Saturday, August 8, 2015

Shelving: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This book is heavy, and I don't mean the weight of its 700+ pages. I'm used to postmodernist writers who mine the dark territory of abuse, but always with an eye for the absurd. There is no levity here, just straightforward emotional manipulation, albeit more artfully crafted than any novel I've read in years.

One reviewer said she expected this to be a male version of The Interestings and Mary McCarthy's The Group, and A Little Life definitely follows the trend of decade-spanning, character-centered narrative, but the fantastical bent makes it an uncomfortable fit.

Yanagihara's books has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, but the abject horror of the abuse suffered by Jude, one of the central characters, makes it a difficult -- and unbelievable -- read. From The Guardian:
As its focus on Jude intensifies, the novel stops being what made it unusual and begins to make great demands on our pity for him. His first 15 years consist of unrelieved, grotesque, extravagant abuse: and then an authorial switch is flipped. For the rest of his life (with the important exception of one disastrously abusive relationship), Jude encounters only selfless love and kindness: the patron saint of lost causes becomes a lost cause surrounded by saints. His friends are all very concerned with Jude, to the exclusion of being concerned about anyone else, including themselves. There is something unsettlingly infantile and narcissistic about this pre-Copernican conception of Jude’s world, a fantasy construction in which the people who love him are as endlessly occupied by his psychodrama as he is. In real life, people tend to get tired of other people’s repetition compulsions, largely because they are consumed by their own dramas. But this is a little life that tilts toward a large fairy tale, about cruelty and nobility, evil and goodness. Indeed, it is something of a triumph to make characters as relentlessly virtuous as Jude’s friends seem even remotely believable, their affection for him as moving as it is. Willem’s absolute goodness, in particular, functions only to throw into relief the desperation of Jude – and yet it is somehow touching, all the same.