Thursday, 27 August 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara



published 2015



Little Life UK
Little Life US








I very rarely write about books I don’t like, unless they have high entertainment value and the author won't care. And I don’t usually do straight reviews, but I am making an exception in this case to make an unusual point. For this reason, I am not dealing with the clothes in the book, and there is no fashion illustration for the blogpost. The images above are the UK and US covers of the book. And the author for sure won't care, she's done very well with it. 

One of the features of A Little Life that I didn’t like is that it is way, way too long - more than 700 pages -  and that the claim by the author and editor that it couldn’t be made shorter is simply not true.

I’d have done it for them. 

(The lovely online magazine Slate - for whom I used to work - simply encouraged them both by giving them this space to discuss not editing it: they’d have been better employed spending the time getting on with the red pencilling.)

The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.

It’s also disconcertingly unreal: though given a very thorough geographical placing – largely Manhattan and Massachusetts – the timing is completely non-existent. The novel covers more than 50 years, but all of it seems to be happening right now (in terms of, say, technology) and never, in terms of events in the outside world. Or convincingness. It starts as though it is going to be the story of four college graduates, close friends, making their way in New York in different professions. Two of the friends get ditched by the author – we know almost nothing of them, the odd page or two over the course of this very long book. The novel is actually about Jude who –

 
SLIGHT SPOILER BUT REVEALED IN EVERY SINGLE REVIEW
 

--- spent his childhood subjected to the most terrible sexual and physical abuse. Having met not one person in his first 16 years who could either help or protect him or even just refrain from mistreating him, he now spends the next 40 years surrounded (equally unconvincingly) by people (with one exception) who love him, who adore him, who will do anything for him.

All this is quite ridiculous, along with the fact that everyone is terribly good-looking and quite bizarrely successful in their lives, and those who were not fabulously wealthy to begin with become so through those well-known moneymaking pursuits of acting and art.

You can say that this is a fable, a parable, a fairytale (there are strange echoes of the Little Mermaid) – but then the author seems to want to have it both ways, with this ludicrous world on the one hand, but Jude demanding our pity and sorrow on the other. We are asked to believe in his story. I didn’t. The book left me unmoved by its attempts to show the love and kindness of his friends.

But my major objection to this book is something different. What I hated about it was the complete lack of a true moral framework. The author’s attitude is that what happened to Jude is dreadful because he is a beautiful clever sensitive boy.

This underlying assumption – that he didn’t deserve this because of who he was - is appalling, because of the flipside, that it all wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Jude wasn’t so attractive. (To be clear: Yanagihara never overtly says this, but I think it is an inescapable conclusion from her line of writing.) That goes against everything I believe in. If we don’t at least try to believe that all humans are worthwhile, and work and live with that assumption, then we are lost.

In addition, Jude can only be helped by money, success, fame, networking, other beautiful people. Everything that helps him is the result of money: this is one of the most materialist books I have ever read. I think that is why I winced at quite a number of things in the book but (unlike other readers and reviewers) I did not find it affecting or moving or profound. I found the character of Jude’s great friend Willem completely unreal, and the endless kindness and affection handed out by him and others to Jude nearly as unconvincing as the bad times the author put him through in his earlier life.

I have rarely felt so strongly about the morals in a book, particularly one that appears to demand our sympathy for a bad situation.

I thought the ghoulish descriptions of the abuse were vile and unnecessary and pointless – it isn’t real, and it is quite unbelievable, so why is it so detailed and unrelenting? Yanagihara wanted, presumably, to invent and write about Jude, and to imagine what it would be like to be him – but she didn’t fulfil her contract with the reader by making this worth our attention.

There are other absurdities: The author seems to have decided to emulate Hilary Mantel by using the pronoun ‘he’ for Jude – but this is just confusing and messy (and inconsistent - in the para below, the first 'he' is Willem). When Mantel did it in Wolf Hall, where if in doubt, ‘he’ means Thomas Cromwell, it was clever and persuasive.

Then there are the stupid names, with characters called Citizen & Contractor. The whole adoption scenario. The fact that there are virtually no women in the book. The endless repetitions of very similar scenes. The complete lack of any humour or wit. The observations on modern life shoe-horned in for no reason. The completely unbelievable set of lawsuits at the end of the book, making no sense on any level - including, yet again, morality. The paragraphs like this:
JB has been on a fellowship in Italy for the past six months, and Malcolm and Sophie have been so busy with the construction of a new ceramics museum in Shanghai that the last time they saw them all was in April, in Paris - he was filming there, and Jude had come in from London, where he was working, and JB in from Rome, and Malcolm and Sophie  had laid over for a couple of days on their way back to New York.
The US cover of the book – above right – seems both horrible and eminently suitable for the contents: unsubtle, forcing the story, insisting on something to the reader, shouting at the reader.

If I want to read a story about a man having a hard life I will re-read the Book of Job from the Old Testament.

















20 comments:

  1. Wow. This really sounds terrible. And the bit you quoted is really teeth-on-edge grating. I can almost feel the droning nasal monotone in which it's read.

    Is it non-politically correct to ask if it's just REALLY badly Google-translated from another language?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, there is no such excuse, it was written in English! This is a book that has divided readers and reviewers, I know many people got something out of it. But not me, and it sounds as though you shouldn't bother either....

      Delete
  2. You know, after reading your review, Moira, the thing that stays with me the most is the sense that Jude didn't deserve this because of who he was. Taking that logic further, the conclusion is both unescapable (to me, anyway) and appalling. On that score alone I wouldn't want to read this. Add to that the length (Really? 700+ pages?) and the brutality, and I see no redemptive value in it. Stories, at least to me, are supposed to have a purpose, if I can put it that way. It may be to entertain, to make a point, to speak out on an issue, or something else. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. Well, perhaps the point is that abuse is wrong, but if it is, then it doesn't sound as though the point was made effectively! My TBR remains safe....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very nicely put Margot. I don't like laying into books, but in this case I felt very strongly - and as I say, it's not as if she's going to be affected by my views. But I think you are not missing anything by skipping this one....

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. ...and positive encouragement for that from me....

      Delete
  4. Moira: "Everybody counts or nobody counts" - Harry Bosch.

    Always grateful for information to save me even the trouble of looking at the book in a bookstore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Bill - what a wonderful and succinct way of putting it. Good old Harry!

      Delete
  5. This is the kind of review that would make me want to read it for myself just to see... except that it is too long to waste my time on based on your reaction. And it doesn't have a mystery to lure me in. And it sounds self-indulgent. I haven't heard of the book or the author and probably not likely to know anyone who will read it. My librarian friends read from every genre just because and read tons of books, but I don't think even they will lean toward this. Very interesting departure for you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's definitely the book-of-the-moment in the UK right now, and has been short-listed for a big literary prize. The author is doing a book tour here, and I am waiting to hear from friends who went to a talk by her - apparently she is very persuasive and intelligent. But I think she should take her talents and use them on a different kind of subject...

      Delete
  6. A contrary view...I am reading it, with difficulty, while trekking on foot across Spain, and am finding it an unputdownable page-turner. And I am generally extremely averse to overlong and unedited books which could be a lot shorter. For me this book does not come into that category.
    The author is on BBC Radio 4 arts programme this evening - Front Row - which will be available on website. I look forward to hearing her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was surprised that I was able to carry on reading it - she certainly had a talent for making it readable. She is all over the place in the UK right now, a very solid book tour. The book was reviewed on the Saturday evening R4 prog (Saturday Review?) recently.

      Delete
  7. Seems positively designed too for a blog called, "Interior design in Books"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was trying not to mention the absurdity of the enormous apartment he is helped to obtain, but it was very convenient when he wanted to play Bach piano music in the middle of the night, as there were apparently no near neighbours. Such a typical Manhattan experience.

      Delete
  8. I have read or heard a few reviews of this book - some just on Twitter, some full-length - and nobody is on the fence! Everybody says it's one of the best or one of the worst books they've read. I have to say - those saying it is terrible are far more convincing. And your post is the best argued, and most well-written, of the ones I've seen - so consider my convinced!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Simon - I appreciate that! It is a book that divides people, and some readers I really respect do like it. But I have rarely felt such a strong reaction against a literary novel with serious intent....

      Delete
  9. Yes to everything you say here. I hadn't thought of your point about the amorality surrounding Jude's abuse because of who he is--I hadn't picked up on that undercurrent, although I certainly noticed his beauty and sometimes got a sense that people were hypnotized by it to either abuse him or shower him with love and houses. But a flip side to your point is how the extreme abuse he suffers makes light of actual trauma real people experience. Of course someone who is abused by everyone he meets in childhood will be unable to cope (yet somehow earn multiple degrees and become a high-powered attorney), but what about a person who self-harms after just one instance of abuse? Well, that person is just a wimp compared to Jude. There's a sense of cause and effect there that really bothered me. Also, I've seen lots of reviews talking about how its outside time and place, but it treats the Northeast U.S. as the only place in the world where everyone isn't a monster. Jude is safe once he gets there, and his late-in-life abuser is clearly an outsider, and Willem, despite originally coming from out west, becomes very much a prototypical New Yorker. That Northeastern snobbery stands hand-in-hand with the materialism you talked about.

    Her first book is a favorite of mine. It's disciplined and beautifully structured. This felt sloppy and indulgent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Teresa for your thoughtful and illuminating comments. I totally agree. But am fascinated that you liked her first one - I hadn't intended to read it, but perhaps I should....

      Delete
  10. "I’d have done it for them." - I'm still giggling over that. Have you thought about sending it back marked up? ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an excellent idea, and perhaps include an invoice for my valuable time. ...

      Delete