And it started out so well! The writing is actually gorgeous. I can see why many, many people like this book. Really, Hanya Yanagihara knows how to use language. Unfortunately, the story she told was not worthy of it. The longer I read this book, the more I dreaded reading it, the worse my feelings got as I read, and the more I hated it for existing. Then I read a bunch of interviews by her and hated the book even more.
The long and short of it is that this book is nothing but misery porn, on purpose. (Here’s a Vulture interview where she talks about the inspiration for writing the book to create a book version of ombré cloth, which if you’re not familiar, by the time you get to the end is pitch black. Yeah, let’s make art that will stain our souls!!!!!)
Nothing in life is positive, there is only human suffering, true connection is impossible, predators will always find and ruin truly good people, everything is evil, the people who love you are not enough to save you, and your happiness will turn to ashes in your mouth. The End.
Fuck. This. Book.
There is a lot more that I could say about this book but I don’t think I have enough time or space. Other people have criticized more articulately the implications of the way Yanagihara treats her gay characters, who exist seemingly only to suffer (while paradoxically others have praised it as the great gay novel). She also stated in several other interviews her desire to write a character so broken he couldn’t be fixed, which she accomplishes in her protagonist Jude. Some have called this a melodrama, and that seems accurate. Everything is over the top, but stated in such bald and beautiful prose that it doesn’t feel that way at the time. Instead, these larger than life events are made to seem trite and commonplace. Yes, there are bad priests in the Catholic church. Yes, the church covered this up. Do I think it’s likely that an entire abbey full of Franciscans (the most peaceable and loving sect in Catholicism) would not only participate in child molestation, but condone it almost openly? Hell no.
The real deal breaker for me was when I paused midway through the novel to read an interview where Yanagihara stated her criticism of psychiatry as a way to treat mental illness. The implication that some people are too broken to help and we should just let them die is so, so harmful, and in no way does it help to eradicate the stigma against mental illness in this country. We should not be telling “broken” people it’s okay to die. We should be telling them they are not alone in their suffering, and help them find ways to cope with their illnesses and traumas. I will admit I checked out of the book then, and it was only a matter of time before I gave up and spoiled myself on the rest of it, so I wouldn’t have to torture myself mentally any further.
Glad I did, because the end of this book is a big rusty nail up the butt.
This one from the London Review of Books is my favorite review of the book I’ve read so far. Let me quote my favorite part:
“He wishes he too could forget, that he too could choose never to consider Caleb again. Always, he wonders why and how he has let four months – four months increasingly distant from him – so affect him, so alter his life. But then, he might as well ask – as he often does – why he has let the first 15 years of his life so dictate the past 28.”
The answer, of course, is that it’s Yanagihara’s design. That’s why it’s good to know that Jude is entirely her concoction, not a figure based on testimony by survivors of child rape, clinical case studies or anything empirical. I found Jude an infuriating object of attention, but resisted blaming the victim. I blame the author.
A Little Life has received some ecstatic reviews. The most intriguing of these is the novelist Garth Greenwell’s in the Atlantic, which argues that it’s the long-awaited ‘great gay novel’: ‘It engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,’ he writes. ‘By violating the canons of current literary taste, by embracing melodrama and exaggeration and sentiment, it can access emotional truths denied more modest means of expression.’ Perhaps I’m in thrall to current literary taste, but the only character in A Little Life who seems possessed of anything like ‘emotional truths’ or a sense of irony, the only supporting player in this elaborately ethnically diverse cast who doesn’t seem like a stereotypical middle-class striver plucked out of 1950s cinema, is JB. He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?
I think what makes the most angry about this book is that I do see flashes of brilliance in it. Images I loved, earned emotions. Early on in the novel, one character muses about being a guest in his own life. Another talks about photography in terms that made me stop in my tracks and pause the audiobook just so I think about what she’d written. Later, the relationship between Jude and his adoptive father and the love his adoptive father has for him made me cry. But all of that doesn’t matter, when the end result is what we’re given.
What it comes down to the fact that pain was the only point, and I think that is reprehensible.