* I will try to not give away too much of the plot but the videos below, although all of them excellent, may contain one or two big spoilers. *
In my photographic post on motels from October 7, 2016, I mentioned that I was reading the novel A Little Life. I guess I have some thoughts to offer now. Firstly, A Little Life (2015) – the second novel of New York-based Hanya Yanagihara (born 1975, Hawaiian ancestry) – is a sleeper hit. Yanagihara, who has worked for Condé Nast Traveler and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, published her first novel The People in the Trees in 2013. Although critically acclaimed, it wasn’t a commercial success. The author had spent 18 years on it.
A Little Life, on the other hand, interestingly, was written “in a feverish state” over a period of 18 months. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award finalist, the 700+ novel has, as of today, obtained 54,781 ratings on Goodreads. The sales have defied expectations of both the publisher and the author. The original target was 5000 copies – distributed to a small but very passionate audience.
The book has polarised readers. Jon Michaud of The New Yorker appreciated it for its “subversive brilliance” and Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic deemed it an astonishing “chronicle of queer life in America” whereas Christian Lorentzen in The London Review of Books, finding it overpraised and infuriating, enquired: “What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” “Tragedy porn”, “miserabilist epic” – these are some of the negative descriptive terms going around.
I decided to read the book not for the controversy or the hype, the reactions or the reviews but because I found the author exceptionally articulate and composed – even kind and compassionate – in her interviews, both written and recorded. Confidence sells. There’s a second reason too – the book has at its centre, the issue of male child sex abuse and over the past two years or so, I have, accidentally, stumbled upon several cases of the same on social media. Here are three harrowing stories of grown men recounting the horror that was visited upon them by authority figures belonging to institutions wherein they were supposed to be cared for – the foster home [America (Humans of New York)], the church [Australia (ABC)] and one’s own family [India (Humans of Bombay)]. Right from the very beginning, females know that they are the tender ones and this makes many of them, to some extent, prepared for the possibility of assault. I wonder if males, who are instructed early that they must assume the roles of protectors and guardians, are in a position to easily face and voice their suffering if their bodies are violated on the sexual front. The brokenness they feel, although it might not necessarily be greater in degree, is certainly of a different kind when compared to that of the other gender. Of course, some might recover but many male victims of child sex abuse simply prefer to remain silent. Several go on to destroy themselves, sometimes way into their 40s and 50s. Child abuse, Yanagihara has said, is the worst possible abuse of power because it is a “very uneven game of chess”.
A Little Life is the story of four friends who first meet at a Massachusetts college – the handsome Willem Ragnarsson of Icelandic-Danish parentage, Jean-Baptiste Marion aka J.B. of Haitian descent, the biracial Malcolm Irvine and Jude St. Francis of unknown origins. In the beginning of the story, they are adrift and broke in New York City but over the subsequent decades each is terrifically successful – Willem an actor, J.B. an artist, Malcolm an architect and Jude a lawyer (also an expert in pure mathematics). All this might not look too credible but the attention-grabbing extravagance is intentional. Also, the book is pretty atemporal. Even though it is set in what looks like contemporary New York, it has been stripped of recent historical events that have hit and shaped the metropolis – no reference to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s or 9/11 or the Wall Street crash of 2008. This is because the book is a blend of two genres – it is a “fairytale” (which is unhinged from history and wherein events and emotions are frequently exaggerated) merging with the form of the “contemporary naturalistic/realistic novel”. [Read this great Observer article “I wanted everything turned up a little too high“].
Anyway, the struggles and successes of Willem, J.B., Malcolm and Jude make up the crust of the narrative. The real core is the trauma suffered by Jude, who is called the “Post-man” because nobody knows anything about him. He is “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past”. Jude was basically a foundling taken in my monks and later, repeatedly raped and forced into prostitution. Through a combination of choice and chance, he is able to obtain a good college education. He is intelligent and ambitious and later, accomplished. As an adult, he is able to find a parent in his law professor Harold and lover in his friend Willem.
Yet he cuts himself, again and again. Fear and hatred are the only two qualities he possesses – fear of everyone else, hatred of himself. No matter how much he succeeds, trauma is an ever-present, active reality – it hides behind the curtain, it lies waiting in the next room or at the end of the corridor. There is a poignant irony to Jude St. Francis’s name. St. Jude is the patron of lost causes and if there ever was a man at home in the cosmos it has to be St. Francis of Assisi. Here, Jude St. Francis’s cause will never find any fulfillment and the universe will forever be an inhospitable wasteland for him.
All in all, A Little Life is a very grim book that looks into the possibilities and impossibilities of friendship and love along with the tyranny of memory and the limits of endurance. Over that, it is a “rude” book, the author herself admits, as in it does not care about the readers’ attention spans. Very “maximalist” in its melodrama. Why has it struck such a chord despite its relentless litany of pain and ghastly catalogue of violence? I think the interest isn’t random. The book raises the age-old problem of “innocent suffering”, roughly “why do bad things happen to good people?”, and attempts to circumvent it in a profound and beautiful manner. The great religious systems try to intellectually pacify us when we are disturbed by innocent suffering by hoping for some kind of ultimate resolution in the afterlife or finding an explanation in a cycle of past and future lives – but what if these organised tools of religious faith aren’t available to an individual? How must the disenchanted, who only believe that they live in a naked and lonely universe, try to make peace with the troubling issue? Yanagihara’s answer is simple but hardly shallow – not so much through philosophical rationalisation but by very detailed and immersive humanistic storytelling. I think this is one big reason why A Little Life has so quickly attained the status of a modern classic. It responds to a hidden but massive need of our time.
I highly recommend these videos –
Hanya Yanagihara at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne:
Hanya Yanagihara at the University Book Store, Seattle:
Hanya Yanagihara at Politics and Prose, Washington D.C.:
Featured: A Google street-view shot of houses on Lispenard Street, New York (edited), a location mentioned in A Little Life.