Thursday, October 22, 2015

Processing 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

In a BBC interview with her, prior to the Man Booker announcement. Hanya Yanagihara spoke about her intentions when writing her shortlisted novel, A Litte Life. In the clip, which you can see here (, she speaks about wanting to show ‘how sometimes life is irreparable for people, because they’ve suffered such a profound amount of damage that they’re not able to come back from it’. In light of this approach, she further explores what it might mean to be saved and what it might mean to have a happy ending.

With this in mind, meet Jude St Francis. Although the book follows four friends, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude, it is Jude’s life which takes centre stage and the others fade in and out over the course of it.

This book is both about the limits of endurance and a test to the reader’s own endurance. It is a rolling film which occasionally stops to focus and tell, rather than show, a chapter or a moment. It goes to some of the darkest places imaginable and immerses you in them, repeatedly. It is a challenge, it is not for the vulnerable and has a lot of potentially triggering content for sexual abuse, bereavement and self-harm. It is upsetting, distressing, depressing, and yet – there is something that keeps bringing me back to it. I will discuss plot points which could be considered spoilers, this review/analysis is more intended for those who have read the book and want to join me in processing their thoughts.

My marker of whether a book is good/worth reading, the latter being the less subjective, is whether it makes me think, and think hard. Whether, the more I think about it, the more I uncover in my own mind and the wider I can see, where new paths are open to me and I feel like I have gained something in reading it. Obviously there are books I enjoy for other reasons, but with literary fiction, this is more often the measure.

A Little Life has definitely had me thinking, ruminating, brooding, and it is incredibly hard to process and find how to articulate a response to it. It was definitely worth reading for me, but that is not to say I enjoyed the experience. It is one of the hardest reading experiences I’ve had. I don’t think it’s a book you can or are meant to enjoy. It was, in parts, arduous, sometimes repetitive, frustrating and perhaps overwrought. Yet, it is a remarkable novel – unlike anything else you’ll have read or perhaps will ever read. It is brave and admirable and a work of art by an incredibly talented and thoughtful writer who wanted to push the limits and try to explore whether someone could come back from being so broken and having endured such extreme depravity. It had moments so affecting and perceptive and honest, that you had to sit back in awe. It contained multitudes. And in multitudes, there will always be good and bad. At 720 pages, the style was exacting and exhausting – but I think that’s very much what she intended – it is essentially a character study of someone damaged in every way possible both physically and mentally, and the people who want to save him and bring him back from the brink. How can you save someone who is so determined to die? And when it might be a mercy to let them? It is about the small kindnesses in the present that must always struggle and contend with the huge traumas of memory and flashback.

JB and Malcolm were introduced but actually were side-lined relatively quickly and more distant as it went on. Some of the friends reached such levels of success in their artistic careers that they became almost distant and implausible. They had some good moments, and JB’s art certainly played a role in exacting the emotion from different scenes. But they weren’t established as engaging characters despite lengthy introductions. Harold was my favourite and his relationship with Jude was the one that affected me the most. Jude met people of such evil extremes, repeatedly throughout his life – Harold and Willem are the two wholly, perpetually good people who hardly waver and love him so unconditionally. Yanagihara has said she deliberately wrote the extremes of love and unhappiness a little beyond their plausibility. It is true to say that Jude’s relationships fall into extremes, and perhaps that is something that can make the book seem perhaps too melodramatic at times, particularly certain fatal events near the end.

I adored Harold and Julia and their adoption of Jude at 30, I thought it was an incredibly hopeful and redemptive move for both parties given their histories and it was a real point of hope and light which the story desperately needed. I found Harold’s snippets of narration to be some of the most engaging and perceptive. He reflected a lot on the death of his own son in some really beautifully-written paragraphs:

‘You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent… I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life’

And after his son has died:

‘But here’s what no one says—when it’s your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorably part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come. Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is, and after that, you have nothing to fear again.’

Jude is his second chance, and even when he discovers he has adopted a man who he is perhaps also destined to lose, he is unwavering and constant and loves with his whole heart. 

‘If we were all so specifically, vividly aware of might go wrong, we would none of us have children at all.’

Yanagihara says she hasn’t written a word since finishing this novel, and may never write another again because of how much it took out of her. Indeed some of the most raw, vivid and uninhibited bits of writing are in the details of self-harm. Jude’s body is a canvas onto which all of his traumas are etched, as if he must make himself physically resemble how monstrous he feels.

‘He is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.

‘Something about the fall, the freshness of the pain, had been restorative. It was honest pain, clean pain, a pain without shame or filth, and it was a different sensation than he had felt in years … He imagined he was knocking out of himself every piece of dirt, every trace of liquid, every memory of the past few years.’

After all the psychological damage, the horrible surprises and corruption of adult ideals and intimacies, the blunt simplicity of such physical pain seems a refreshing alternative, both a distraction and a point of focus. Yanagihara really gets to the heart of it in a gritty, grizzly, explicit way that has been missing from the literary scene.
Writing this, I have also started to consider that it is interesting that she explicitly explores male suffering. There are barely any female characters in the book. This is probably something you could write a whole thesis about. Julia, Harold’s wife, is the main female character I can think of, and she has very little dialogue and presence. It is the father-figure, the paternal role that needs to be redeemed for Jude as it is the father-figures – who appear first as saviours – who have always turned into the perpetrators of the most horrific abuse and violations of trust – all barring Willem and Harold. And yet, Jude is always expecting it of them – expecting that they will ultimately betray his trust as it has been betrayed so many times before.

Suicide and depression affect so many. But suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. This book follows one of those men who cannot see a way out, who cannot process and cope with what has happened to him, who will not open himself to more than one person – and that is very notable and topical and an angle that yields so much more to think about. Jude would give anything to keep himself hidden, to keep his suffering hidden, and he does, mostly, for his whole life. Could he have been saved? Or is there something, a current in society or the way we live that would have made it fundamentally impossible or implausible? I would be interested in hearing/reading people’s thoughts on these issues. Do you think Yanagihara explicitly wanted to focus on male emotional suffering and emotional male relationships because they are perhaps not always honestly represented or are under-represented? If so, then she has done a comprehensive and fascinating study – though it is prone to the extremes.

So at the end of it all, what is Jude's life worth? What are the efforts of Harold, Willem and Andy worth? 

It's like that quote from the diaries of Anais Nin - 'you can't save people, you can only love them'. And Willem and Harold and many more did. And they did save him repeatedly in many ways, in more ways than he ever dreamt of being saved at all. 

There is a lot more I could say and will probably think of – so I will perhaps add to this in the future. But for now I just want to get some of my thoughts up and thank you to the publisher, Picador (UK) and NetGalley for the ARC. I think you need to be warned when you pick up this book, that you may not be the same when you finish it – and whether that is for better or for worse, is dependent on you. If there is a word to epitomise A Little Life in every way - it is this:


Some of my favourite quotes/excerpts from A Little Life

  •  He wished, as he often did, that the entire sequence—the divulging of intimacies, the exploring of pasts—could be sped past, and that he could simply be teleported to the next stage, where the relationship was something soft and pliable and comfortable, where both parties’ limits were understood and respected
  • It would have been too melodramatic, too final, to say that after this JB was forever diminished for him. But it was true that for the first time, he was able to comprehend that the people he had grown to trust might someday betray him anyway, and that as disappointing as it might be, it was inevitable as well, and that life would keep propelling him steadily forward, because for everyone who might fail him in some way, there was at least one person who never would.
  • Always, there are people asking him if he misses what it had never occurred to him to want, never occurred to him he might have.
  • Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle? And so who could blame him for hoping for one more, for hoping that despite knowing better, that despite biology, and time, and history, that they would be the exception, that what happened to other people with Jude’s sort of injury wouldn’t happen to him, that even with all that Jude had overcome, he might overcome just one more thing?
  •  If I acknowledge that I am disabled, then I’ll have conceded to Dr Traylor, then I’ll have let Dr Traylor determine the shape of my life. And so I pretend I’m not; I pretend I am how I was before I met him. And I know it’s not logical or practical. But mostly, I’m sorry because—because I know it’s selfish. I know my pretending has consequences for you so –I’m going to stop.’ He takes a breath, closes and opens his eyes. ‘I’m disabled,’ he says. ‘I’m handicapped’ and as foolish as it is-he is forty-seven after all; he has had thirty-two years to admit this to himself-he feels himself about to cry.
  • This, he thinks, is his punishment for depending on others: one by one, they will leave him, and he will be alone again, and this time it will be worse because he will remember it had once been better.
  • It was precisely these scenes he missed the most from his own life with Willem, the forgettable, in-between moments in which nothing seemed to be happening but whose absence was singularly unfillable.
  •  And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible-he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened or become more resilient? Was his life even hiss to choose to live any longer? He had known, ever since the hospital, that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be a more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others: that, to him, was always the most compelling argument. The fact was, he did owe Harold. He did owe Willem. And if they wanted him to stay alive, then he would. At the time, as he slogged through day after day, his motivations had been murky to him, but now he could recognise that he had done it for them, and that rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all he hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually, he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy, even. But it hadn’t begun that way.
  •  And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the same and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities... for the luxury of tendernesses, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it.
  • That he died so alone is more than I can think of; that he died thinking that he owed us an apology is worse; that he died still stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself—after you, after me, after all of who loved him—makes me think that my life has been a failure after all, that I have failed at the one thing that counted.
  • ‘You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.’
  • ‘Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?”
  • And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. “You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. “You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. “You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. “You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. “You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”’