[Many spoilers ahead, so caveat lector.]
Among many other factors – financial, emotional, psychological – the theoretical factor that drove my work towards a PhD (in automatic story generation) off that Thelma and Louise cliff was the growing realisation not just that meta-level processing by readers/viewers of a story is, if anything, a greater part of the entire mechanism than non-meta-level processing, but also that there was no way I could even approach an accounting of that in my model that I would be happy with, given the constraints of time, money, and sanity. Meta-level story-processing is everywhere you look, and the deeper you look the deeper it gets. We learn about stories primarily not from the real world, but from other stories, and to account for how humans process fictional narratives without that reflexive aspect isn’t just limited; it misses the point completely.
To clarify, what I mean by “meta-level processing” of stories is the fact (I would claim) that the relevant and significant knowledge we bring to the table when we consume a story, which creates and determines our expectations of how the narrative will proceed – the assumptions we make and the questions those assumptions raise for us as a consequence – comes at least as much from our experience of other stories as it does from our day-to-day life. Such processing is every bit as culturally-determined as our day-to-day lives, of course, because different kinds of stories proliferate in different specific cultures – and are part of defining what that culture is. There are further aspects of our meta-level processing specific to individual fiction genres: the expected structure of a revenge western is not the same as the expected structure of a whodunnit. Sub-genres refine the expectations even further: Hercule Poirot (or Miss Marple) gradually deduces the identity of the murderer, and typically gets there before we do – otherwise the final gathering and enumeration of motives and alibis would be redundant; Columbo, on the other hand, figures out what’s going on right at the start, not long after we’ve been shown the murder, and what’s left is the cat-and-mouse. The point here isn’t that there are different structures; it’s that these are structures we expect, and that those expectations are part of the whole process. We also, of course, have a unique individual contribution to the process – the narrative analogue of an idiolect.
Yet more levels of meta-processing are attached to the medium in which a story is told. I’m particularly interested in film narrative, which has evolved a highly-stylised and tightly-parsimonious form, characterised by the density of its structure and the neatness of its packaging. These aren’t in themselves markers of an interesting narrative, but since the constraints of modern film push narrative structure to the limit, film is a good place to look at how it all works. Perhaps because of an awareness of its limitations of space, film narrative is sometimes wilfully greedy in its co-opting of other narratives for deliberate effect. This has become a staple for film comedy, for example. Airplane, which initiated a massively-referential style, doesn’t just look back to a fertile sub-genre of disaster film; it takes actual specific character names, plot devices, and even complete lines of dialogue from an earlier film, Zero Hour!. Homage to this degree isn’t crucial to priming the viewer’s meta-level processing, but it reveals the extent to which modern film is often a kind of narrative mille-feuille.
The massively-layered meta-processing of modern film extends upwards to the casting process. Witness the fuss made over the fact that Steven Seagal – at the time an action-movie top banana – was killed off halfway through Executive Decision. Just as often, casting distorts or pre-empts the narrative in ways that the filmmakers didn’t see – or didn’t think significant. In the otherwise sure-footed film of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone, Morgan Freeman plays a police chief whose significance to the narrative seems, for much of the film, to belie the actor’s stature. But right on cue, there’s a late twist which reveals him to be the centre of a villainous plot. Film critic James Rocchi calls this the Suspiciously Good Actor Effect. The effect is familiar – although not with regard to casting – from Scooby Doo, in which a meta-level expectation quickly develops that it’ll be the janitor at the disused funfair scaring everyone away by pretending to be a ghost, for some nefarious purpose. In the case of Scooby Doo the expectation partly derives from the paucity of possible suspects – it literally could hardly be anyone else. I’d like to add my own meta-rule:
The bigger the star, the closer their big scene is to the end of the film.
This rule isn’t always followed, of course, but it’s typically our expectation, so we notice – even if not consciously – where it’s not and are genuinely surprised when it’s explicitly not followed (cf. Seagal and Executive Decision). A meta-level flaw in the structure of the film of The Silence of the Lambs is that Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector so dominates those scenes of the film that he’s in that we genuinely expect him to reappear as part of the conclusion – which he does not, except in the epilogue, to deliver an ill-advised punchline. This expectation is motivated by nothing within the film’s narrative; it comes only from the meta-level expectations we’ve learned about film as a narrative medium.
A curious and paradoxical effect can occur when we sometimes fail to distinguish between those narrative expectations we have based on our knowledge of how the real world works, and meta-level narrative expectations based on the stories we’ve seen so often they’ve become internalised. We react with an irrational impatience or disbelief when a character seems to be unaware of what sort of story they’re in, and what its rules are. The teenage girl creeping up to the dark house seems oblivious to the fact that she’s in a slasher flick. She later turns away from the prone body of her vanquished assailant, apparently unaware that he’s obviously not quite dead yet, despite the fact that they never are.
A more concrete example. Tony Gilroy’s estimable Michael Clayton turns on an entrapment scene in which our hero wears a wire while drawing his corporate enemy – by now way out of her depth – into revealing all. Gilroy stages the scene perfectly: it’s Clayton’s last throw, and he’s fully aware of the risk and the low likelihood of success; Karen Crowder, his nemesis, is close to a breakdown, and not thinking clearly. Despite the fact that the motivation for the scene – and its outcome – is sound, it nevertheless drew criticism for being implausible. Such criticism – that Crowder would never fall for such an old trick – is instructively muddled. On a superficial level it assumes merely that the viewer doesn’t buy Gilroy’s careful exposition of the characters’ motivations. But the crucial muddling is between the viewer’s real-world and meta-level expectations. The entrapment scene isn’t intrinsically implausible; nor is it implausible within the world of characters and events that Gilroy has constructed. It’s only implausible if the viewer expects not only that the characters are familiar with the – somewhat clichéd – narrative device of entrapment by someone wearing a wire, but also that the characters are aware that they’re in that sort of narrative. It’s a droll, comedic observation that fictional characters don’t inhabit worlds in which they themselves exist as fictional characters – James Bond isn’t aware of the James Bond character, for example – but that’s not quite the point here. For the scene to be implausible, it wouldn’t be enough for Crowder to be aware of the entrapment cliché in (her world’s) fiction; she’d have to be aware of that cliché and believe herself to be in a work of (her world’s) fiction. In our real lives we don’t (usually!) bring our meta-level expectations about fictional narratives with us as we assess what’s likely to happen. Yet there is, at least for some viewers, a dissatisfaction which manifests itself in claims of implausibility when fictional characters fail to do exactly that.
An unfortunate conclusion might be drawn here. It is entirely possible that narrative devices can be so overused that they more or less permanently breach the line between how we perceive stories and how we perceive the real world. Such devices are then rendered practically unusable in stories, not because of any actual real-world implausibility, but because we can no longer suspend our disbelief that the characters aren’t aware of them. At that point we fail to distinguish between the real world and the story world.
Most of the above is scene-setting for a discussion of a remarkable aspect of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go – and its recent film adaptation, written by Alex Garland. The response to both novel and film by their readers/viewers – as even a casual glance through feedback at Amazon and the IMDb shows – pivots to a large degree on a single question: and not so much how the question is answered, as whether the question is asked at all. Ishiguro’s story of cloned children raised to provide spare parts for “normal” humans is, on a superficial level, a familiar one. A recent comparison is with the sound and fury of Michael Bay’s film The Island; an older comparison – not involving cloning, but with a congruent dark secret – is the 1976 film Logan’s Run (somewhat modified from an earlier novel). Both The Island and Logan’s Run involve a BIG REVEAL of the fact that life isn’t what it has hitherto seemed; a protracted chase sequence, at the end of which the protagonists manage to escape their pre-arranged fate; and a conclusion in which the facade is smashed, and tyranny is destroyed.
Never Let Me Go has radically different intentions. Ishiguro’s goal is to set up a world in which clones reared as organ donors know, and accept, their fate – more or less – and then to explore the nature of such a life, and such a death. He very conspicuously is uninterested in being distracted from his task by either the lure of the dizzying plot twist, or getting stuck in fastidiously accounting for the mechanics by which the clone world is managed and secured. Exposition is gradual and open to the reader, much as it appears to be to the clones themselves as growing children. There are no great secrets. By barely even touching upon methods of enforcement of the system of clone rearing and organ “donation”, Ishiguro permits himself the freedom to take them for granted, and to focus on the emotional and interpersonal, rather than the mechanical and schematic. He also, paradoxically, perhaps implies to the reader something even more terrible than we could ever be actually shown: a reason that we’re not shown a system of enforcement might be that it is so complete, so draconian, so assumed, that escape is never even considered. (Garland’s screenplay actually breaks this silence by showing – albeit gently, and in passing – the older clones wearing electronic tags by which they log their movements. This very mention of the idea of a security system raises the issue, and might be seen as a distraction from the purity of Ishiguro’s focus. It is perhaps a more knowing, pre-emptive nod to the requirements of the medium of film.)
Notwithstanding Ishiguro’s clear design and interests, and that which he takes to be axiomatic, many readers/viewers seem compelled to ask: Why don’t they run?
That is, why don’t the clones of Never Let Me Go do everything they can to escape their fate – like the protagonists of The Island and Logan’s Run? This is the question which appears to comprehensively divide readers/viewers of the story: whether the question is even asked, and whether a satisfactory answer is found.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the question at face value. Why don’t the clones run? They’re perfectly aware of a world outside of their own, and would seem to be indistinguishable from non-clones; blending in is at least an option worth considering. The facile answer – but also in a real sense the correct answer – is that the clones don’t run because Ishiguro doesn’t want them to. They’re his characters, and he’s just not interested in that sort of story. As readers/viewers, that might be enough for us. We might also ask whether Ishiguro has created a world in which the clones not running is plausible. Although he’s not interested in spending much time constructing systems and mechanisms of enforcement, he does hint here and there at how it’s achieved. At Hailsham, the school – somewhat isolated, we’re led to understand – where the clones spend their formative years, rumours of vague but violent things happening to those who stray out of bounds circulate among the students. Later, once the clones have been granted a measure of autonomy of movement, Ishiguro shows how their extreme social ignorance and clumsiness serve to reinforce their awareness of separation and differentness. It’s clear to them that they don’t belong, and quite likely couldn’t pass. It’s notable that the enforcement mechanisms Ishiguro does refer to are non-technological. To the extent that Never Let Me Go is science fiction (and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t), it’s science fiction which doesn’t much care about technology; the system of electronic tagging is Garland’s addition for the film adaptation – or at least credited to him.
It should not be overlooked that the protagonists of Never Let Me Go do in fact attempt to break free from their situation. Following a series of rumours, which seem to be passed down as a kind of false folk-memory among the clones, they seek out those in charge of their school – long-since closed – to apply for a “deferral” in their schedule of organ donations, which they have been led to believe is available to clones who can prove that they are truly in love. This attempt, of course, pathetically naive and misguided as it is, and conducted within the system they belong to, rather than to escape from that system, merely reinforces that the clones cannot genuinely conceive of any other possible life for themselves. The failure of the application for a deferral – because no such contingency has ever existed – essentially constitutes the end of the narrative, and the end of their lives.
Given, then, that Ishiguro’s intentions and interests are clear, and that he describes a coherent but alternate reality in which clones are raised in such a way that thoughts of true escape simply do not occur to them – and, crucially, the first-person narrator is herself one of the clones, so we’re not required to infer how they think – why is the question of why the clones don’t run nevertheless so significant for so many readers/viewers? It’s even an issue for some top-of-the-range critics, such as Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian:
Michael Bay’s The Island, however ridiculous, did feature people who raged against the truth when it was revealed to them, and tried to escape. This never seems to occur to Ruth or Kathy or Tommy[…]
Faced with the undeniable fact that it genuinely doesn’t occur to the characters, the reader/viewer can react in one of two ways: they can accept Ishiguro’s axiomatic “what if”, and proceed from there to the internally-logical conclusion that he draws; or, they can simply refuse to accept the axiom, and consequently refuse to accept the conclusion. It will come as no surprise when I claim that different meta-processing of the story (and of stories generally) is the key here; specifically, whether the reader/viewer’s meta-processing allows acceptance of a fictional world – no matter how well imagined, no matter how sound the internal motivation – in which clones created as organ donors are aware of this situation and do not attempt to escape it.
I’m going to suggest two aspects of a reader/viewer’s meta-processing that might be significant here – with no claim that other aspects might not also play a part. The first aspect is the extent to which the first act of Never Let Me Go causes the retrieval for the reader/viewer of other, (superficially-) similar stories, which process then creates the expectation that this is that sort of story. This might well begin even before the story itself is processed, of course, as the reader/viewer reads reviews and sees promotional material. Besides The Island and Logan’s Run, there are many other examples in popular film alone of a protagonist discovering – or being shown – that they have been living in a deceptive or illusionary world, and then seeking escape: The Truman Show, John Carpenter’s They Live, Total Recall, The Matrix. Particularly if Never Let Me Go is approached as science fiction – and the central premise of cloning makes this likely – the stories most liable to be retrieved as part of the meta-processing which involves predicting how this story will pan out are those in which a protagonist does in fact triumph against the powers of deception and illusion. To be sure, there are those readers/viewers for whom the discovery that this isn’t one of those stories is itself a pleasurable experience – confounding the conventions of genre cliché has its own merits. But for many, perhaps most, that same discovery has the bitter flavour of betrayal.
A second aspect of meta-processing relevant here is the extent to which the reader/viewer seeks/wishes to identify with the protagonists. Such identification transforms questions and expectations about what the protagonists will/should do, into idiosyncratic assessments of what the reader/viewer would do in their place – or, at the very least, emotionally-invested hopes that the protagonists behave in this way, or make that choice. With regard to the latter, it would be a strange reader indeed who hoped that the protagonists would die on the operating table after donating one organ too many. But more or less any identification with fictional characters is based on a muddling of real-world and story-world expectations, and a simple refusal to take seriously the author’s intentions. In the case of Never Let Me Go, it is likely to make the story more or less unacceptable.
It might further be argued that the plain, unremitting sadness of Never Let Me Go – its theme of the failure to escape – makes the story unacceptable to many, for whom the purpose of fiction is itself escapism. This would be too simplistic, I think. The story is certainly tragedy, but so is James Cameron’s Titanic, and a more dreamily romantic story than that could scarcely be found. The essence of the tragedy in Never Let Me Go is that the protagonists (by design) lack the resources to even think about running. Jack might drown as the ship sinks, but he tries, and he dies saving Rose.
A better comparison might be with the knowing advance of First World War infantrymen to their deaths – the whole exercise suffused with the rigidity of class and status that marks Ishiguro’s work. Dignity and nobility in the face of madness are qualities Ishiguro’s clones do possess, and it could hardly be argued that the clones do not likewise go willingly to their deaths in the service of others. Why, then, is a story of First World War heroism acceptable, in a way that Never Let Me Go might not be to many readers? The difference, of course, is the inevitability of a historical account, which anchors the tragedy, and resists the creation of competing expectations. If it were a story of tragic history, Never Let Me Go would play quite differently. As fiction, it remains vulnerable to the many and varied expectations, needs and desires we bring to it, so it’s a different story for each of us.