Klara, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s slow burn Klara and the Sun, spends most of the first section of the novel in a store, sometimes looking out the storefront window to observe her sliver of street life. “I’d always longed to see more of the outside,” she says, “and to see it in all its detail. So once the grid went up, the realization that there was now only the glass between me and the sidewalk, that I was free to see, close up and whole, so many things I’d seen before only as corners and edges, made me so excited…”
Klara is an Artificial Friend—an AF, as they’re referred to—but the name is both literal and ironic. She is some kind of robot, to be sure, even though, despite long passages of description, we never quite learn what Klara looks like, and how humans so consistently and easily tell her apart. But there is nothing artificial about her friendship.
As Manager, as Klara calls her, explains to her, “‘There are many children out there who would love to be able to choose you’” or one of the other AFs in the store. “‘But it’s not possible for them. You’re beyond their reach. That’s why they come to the window, to dream about having you. But then they get sad.’” “‘A child like that,’” Klara responds, “with no AF, would surely be lonely.’” If Klara were human, this loneliness would surely be a projection on her part. Here, however, it is a matter of fact. The children without AFs are lonely. But, it turns out, so are the children who can afford them. So is everyone.
Like Corduroy, Don Freeman’s beloved department store bear, Klara awaits purchase from the right child, Josie, who had previously visited the store and promised to return. Unlike Corduroy, Klara’s story does not end shortly after she goes home with her girl. There is something of the children’s book, the YA novel, the coming of age story, to Klara and the Sun, in its focus on adolescent self-discovery, of leaving a small world while taking something of it into a larger, more complex one. Yet Klara is not an adolescent. She doesn’t age. Can she change, the reader wonders; can she learn anything from her brief existence? Can any of us? The story ominously implies.
Klara is our narrator, and her perspective—and therefore the reader’s—from her limited side of the glass, even after she’s free from the store, pervades the novel. Perhaps that’s why we never get a solid description of Klara herself. Klara, we are repeatedly told, is an especially observant AF, which positions her perfectly to be the kind of narrator Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), favors. She is perceptive of detail but not of significance, however, as the reader slowly—and this is a slowly paced novel—begins to understand more than the narrator herself.
Unlike the last decade’s threateningly titled and told YA series best exemplified by The Hunger Games, Klara and the Sun is narrated cheerfully, juxtaposing Klara’s childlike hope and friendship with the reader’s creeping, adult realization that this world might be a dystopian nightmare for everyone except the inhuman Klara herself.
Ishiguro’s literary feat, then, is the pervasive irony of Klara’s sincere, unironic point of view. Even from her periphery, we still glimpse a society of pervasive personal loneness coupled with and caused by sinister, systemic political and economic portents. Whispers of encroaching fascism; adults who have been “substituted”, others wearing clothing that Klara observes as “high” or “low status”.
Select children, like Josie, have been “lifted” and isolated at home, chronically ill, friendlessly distance learning from “oblongs”. (This detail is particularly painful at the moment of the novel’s release in 2021.) Others, like Rick, Klara’s only (human) friend and only neighbor — which suggests their friendship is borne of proximity — were not lifted and are subject to scrutiny and embarrassment. “‘Seems so bright, too,’” a Lifted child’s parent says of Rick. “‘Such a shame a boy like that should have missed out.’”
Klara’s spoken and sometimes inner-narrated language can feel stilted. AFs instantly process grids of visual data and memorize minute details but still eschew pronoun usage. Klara refers, in capital letters, to the Mother and the Manager, and to Josie and others by name even when addressing them directly. And yet her nouns and pronouns express how Klara uses language (or was programmed) to relegate herself to be an object of obeisance, not because she can’t speak fluently, but because she does not deign to see herself, or want to be seen, as fully human.
For philosopher Martin Buber, humans have two distinct ways to address the world, what he calls “I-Thou”, for living, spiritual relationships between realized subjects, and “I-It”, from a subject toward to an object, that of use. Klara seems to recognize her standing.
Her language will at first distance her from the reader, marking her as not quite human. Yet the more inhumanely she is treated, the more human she seems: “Are you a guest at all?,” one character asks. “Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?”
Overt objectification, however, is rare. Instead, she experiences smaller, repeated acts reminding us of her alterity, her subtle but radical otherness. Even after being with her for an extended time, Josie finally realizes that Klara, who has repeatedly narrated that she “always longed to see more of the outside” has “‘never been outside? Not just outside here, but outside anywhere?’” “‘That’s correct,’” Klara replies. “‘I was in the store. Then I came here.’”
Later, after disharmony that Klara does not seem to understand, she asks Josie,
“So we’re still good friends?”
“You’re my AF. So we must be good friends.”
But there was no smile in her voice. It was clear she wished to be alone to get on with her sketching, so I left the room, to stand outside on the landing.
Klara cheerfully stands outside Josie’s room like a laptop on standby, an it to Josie’s I. The Sun, the other half of the title, serves as Klara’s I-Thou relationship. The Sun’s power is literal and metaphorical: AFs are solar-powered, but Klara does not talk about the Sun, always capitalized, like a mere power source. Klara personifies it—“him” in her narration—and “the loveliness of the Sun’s nourishment falling over us.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Klara sees the Sun as a kind of god (the Son? The Christian allegory seems more than passing), capable of bequeathing his “special nourishment,” she believes, to humans as well, and so begins a quest about halfway through the novel that is hard to reconcile with what has preceded.
Despite its forays into science fiction, then, Klara and Sun feels like a fairy tale, a Pinocchio, or maybe a kind of allegory. But an allegory for what? Like Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, (2008), Klara’s world is populated by people who have been stripped of their humanity, and robots who have been granted it. In spite of all she does not understand—or perhaps because of it—Klara moves from alienating to relatable. Such is the novel’s achievement, and its heartbreak.
Even before she leaves the store, Klara worries that her AF model, the B2, has already been superseded by the newly arrived B3s. On top of that, Ishiguro includes the detail that AF batteries are designed to fade after a few years. There are not many ways for a story like this to end. Corduroy doesn’t explore what happens when his child no longer needs toys, but John Lasseter’s Toy Story (1995), yet another children’s story, does. The child must outgrow them, their inevitable uselessness inextricably linked to their purpose. Such is the inevitability, the tragedy, the final irony, of being an Artificial Friend.
It is also the tragedy and final irony of being a parent, and being human. Unlike the reader, however, Klara feels none of it, not sadness, anxiety, or dread, only the warmth of the Sun’s nourishment, and Josie’s love and attachment, however fleeting. Only humans, in and out of the novel, fear their inescapable obsolescence.
Klara’s ending is not her own, but ours; Klara’s tragedy is not her own, but ours. And yet, tasked with something as simple and impossible as being a child’s friend, she has fulfilled her life’s purpose. Klara and the Sun is a coming of age story, and a fairy tale, about how an it became a thou. More than anything, Klara and the Sun is a love story. One must imagine Klara happy. Not for her sake, but for ours.