In 2015, Hanya Yanigara did not win the National Book Award for her astonishing novel of childhood trauma, A Little Life. And although it doesn’t exactly fit with this series to focus on the non-winners, but I’ve been so enraptured and consumed by this horrifying novel that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Two weeks ago, my wife read A Little Life. She cried, gasped and even sobbed while she read it in a mad spree of near-constant reading. I picked it up the day she left off. And I feel headlong into the same compulsive experience.
A quick synopsis:
There are four college roommates—Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB—who all go on to immense success in a variety of fields. But as the year’s pass, Jude’s childhood traumas, and his inability to talk about them or deal with them in any meaningful way, continue to bubble up to the surface. The friendships are handled with delicacy and care, and the various characters, except perhaps Malcolm, are finely drawn. The novel follows them for close to 50 years of their lives.
Time passes, everyone is rich and successful, New York is amazing, and the actual struggles most people have—the stuff of real life, no matter how big or little—are mostly elided. But it doesn’t matter, and might even be part of what Yanigara is up to, as Jude’s self-loathing and self-disgust are the twin engines of much of the novel. The novel is about Jude’s suffering, and how his traumas impact the decent and caring people around him.
Yanigara’s latched on to something profound. Maybe. The story is propulsive, but in a tormented and disgusting parade of suffering, pain, suffering, pain, self-loathing, disgust, suffering, pain, all punctuated by moments of human warmth and decency. She writes in the Stephen King style, fun to read and sliding back and forth through time, when convenient for the author. This isn’t a criticism, but rather something interesting in a novel so ballyhooed. (She was, after all, short-listed for both the Man-Booker and a finalist for the National Book Award.)
She writes well. She’s a natural storyteller, creating strong scenes. And if she lacks the zip and pow of the fiction I enjoy reading, the dissonant dialogue, or the jangly electric shock of a character’s sudden shift in attitude or behavior (I just finished Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, which is all of these things and more), she’s still a very fine writer. A sense of inevitable doom hangs over everything, and she does little to cut against it. There is little humor, and some of the subplots go nowhere.
So, I continued to read it out of a disturbing desire to see what fucked up thing the author was going to subject Jude to next. Base prurience. And this would be brilliant, if she were forcing me to interrogate this desire to see a fictional character suffer. (Go see Funny Games, if you want to know what I mean.) But there is no meta-fictional satire or challenge to the reader. It’s basic presentation, layered onto social situations where Jude, as an adult, is reliving over and over the traumas of his childhood. It works, only there’s so much dread and suffering, it begins to lose its power. By the time she cuts loose with her inner DeSade, ecstatically delineating the rape and mutilation of Jude as a child, it feels obscene. And not in a good way. Great art is as much about what isn’t on the page, and here, by her uncompromising and unflinching encyclopedic exploration of Jude’s various disasters, it loses its power and its shock. It’s almost funny—if you see excess on the page as a kind of over-the-top carny show, especially when gussied up with literary window dressing—how much horror she heaps on her main character. The near-relentless degradation of Jude reads like parts of Oldboy, or some sado-masochistic paperback pulp novel from the 1950s.
But she writes the scenes of abuse with such precision, it’s difficult to dismiss. Here he’s discovered by a character who narrates a few sections in the first person:
“He turned toward me then, and his face was an animal skinned and turned inside out and left in the heat, its organs melting together in a puddle of flesh: all I could see of his eyes were their long line of lashes, a smudge of black against his cheeks, which were a horrible blue, the blue of decay, of mold.”
Or here, later:
“At lunchtime he changes the bandage he had applied the night before, and as he eases it off, his skin tears as well, and he stuffs his pocket square into his mouth so he won’t scream out loud. But things are falling out of his arm, clots with the consistency of blood but the color of coal, and he sits on the floor of his bathroom, rocking himself back and forth, his stomach heaving forth old foods and acids, his arm heaving forth its own disease, its own excretia.”
There’s always more, more, more. More suffering. More degradation. More damage. All rendered in a direct, descriptive and compelling style.
And she pulls it off, up to a point. In fact, up to a point, A Little Life is one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time. But Yanagihara lost me with this sentence, right here: “At the home, they knew what he was, they knew what he had done, they knew he was ruined already, and so he wasn’t surprised when some of the counselors began doing to him what people had been doing to him for years.”
Let me unpack it for you: Jude has been beaten, raped, assaulted, debased, degraded his entire life. And then, after he’s been saved from a pimp, the counselors and therapists who are assigned to help him, they decide, oh, well, let’s just rape him some more. It isn’t just highly implausible—that this particular boy has the worst luck in the history of the world—it becomes nigh impossible, the endless succession of sexual predators who work in the field of childcare and mental health. And without plausibility, a novel about the effects of trauma falls apart.
This passage cut into the verisimilitude of Yanagihara’s novel, and turns any metaphor into mush. It isn’t enough for Jude to be betrayed, beaten, savaged and raped; he has to be subjected to these things by everyone. That isn’t the way the world works, and it isn’t the way her novel works, either; she’s breaking the very rules she’s created in the first 400+ pages. Two, and this is a stranger critique, I don’t think a writer should pummel his/her characters with endless horror for no particular reason. There is still some type of moral structure, I believe, in fictional worlds. Most writers, when pressed, agree on this. Roberto Bolaño, for example, had this great realization that he would never kill another child in a story or novel again, not after having his own children. He found the idea indecent. And Bolaño was, anyone can attest, not a prude.
Then there’s the sexuality. The horror of it. Yanagihara captures Jude’s disgust, with himself and with all sexual acts, well. But she seems unsure of her own writing prowess, returning to it over and over. As if to re-iterate and reinforce the psychological bedrock of her novel. It grows tedious. And inelegant. And long.
Here’s a line that threw me, too: “. . . he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had.” Um, what? Is there some immense colony of bi-sexual men hiding in plain sight? Yanagihara has already established the sexuality of her characters. Five hundred pages in, all of a sudden? It isn’t just a strange writing choice; it harms the novel’s central relationship. This surfeit of shifting bi-sexuality distracts from the love and affection many of the characters share with each other. As if Yanigahara lives in a world where sexual preferences are obsolete and a thing of the past. A place where people can just jump into bed with lifelong friends.
It’s excess of a different type. And excess in fiction is its own worst enemy. Any act becomes tedious when repeated, ad nauseum, in print. Restraint is needed.
Every novel over 300 pages has problems of one kind or another; it’s inherent in the epic form. Yanagihara hints at an answer of her over-the-top trauma, pointing to Jude’s damaged psyche—so hollowed out and ruined—that the narrative itself has taken on skewered and nightmarish dimensions. (But, honestly, I’m being generous.)
And just as I was ready to toss the book aside, with only 75 pages to go, she reigns it back in, switching the tone to somber meditation, ruminating on the feeling of loss and the passing of life. The epic sweep of the book is re-installed; the other characters offer glimpses of their own trials and tribulations. The horror of the flashbacks solidifies. The demons in Jude’s life don’t diminish, but gain power with time. She pulls it all back together, reigns in the squalor, and
The book is moving, heart-rending, one of the saddest literary journeys I’ve been on. The writing is strong—it’s hard to write about it without misrepresenting either its power or how much you care about the characters, and even my criticisms above seem bitchy when thinking about the novel as a whole—but I kept feeling like I was being punished for caring about the characters. Which is a very strange feeling indeed. The ultimate theme of the book seems to be, you can’t escape your past; life is (mostly) suffering. But this feels like a copout, and too philosophically tidy, when extended over 750 pages. Everyone who reads the book says the same thing: it’s punishing, powerful, I wish I hadn’t read it. The last 60 pages, in particular, captures the feelings of loss and melancholy as well as any novel I’ve read. It’s a shattering. The closest thing I can think of is Michel Houellbecq’s The Elementary Particles, or Richard Flanagan’s The Long Road To the Narrow North, or perhaps Bela Tarr’s film, The Turin Horse. But Houellbecq’s novel is short (if not probably grimmer and harder to get through), and Flanagan’s novel has dozens of characters and shifting points of view.
Anyway, here, near the end, are two passages that broke me up:
“His life is a series of dreary patterns.” (Does it matter which character she’s describing?)
And, “ . . . it feels as if his heart is made of something oozing and cold, like ground meat, and it is being squeezed inside a fist so that chunks of it are falling, plopping to the ground near his feet.” Who hasn’t felt this way? I can’t remember the last novel I read that exactly evoked the precise mood I had experienced. (But here’s a weird one, Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion, where a character feels he is about to be captured and killed, and turns to the character next to him and says, “Tell me the most beautiful thing you know about God.”)
So many novels feels closer to gnomic puzzles, or ironic experiments in narcissism, or cutesy semantic labyrinths. The trend in serious novels is to cut against the novel’s themes through a variety of signposts of authorial inaccuracy or narrative deconstruction. A little voice saying, “You’re reading a novel, you know.”
Yanagihara rejects this trend, staking the entire apparatus of her novel on the emotional resonances of the characters. It’s a risky move, and mostly pays off.
But my recommendation comes with a warning, straight from my wife, who got me to read it in the first place: “I can’t really recommend it to anyone. Not in good conscience.”