Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Little Life (by Hanya Yanagihara)

This book appeared on the top of many "best book of the year" lists last year. But every review made sure to mention that it's grim, that it delves into the life of a man whose past is devastatingly traumatic, and that we slowly learn the details of that devastatingly traumatic life over the course of 720 pages. So I downloaded a sample on my Kindle and then never managed to bring myself to dive in. But then I opened my Kindle app and started reading a novel at random -- not realizing what I was reading or remembering what I'd heard about it -- and was hooked.

It starts off as a fairly standard, if extremely well wrought, story of four multi-ethnic friends in a timeless New York City.  Willem, a waiter and aspiring actor, JB, a spoiled artist, Malcolm, an aspiring architect with daddy issues, and Jude, who cuts himself, who is disabled in some vague way, whose past is a mystery. All four characters are compelling and their stories are well told. As I said, it captivates the reader immediately. Slowly, the focus shifts to center on Jude. Slowly, his past is revealed. Slowly, the novel asks the question: what defines the value of a life? What healing is possible when you've been traumatized to your very soul? Will Jude be redeemed? Can he be? What about the people who love him?

We joke around that the movie of Ian's dreams would be the most depressing movie of all time, with a title like Holocaust Barn. It would be a black-and-white Swedish documentary where nothing happens except maybe in the third act a horse commits suicide. And also there's the Holocaust. But unlike Ian, I like my entertainment more escapist. And at points, this novel did start to feel like tragedy piled on top of tragedy, trauma on top of trauma, until it was basically a Lars von Trier film without the misogyny. Holocaust Barn: The Novel. But then I read this Atlantic piece by Garth Greenwell, which argues that A Little Life is purposely operatic tragedy, an allegory for the experiences of gay men:

Just as Yanagihara’s characters challenge conventional categories of gay identity, so A Little Life avoids the familiar narratives of gay fiction. Yanagihara approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped modern gay identity—sickness and discrimination—obliquely, avoiding the conventions of the coming-out narrative or the AIDS novel. But queer suffering is at the heart of A Little Life... Jude’s childhood is an extreme iteration of the abandonment, exploitation, and abuse that remain endemic in the experience of queer young people. Recent discussion of that experience has been dominated by an affirmative narrative—“It Gets Better”—that may be true for most. But it isn’t true for Jude.

I don't know if this is what Yanagihara intended, but this reading unlocked the novel for me, and made it possible for me to appreciate the experience of reading it without getting derailed by the "tragedy porn" argument. It's not that. It's something deeper, something more profound.

I actually knew what was going to happen in advance (I read the Wikipedia summary so I could brace myself for how bad it was going to get) but it's still hard reading. The full meaning of the title comes as a punch in the gut. The cover art is horrible. The horse jumps off the barn roof. And yet I agree with all those glowing reviews -- it's a powerful, unforgettable tour de force of a novel.  If I haven't scared you off completely, brace yourself and dive in.

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Blogger jano said...

Thanks Mo. I am having a hard time - I'm about 40% through (CALEB IS HORRIBLE) and I came to read your reivew as I was unsure whether I should go on with it. I'll read the Atlantic article and maybe deliberately spoil myself as you did!

I am normally a LOT more escapist - I have enough horror in my professional life not to want to go into it in my off-hours. If I had known that there was clerical child abuse in it I would not, I think, have started - but I think the characters are really, really interesting and so well-written.

3:19 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I'm so excited you came here to comment! Caleb, shudder. The worst.

I highly recommend spoiling yourself. When I first read the spoilers I actually laughed, like come on, HOW MUCH WORSE CAN IT GET. I would not have enjoyed being blindsided by the developments, I think. But being pre-spoiled was helpful.

The problem is that as you say, it's so incredibly well done. It hasn't left me since I read it, and I do think it's going to do extremely well at the Tournament of Books -- next to it, a lot of other novels feel insubstantial. So I actually still recommend sticking it out because it's so good. It's just also... bad.

Keep me posted!

12:09 PM  
Blogger jano said...

I actually can't imagine it getting worse - two scenes so far particularly keep me up at night - so I'm reading a few other things and will definitely go back, spoilers at the ready, because the characters are staying with me.

I've just finished reading another of your recommendations - Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. How beautiful that was. Thanks.

My daughter has given me one of my Read Harder books - the non-superhero graphic novel which debuted in the last three years - Looking forward to it, it looks excellent and fun! (She just happened to have it and it just happened to tick the boxes, so I am definitely "getting out of my rut" which was the purpose in doing this.

4:27 PM  

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