Masterpiece or soap opera? The aptly and yet ironically named novel A Little Life (it’s literally the size of a brick) has swept across the US and Europe with much fanfare, so much that its author, the otherwise unknown Hanya Yanagihara, appeared at this year’s Louisiana Literature. Here, two Arkers present you with each their own review of the book, leaving you to decide whether you want to plough your way through its 720 pages or use their witty words to pretend that you read it.
I’m generally a sucker for contemporary American fiction that deals with college graduates (Purity), New York (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and a motley crew of characters (anything by David Foster Wallace). So when someone packages them all into one book that is received in the press as if it were a gift from above, I’m already at the bookstore buying the thing. And what a thing! This book stole a week out of my life, and I have not yet decided whether I emerged having read a masterpiece or a soap opera.
Yanagihara takes the reader through the life of four friends in New York City – Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm – though mainly focusing on Jude, the enigmatic lawyer with lots and lots of baggage. The pacing of the book is brilliant. It seems to take on a life of its own that marvellously captures the feeling of moving through time, and makes perfect sense of the title A Little Life. Though the book starts with describing the action through the eyes of each of the four friends, it slowly moves to focus on Jude and his best friend Willem. In the end, everything is about Jude. And in the end, this is a little exhausting … which is perhaps the brilliance of the whole thing. Just like Jude, I felt there were simply times when I could not go on with the book, with his life. It was too heavy.
However, the downside of a 700+ page novel is that I started to notice Yanagihara’s sleight of hand. The shifts from present tense and into flashbacks became predictable, and the unveiling of Jude’s story became a foreseeable process of dangling cliffhangers and slow revelations. I got annoyed that all the characters become insanely rich and famous (I mean, why?) and that the masculinity of the novel’s universe remains unquestioned (there are only very peripheral female characters, as the majority of relationships in this book are homoesexual, though I suppose is also a fine thing in itself).
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an engrossing reading experience, and is willing to sacrifice quite a lot of hours for it, but not to someone who wants a book to leave them with new perspectives and knowledge. Unless, of course, you are completely clueless about New York, childhood trauma, friendship, riches and fame.
Are some humans beyond repair? Can shame kill you? Can love save you? Big questions, asked brilliantly and melodramatically by Hanya Yanagihara in her new novel A Little Life.
I started reading A Little Life, perfectly in the mood for a smart and funny “Friends in New York” kind of story, but soon I found myself in the dark, doubting the power of love. After having followed the New York lives of the four friends Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, the book suddenly turns its focus on Jude, the mysterious, fascinating and almost angel-like lawyer. And from this point on, watch out. You now have the responsibility to stick with Jude. Growing darker by every page, the book now shows us a life of a broken human (or is he?). Through flashbacks and shifts in time and form, we encounter a past of gut-wrenching trauma, and a present of lethal shame and self harm. It is painful and the most uncomfortable parts are repeated in an almost rhythmical and melodic fashion. Is it too much? Yes. But none the less, you have to stick with Jude, because your are all he has. As Yanagihara put it, when I met her for a talk at this year’s Louisiana Literature: “…it [the book] dears you – as a human – to stay with someone through circumstances you rather not see.”
As much as the focus of the book makes a sudden shift, so does the form. From cool and collected to a melodramatic opera. Soap opera even. And the characters too turn more and more unreal, almost fairytale-like. At first I was annoyed by this sudden shift (where did the cool go?!), but by giving in I was both fascinated and happy with the rare opportunity, at least as a reader of modern American and Scandinavian literature, to be allowed a literary swallow dive into great emotions. The lack of irony took some time getting used to, but – again – hang in there.
The over 700 pages gives room and time for both the above mentioned swallowing in a hurt self (a textbook in shame!), as well as a sociological picture of modern relationships and new ways of living. Yanagihara enthusiastically salutes and promotes friendship as the modern alternative to the heteronormative family. “The ultimately flexible and capacious relationship,” she says. And the single New York author is quite convincing in her quest – at least I’m buying it. (Great, now I am doubting both love and my upcoming wedding).
And then there are the men. They’re all men, the women are more or less absent, which seems as quite the statement from the author. It begs the question if shame, doubt and great emotions in and between men are more intriguing without the presence of women. Yanagihara seems to think so. Nevertheless, I was definitely intrigued.
Read! And keep reading.