for the education and improvement of clones, whose fate it is to have their adult organs harvested for use by what they call “normals.” Before it is their turn to be called, they act as “carers” for older clones, keeping them going from donation to donation until death. On the surface, though, Hailsham isn’t so different from those other boarding schools where members of the English or American upper class go so their brains and talents can be seeded for the benefit of society and the greater good, places where they are taught to compete ruthlessly with each other for awards, honor, and affection. Hailsham has a sports pavilion, lawns, high windows looking out on a forest. The students (or inmates) get care and exercise. They study art and literature. They have teachers, called “guardians,” whom they admire, dislike, fear, and fantasize about. They are encouraged to be creative above all, to cultivate collections of favorite things, but also to be selfless. It’s a fine place to grow up, and leaving it is made the more terrible when the world its students enter is so manifestly cruel. Hailsham becomes consecrated in their memory as Eden crossed with Eton. It is also a bright deception the clones never manage to rebel against.

There is nothing apart from the rules of the narrative, as Ishiguro defines them, to make Kathy H.’s assumption of shared experience pitiable and horrible rather than banal. We are invited to identify with her, not as a clone, of course, because human clones don’t yet exist, but as another product of families and institutions, including the venerable institution of the novel. “I don’t know how it was where you were,” Kathy H. says; but we were somewhere, that much is certain, and so we liken her experience to our own. Kathy assumes we too are clones and we assume that she’s just as human we are. Neither of these assumptions is entirely valid, and yet the novel’s force depends upon this useful misunderstanding.

Even though we know we’re being addressed by a wholly other category of person, a sort of monster, we find it very easy to accord Ishiguro’s clones the humanity his society denies them, much as though we were reading a 19th-century novel about slavery now. With his version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ishiguro has constructed a kind of sympathy trap. The liberal ease with which we accept the premise of social injustice is really just the beginning of our entanglement. We accept that there is an injustice but we accept it too readily. As the novel goes on we find that we are treated to a spectacle of suffering humanity, not displayed to provoke us to outraged enlightenment, but for our pleasure. We like Kathy’s plainness, her simple thoughtfulness, and her growing awareness of pain gives us a charge too. The sympathetic relationship of reader to character comes to mirror the sympathetic and utterly powerless relationship of the Hailsham guardians toward their charges.

In other words, Never Let Me Go is as much about a certain kind of education as it is about clones, specifically how the members of an entire race or class can be taught that they have a duty to lead lives devoted to misery and loss so that others will prosper (and how their counterparts in the master class make peace with these conditions even when they know what’s going on). The theme is a familiar one for Ishiguro. In a sense he has rewritten his earlier tale of masters, servants, and great houses at the end of British aristocracy, The Remains of the Day, only setting it this time in an alternative England of the late 1990s. As in Remains, a love story is the engine of the plot. The earlier novel traded on the tragic paradox that the very qualities of loyalty, self-sacrifice, hard work, and dignity that make people attractive to one another can also prevent them from coming together. So the romance of butler and housekeeper is undone by the butler’s devotion to his master.

In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro has made the triangle more complex. Here Kathy H. occupies the role of the good servant. She recognizes that she might be one of the best carers, but she won’t boast about it. And then there are her friends Tommy and Ruth. (Just to read the names Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy gives you a sense of how much Ishiguro risks being utterly banal.) Tommy is the angry misfit, the clone who senses the injustice awaiting them and yet never manages to articulate or even precisely recognize it. Ruth is the most interesting: a compulsive fantasist, the kind of person who pretends to have read everything you’re reading, who makes up her own rules for chess and tries to teach others to play by them. She understands that the conditions of her life are based on deceit and yet can’t make up her mind whether to acknowledge the deception or disappear into counterlies of her own. As the three leave Hailsham, Ruth guesses that Kathy and Tommy might be in love and dedicates herself to placing an Iago-esque web of obstructions between them. Her manipulations make up most of the novel, and the reader spends much of the time wanting to shout to Kathy and Tommy, “How can you stay friends with her? Can’t you see Ruth means you harm?” But they remain friends with her because she arranges their denial for them. She makes it easier for them not to see their love, which, if seen, would also have to be seen as futile. Love does not undo social injustice or grant individual freedom.

Membership in the Hailsham pseudo-elite permits these characters to be lovable, because the school has encouraged them to develop temporary markers of individual distinctiveness (the very thing that no clone in Ishiguro’s world can be allowed ultimately to possess). If they are denied the longevity necessary to make good on “true love,” they are nevertheless permitted to have affectionate sex. The guardians teach a sort of sex ed, and the head guardian, Miss Emily, hints that the boys and girls needn’t succumb to pure biological adolescence: “[I]f you can’t find someone with whom you truly wish to share this experience,” she warns, “then don’t!” A kind of prudishness has long been one of Ishiguro’s weak points, yet in Never Let Me Go his ingenuousness takes on qualities of demented genius, as when Kathy decribes her preparations for her “first time”:

Miss Emily had told us that it could be painful and a big failure if you didn’t get wet enough and this was my one real worry. It wasn’t being ripped apart down there, which we often joked about, and was the secret fear of quite a few girls. I kept thinking as long as I got wet quick enough, there’d be no problem, and I did it a lot on my own just to make sure.

Remember that this is the voice of the adult narrator, and yet she holds on to her schoolgirl euphemisms of “down there” and “did it.” This combination of frankness and evasiveness about sex is the counterpart to the frankness and evasiveness about death. The clones know that it’s their fate to “donate” until they “complete,” but the language they’re taught effectively obscures the horror of the situation and their knowledge of it. Kathy H. mentions that the students used to watch movies for clues about sex, but the only scene she recalls is “the moment the American jumps over the barbed wire on his bicycle” from The Great Escape. The students grab the remote and watch it again and again.

This is almost too much. How is it that Hailsham has never produced a Spartacus? Ishiguro’s world is too neat; he takes advantage of the license granted writers of science fiction to do away with any internal opposition to it. And yet the deathly consensus of his 1990s England does concentrate our minds on the formal elements of a social problem—the construction of denial; or, what class war?—in a way that a messy dystopian science fiction with rebels hiding in the woods never quite would. In fairness to Ishiguro, his readership doesn’t live in societies where open rebellion is still considered an option. Whether we harvest the organs of clones or squeeze out ever cheaper quantities of labor, we live in a world of self-blinding ideologies. No one supposes things could be otherwise, and we allow cruelties to be done to others and even ourselves because of our faith in the institutions that gratify our obsession with identity and belonging—church, state, corporation.

Who now is writing better novels about the persistence of ideology than Ishiguro? This is in part because Ishiguro suppresses any sense that ideology is what he’s about, ruthlessly excluding actual political life from his novels. The Remains of the Day did include the Von Ribbentrop plot—when members of the British aristocracy attempted to secure an independent peace with the Nazis—but this almost baroque touch was unnecessary. The problem wasn’t that some British aristocrats were Nazi sympathizers or gentlemen amateurs who believed in the kinship of the Anglo-Saxon races; the problem was that they were aristocrats, presiding over the remnants of a feudal system.

In Never Let Me Go, there is no rogue society for the manumission of clones, no crusading newspaper, no sense that adulthood might include becoming conscious of one’s own condition and rebelling against it. And somehow this, the novel’s major imaginative failing, is also its success. Only one character tries to alert the children to their scheduled deaths, and she gets dismissed early on. She exists only at the fringes of the narrator’s consciousness and is almost forgotten by everybody else. Instead, Kathy and Tommy and even Ruth credit a rumor that clones who either find true love or become artistic, sensitive souls will be granted “a deferral”; and so when Tommy and Kathy finally get together they set out on a Wizard of Oz quest to find Miss Emily, the school having closed, and to be awarded a respite from the harvest. No such luck, of course.

The student of industrial efficiency may wonder why Hailsham exists at all. Why not just raise cloned human beings for their organs like so many veal calves in pens? Why educate them more expensively than most normals? The answer is that Hailsham turns out to be a contemporary meliorist institution, an attempt to improve the lives of clones but not their collective fate. Many generations of clones will be sacrificed in the attempt to persuade the world of their full humanity. And, curiously, in this futuristic novel a person’s humanity is ascertained in an old-fashioned way: by exposure to a liberal arts curriculum. No tenured radicals, however: that is why Miss Lucy, the consciousness-raising guardian, had to go. Miss Emily explains it this way:

[W]e were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. . . . Yes in many ways we fooled you. I suppose you could even call it that. But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods. Lucy was well meaning enough, but if she’d had her way your happiness at Hailsham would have been shattered.

It’s almost as though Ishiguro himself were apologizing to his characters, and in a sense he is. A real human organ industry might not see the benefit of a heart or spleen stuffed with Shakespeare. Ishiguro needs his characters to have had happy childhoods and to have read poetry so they can react to their world with the right degree of heartbreaking sensibility and restrained lyricism. Witness Kathy’s last journey to Norfolk:

I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing . . .

And so recurs a truly annoying and truly brilliant tendency in Ishiguro: his characters’ aesthetic visions are not distinguishable from their pain.

Ishiguro is known as a master of subtlety, but (after his first novel) he’s never so subtle that we don’t perceive what he’s being subtle about. That first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, adapted the techniques of modernist fiction to obscure rather than reveal a character’s emotional state. So a woman invents a double to deal with her guilt at having survived the Nagasaki bombing and her daughter’s suicide; she then has the audacity to tell her story from the double’s point of view. Indeed the reader can never know which of the two women the narrator happened to be. This taste for unreliability never left Ishiguro, as he followed with Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of The Day. These, however, were more conventional novels; the readers’ prejudices and expectations could be counted on to keep them ahead of the self-blinded narrators.

Ishiguro might seem to have adopted different thematic genres—the war novel, the great house novel, the historical novel—but in fact he’s stuck to his own invented genre or mood: each novel stages the slow horror of cognitive restraint, a traumatic refusal to recognize the awful truth until the last possible moment. Each novel displays careful authorial “craft” (a word that occurs more in discussions of Ishiguro than of most novelists), but the more he honed the craft and repeated the old reliable “unreliable” trick, the more it all began to feel like shtick.

The narrator of Never Let Me Go is very similar to her predecessors, and yet Ishi-guro has found, in his clones, a subject that faces this very problem of conscious repetition; Kathy’s story turns into both a critique and a justification of Ishiguro’s own early work and of the enterprise of fiction generally. Ishiguro, the author, clones his own narrators and now writes a book about that experience. These cloned creatures are also known as characters (pieced together from real life humans), harvested and put through pain mostly for our sake. Their genteelness makes it possible to hear them screaming, in the way the out-loud scream of revolt would not. Look, a person tortured, howling—no tears for him. Look, the perfect English butler, his life ruined by his utter devotion to an evil way of life—for him, we do cry. Despite this suggestion of a novel about and against novels, like J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Ishiguro also uses the parable-like qualities of Never Let Me Go to affirm the rightness of his own work and an enduring humanism. By turning to science fiction, away from his earlier historical fictions, Ishiguro seems to be saying, “Even into the future our problem will remain this perennial one I’ve identified: people invested in the rightness and beauty of their way of life manage with great elegance and skill not to see the horror of what’s right in front of their eyes.”

Ishiguro isn’t the only midcareer novelist to make human clones the subject of his latest book. Published in France only a few months after Never Let Me Go, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (La possibilité d’une île) also asks us to leap into an alternative universe where cloning has been perfected. Houellebecq’s clone novel is almost a perfect counternovel to Ishiguro’s, or a sequel. His clones are the master race, not the servants. It’s as though Ishiguro’s normals had stopped having children and gradually become so dependent on clones that the clones took over. These clones emerge from the central facility as full adults. They have no childhoods.

Houellebecq is as explicit and gregarious as Ishiguro is restrained. Together, they’d make a literary Laurel and Hardy; alone they struggle against the burden of repeating themselves. Now the subject of parodies, a savage biography (Denis Demonpion’s Houellebecq non autorisé), and an entire issue plus DVD of Les Inrockuptibles (France’s more intellectual version of Rolling Stone), Houellebecq must cope with having become a kitschified “bad boy.” He’s sought the reputation of an opinionated ass, and in this novel he’s cast himself as an ultra-successful, legendarily offensive stand-up comic who grows tired of his own act. (Philip Roth at least had the grace to make Mickey Sabbath an obscure puppeteer.) Then again, Houellebecq doesn’t really have an act; he has theories. He writes novels à thèse, with the same relentlessness as Balzac, a novelist Houellebecq has said he admires for his fearless production of clichés.

The outlines of the Houellebecquian cliché machine appeared before he’d written a novel. In an essay on H. P. Lovecraft, “Against the World, Against Life,” he isolated what he called an aesthetic of disgust, and in the years since he has done his best to describe the ordinary human business of watching pornography, fucking, and going on package vacation tours in the same light as Lovecraft described multidimensional aliens and demonic cults. His novels are narrated by ranters and ancient mariners, the old horror-story trick of a man who has seen what he was not meant to see: it’s spoiled his life, but he thinks less of everyone else for not having seen it too. Houellebecq’s middle-aged Michels, Brunos, and Daniels uncover the inherent cruelty of human sexuality and the superadded cruelty of a supposedly liberal society that has set up pleasure and sex as its idols. Our choice of sexual partners requires selection, and this inflicts pain on those left out: the aged, the ugly, the maladjusted, the poor who can’t pay for it. It also inflicts pain on those who are forced to opt in and get exploited by the ugly, maladjusted, and rich. The dominion of sex is no better and perhaps worse than the rule of religion it replaced. That most people fail to recognize this and continue to fall in love and, worse, reproduce sexually, is a catastrophic bêtise. In The Possibility of an Island this theory reaches a reductio ad absurdum when one of the narrators remarks that “the standards of physical love are the same as Nazism.”

The traditionalists who resist this dominion of sex, however, are nothing but puritans, fanatics, and ignoramuses; Houellebecq usually calls them Muslims. The West, the most advanced society in world history, is literally fucking itself to death, while another, less advanced society endeavors to blow itself up and take the West with it. It’s a story told again and again in the linked essays that make up the bulk of most Houelle-becq novels. Fortunately, he also has very good novelist’s instincts. The ranters get the most airtime, but they are not the only voices. The longer they go on, the more the reader begins to resist them, and Houellebecq’s plots help cultivate the resistance to his voice. Remarkably, his characters are always falling head over heels in love. What does it mean that these disabused devotees of the unregulated new world order of sex can experience selflessness and care for others?

The Possibility of an Island reproduces Houellebecq’s familiar theories and conflicts; what is new is that it also recounts a history in which Houellebecq’s worldview has become enshrined as the dominant one. Whereas Ishiguro tries to ensure his readers’ sympathetic participation by having Kathy address us directly, Houellebecq compels the reader to assent to his doctrine, slam the book shut, or decorate the margins with notes of furious opposition. His multiple cloned narrators do not try to elicit sympathy; they write as practical historians. All named Daniel, but sequential Daniels, numbered 2 through 25, these narrators supplement their genetic continuity by writing autobiographies and commentaries on the autobiographies of their predecessors, thereby ensuring some extrasomatic continuity of identity among clones—and, incidentally, a continuity between our human present and a post-human future in which clones are elite “last men” and humans have regressed evolutionarily to savagery that recalls H. G. Wells’s Morlocks. The generations of Daniel write in order to leave a record for “Les Futurs,” that is, their future selves. The reader is left staring backward into the past, borne ceaselessly into the future. We can’t do anything about events Houellebecq calls “the first diminuition” and “the great drought.”

This is a rather nifty way to revive the French Romantic genre of “confessions,” or at least put it to good use. The confession, even in France, now means Oprah and reality TV as much as it means Augustine and Rousseau; and Houellebecq, too, by juxtaposing himself with his literary ancestors, courts extreme banality. The subjects of Daniel 1’s confession are his calculatedly provocative sociopolitical comedy, projects like “Munch on My Gaza Strip (My Huge Jewish Settler),” and his sexual education beginning with a woman he refers to only as Big Ass. He also describes his unhappy marriage to the editor of a glamour rag called Lolita (for women who want to look 14 and the men who want to look at them): she loves him but hates sex and fears getting old; he loves sex and knows she’s right to fear aging. They hate children and adopt a dog. After the inevitable breakup, he gets the same treatment in turn from a young Spanish porn actress and concert pianist (!) named after Balzac’s famous courtesan, Esther. (Literary influence too can be a kind of cloning.) Esther 2, as we might call her, breaks Daniel 1’s heart and puts him on the path to life as a shut-in on the Andalusian coast.

So what saves this novel from turning into a completely formulaic and unreadable extension of Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte? First, the writing: many of the linked essays of Daniel 1’s autobiography are written in a style that’s more declarative Montaigne than elliptical Proust. Consider this passage from Montaigne’s essay on the affection of fathers for their children:

Puisqu’il a plu à Dieu nous douer de quelque capacité de discours, afin que, comme les bêtes, nous ne fussions pas servilement assujetis aux lois communes, ainsi que nous nous appliquassions par jugement et liberté volontaire, nous devons bien prêter un peu à la simple autorité de la nature, mais non pas nous laisser tyranniquement emporter à elle, la seule raison doit avoir la conduite de nos inclinations. J’ai, de ma part, le goût étrangement mousse à ces propositions qui sont produite en nous sans l’ordonnance et entremise de nôtre jugement . . . Je ne puis recevoir cette passion dequoi on embrasse les enfants à peine encore nés, n’ayant ni mouvement en l’âme, ni forme reconnaissable au corps, par ou ils se puissent rendre aimables. Et [je] ne les ai pas souffert volontiers nourris près de moi.1

And then Daniel on the same, with fewer subjunctives:

Il n’y avait pas seulement ce dégout légitime qui saisit tout homme normalement constitué à la vue d’un bébé. . . . Il y avait aussi, plus profondément, une horreur, une authentique horreur face à ce calvaire ininterrompu qu’est l’existence des hommes. Si le nourrison humain, seul de tout le règne animal, manifeste immédiatement sa présence au monde par des hurlements, de souffrance incessants, c’est bien entendu qu’il souffre, et qu’il souffre de manière intolérable. . . . À tout observateur impartial en tout cas, il apparaît que l’individu humain ne peut pas être heureux, qu’il n’est en aucune manière conçu pour le bonheur, et que sa seule destinée possible est de propager le malheur autour de lui en rendant l’existence des autres aussi intolérable que l’est la sienne propre.2

Daniel labels these theories “peu humanistes,” but they are rather too precisely anti-humanist. It smacks of hating God because he doesn’t exist. Where Montaigne insists that language, reason, and free will separate us from beasts so that we may choose to love our children and they may choose to love us, Houellebecq wants to reduce everything to the tyranny of nature, to lay bare the cruelty of life. Humanity may make us special, but only special sufferers. What Montaigne puts down to the intercession of “judgment,” Houellebecq thinks of as necessity. Daniel delights in lots of sociobiological nonsense—“Maybe human babies are so unhappy because they’ve lost their protective fur?”—but in fact, whether intentionally or unconsciously, Houellebecq is writing in a long Catholic tradition of original sin and contemptus mundi, only without hope of redemption or immortality of the soul. We are born to suffer. Daniel acknowledges this and chooses to blot out his knowledge by pressing his face between the legs of women.

This guy (recurring in each Houellebecq novel) who tries to recreate moments of perfect happiness and self-annihilation in the pursuit of pussy does get tiresome. In the earlier novels, Houellebecq would occasionally give his character an interest in abstract art or something to make us believe he was less monomaniacal than he appeared. In Possibility, Houellebecq introduces this tendency toward sublimation through a new character, the artist Vincent. Vincent begins the novel as a maker of abstract video installations who knows that he’s retreated to his tiny basement studio to make a “facile little world where all you encounter is happiness.” He compares himself to a teenager who collects stamps. The Possibility of an Island is as much his history as Daniel’s, and this shrunken man becomes the pope of the cult of the Elohim, the cloners who take over the world.

The description of the cult is worth the whole novel. Liberally drawn from the Raëlians (the Quebec-based group that made headlines a few years ago when they announced that they’d cloned a human), the Elohimites are also a deliberate humbug combining an authoritarian free-love, partner-sharing philosophy and a 1970s aesthetic of big beds, big hair, poofy cushions, and early Star Trek. Later, when Vincent takes charge, they evolve toward a combination of Catholicism and Buddhism. As Daniel 1 meets the cult members and gets drawn into their inner circle, he records both the silliness of it all and its understandable attraction: lots of sex, eternal youth, immortality of the body, an end to suffering, a tendency to hold annual retreats at cool vacation spots like Lanzarote (one of the titular islands), a healthy appreciation of money. If Western consumer capitalism needed a religion, this would be it. The Elohimites are us, only self-consciously so.

Houellebecq has done his research on cults, and he’s probably read Moses and Monotheism. So it comes as no surprise that the genesis of the new religion is an operatic farce of jealousy, ritual murder, and fraud. The first prophet hits on the wrong girl and gets hurled out a window by her jealous lover, who hasn’t heard the news about free love. After some amusing hand-wringing, and the dismissal of some real ethical scruples, witnesses and perpetrators are cleaned up and Vincent is persuaded to present himself as a prophet and a clone—indeed, a prophet of cloning. Daniel may be an unfunny theoretical comedian, but Houellebecq is a camp maestro. This scherzo episode isn’t just a necessary relief in this very long novel; our own political realities have accustomed us to the triumph of mediocrity, and the ways a fanatical cult of loyalists protect the secret of that mediocrity. There’s little reason to imagine anymore that great events in world history will be brought about by great men. The worst thing about Houellebecq’s science fiction is that it seems too probable.

Houellebecq, in person, would seem more than half a hostage to the ideas he puts into the Elohim cult and the mouths of his male narrators. (To the delight of the French press, he has admitted that a scene in which the narrator washes his Mercedes and declares himself to have finally understood what it is to be a man is straight autobiography.) And this too is a large part of Houellebecq’s achievement: his confessions are satires, his satires, confessions. Houellebecq’s elaborate pronouncements about the way things are come to feel like a form of critique and self-critique by exaggeration. Through the narrator’s cackling, self-accusing voice, we sometimes catch glimpses of strong all-too-human emotions. For all the intelligence of Daniel’s propositions—all the quotations from Schopenhauer, Kleist, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky to back them up, all the abstract Frenchiness and all the specific scenes of human loneliness and despair, all his silly praise of dogs and disparagement of children—Daniel fundamentally believes in the one thing neither his experiences nor his philosophy nor his newfound religion allow him to believe in: love. He is, in short, a romantic, a humanist in spite of himself.

Such, at least, is the conclusion the novel forces us to draw when Daniel 25 sets out across the changed landscape of Andalusian Spain, last home of his original namesake. After twenty-four generations of Daniels, number 25 simply decides he’s had enough of living inside “the protected zone,” watching subhumans on security cameras the way we watch nature shows, teleconferencing now and then with other clones (including Esther 31!), and reading books. (There really isn’t much to do in Houellebecq’s new world.) On his way to Lanzarote, Daniel 25 is diverted to Madrid, where “the idea came to me to look up the Calle San Isidor, where, on the top floor of number 3, Esther’s birthday party took place, the party that put an end to their relationship. I remembered well enough what the city looked like on a map from Daniel’s era, but some streets were entirely destroyed, others remained intact without any apparent logic. It took me almost half an hour to find the building I was looking for. It was still standing.” Can you imagine a more clichéd image for “enduring love,” even if the monument itself is a monument to that love’s failure?

So much energy and imagination and history—and yet love cannot be eradicated, not even after the neo-humans no longer need to eat, outfitted as they are with photoelectric cells and a few other special effects, like so many pimped-out cars. Daniel 25 succumbs to the standard-issue romantic fantasies of the ancestor whose complete life story makes up his only education. Daniel 25’s last journey is cheeringly familiar; he goes as a tourist in search of the ghost of an emotion that he believes has been eradicated, only to find that he’s still capable of the same pain and the same love. After twenty-five incarnations (and several hundred pages of cynical theorizing and autobiography), he’s still human.

But why this sudden obsession with clones? We’ve grown used to the leveling of distinctions between high and low, science fiction and so-called “literary fiction” in our contemporary postmodern culture of the novel, but something more than a wish to escape the boxed-in categories of publishers’ marketing strategies must motivate this curious decision from two novelists whose primary interests remain the twists of human consciousness and the interactions between real people in present or historical settings. As a character in our recent literary history, the human clone appears as a remarkable synthesis of the thematic concerns of postmodern experimental writing and the enduring tradition of “realism.” New novelists in France and their experimental counterparts like John Barth, Robert Coover, and others in the anglophone world had been engaged in an Ahab-like quest to strike through the mask and lay bare the fictiveness of their fictions. By extension, this quest would also reveal the fragility and fictiveness of our own self-conceptions. We were all supposed to be so many narrative functions and textual codes. To these meta-writers, the old realist novel was guilty of a fraud, of covering up the truth of a self that no longer existed. Its mechanisms must be revealed, its characters dissected and displayed like trophies or specimens in the laboratories of writers who compared themselves to scientists. Over the same period, biological science revealed our genetic codes.

Now, after all these years and so many novels dedicated to this fruitless pursuit and misleadingly praised or blamed under the heading of “experimental writing,” we’ve reached a point where novels can once again be written in which characters and human beings are acknowledged to be both formulaic and unique. The techniques of literary realism can be harnessed to explore this paradox, not to conceal it.

Of course there’s also a social element to the rise of the clones: biotechnology is now part of reality, as are our fears and fantasies about its uses. The clone is our latest version of Frankenstein’s monster, though with our own displacement from physical ugliness to inner ugliness. We don’t fear that clones will be physical grotesques, but, in our neo-Hobbesian age, we fear that they will at last reveal the truth of human nature in all its selfish monstrosity, a pure will to survive, reproduce, and dominate. This anxiety has heightened all the more since biology has replaced psychoanalysis in popular culture. The advantage and flaw of Freudian psychoanalysis was that it posited eros and self-preservation as opposed drives—the death instinct grew out of the organism’s wish never to change, never to become other, never to be open to new experiences, new stimuli. Reversing these categories, the “selfish gene” theorists and their drones in the pseudodiscipline of evolutionary psychology posited a sort of volitional DNA that preserves itself through driving its human hosts to mantislike annihilation through reproduction. Love has become death. Everyone is afraid of death, but now we must fear love too. The promise of cloning, however, as a controlled process, would give us the illusion of the unchanging and unchangeable self that could be carried on perpetually without any need for love.

Both Houellebecq and Ishiguro have written their novels in the face of this anxiety, and they work through the anxiety mainly by emphasizing the continued importance of culture, especially in a world where scientific approaches dominate even private, nonscientific conceptions of the self. Both authors are modest about their clones. They understand that the most a clone could be is a physical copy of some primal ancestor (even if the physical goes all the way down). Now that we’re closer to these things, our science is more pragmatic and less wildly ambitious than the dreams of early-20th-century eugenicists. There are no Alphas in tubes as in Brave New World, no human-animal hybrids as in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau or the President’s bioethics panel. They assume no advances in our knowledge of what is genetically determined and what is learned, only that the techniques for cloning have been invented and put to use. The biggest problem facing the clones in these novels is that they must somehow be educated. They live through history, encounter others, read books, and all this changes them, as do their own experiences. In other words, cloning does not solve the nature-nurture problem, it displaces it again into a choice about which nature we end up nurturing.

These novels are fictions, but they are no more fictions than the assumptions about human nature that govern game theory. In both novels, cloning fails to alleviate human suffering in the end, because to clone a human is to create a character who loves and therefore suffers; a society that allows human clones for the purposes imagined in their pages or as slave labor or cannon fodder would be a society that no longer believed in love, yet that society would create loving beings all the same.

Both novelists suggest that we already live in this world and these tragedies of nostalgia and belated recognition already play themselves out continually. They don’t go so far as to suggest that we need a politics that recognizes and honors love and beauty as much as it honors “a culture of life.” After all, they are novelists, not political theorists, and it’s extremely difficult to articulate what this new politics might look like. They are critical novelists above all, though their criticism is not without a comfort offered up to present and future readers. It’s a deeply ironic form of comfort, but a comfort all the same: at whatever level of determination and despite all determination, some humans are programmed to love even if that love is futile, estranged, and promises certain death and unavoidable pain. You may be one of them. As Houellebecq’s Elohimites put it, “Welcome to life eternal.”

  1. Since it has pleased God to bestow some slight capacity for discursive reasoning on us so that we should not be slavishly subject to the laws of Nature as the beasts are but should conform to them by our freewill and judgement, we should indeed make some concessions to the simple authority of the common laws of Nature but not allow ourselves to be swept tyrannously away by her: Reason alone must govern our inclinations. For my part, those propensities which are produced in us without the command and mediation of our judgement taste strangely flat. [In the case of the subject under discussion,] I am incapable of finding a place for that emotion which leads people to cuddle new-born infants while they are still without movements of soul or recognizable features of body to make themselves lovable. And I have never willingly allowed them to be nursed in my presence. (M. A. Screech translation)  

  2. It wasn’t only that legitimate disgust which seizes any normally constituted man at the sight of a baby. . . . It was also, more profoundly, horror, an authentic horror when faced with the uninterrupted Calvary that is human existence. If the human nursling, alone in the whole kingdom, immediately reveals its presence in the world by screams of unceasing suffering, it’s well understood that he is suffering and suffering in an intolerable way. . . . To any impartial observer, it appears that the human individual cannot be happy, and is in no way conceived for happiness, and that his only possible destiny is to propagate unhappiness, making the existence of those around him as intolerable as his own. (Reviewer’s translation.)  

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