#182: CAVEAT LECTOR. When Hanya Yanagihara published her novel A Little Life (Anchor Books, 2015) she stumbled into one of those artistic scraps that happen sometimes, in this case between critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who derided both the violence visited upon one of its characters, its description at 800-page length, and the artistic gifts ascribed to the quartet of friends who are the book’s protagonists, and Yanagihara’s editor, Gerald Howard, who took issue with some of the phrasing in Mendelsohn’s critique. It is certainly an argument that, I imagine, every reader will take sides on. The book was elsewhere characterized as torture porn, and yet was both a large critical success and very much taken up by readers. My own question is, finally, how do you go about recommending what may be the single most painful novel I have ever read? A little misrepresentation, a little slipping to one side or the other, and you’re going to say something either monstrous or foolish.
The novel follows a quartet of young men from their college days into middle age, and is full of details of their everyday concerns, “sex and food and sleep and friends and money and fame,” the temperature of those concerns being a little raised by living in New York City. JB is a gay black artist, Malcolm a biracial architect who comes from privilege and who has safety nets the others don’t; Willem is a sweet-natured man who gains fame as a film actor. Jude, the most secretive and reserved of the group, shows an unexpected talent and ferocity as a corporate lawyer, and emerges from the group as the central story of the book. It is the slow revelation of Jude’s past life, as an orphan who has endured a long, varied and violent abuse that clings to him like a parasite, that was the subject of dismay. It is no coincidence, I assume, that Jude shares a name with Thomas Hardy’s most unfortunate and elaborately doomed character. It reminded me of the gratitude I have occasionally felt for the restraints that Victorian rectitude occasionally imposed on Dickens’s darker imaginings, which skate so often around the edges of nightmare.
Another of the objections to the book Mendelsohn made was to Jude’s “improbable array of compensatory expertises,” which indeed get shared out to the entire group. They all, after much effort, achieve success in their fields; there is one highly amusing scene in which Willem, who has become accustomed to celebrity as an actor, goes to a corporate picnic where it is Jude, not himself, who is sought out and fawned over. I’m willing to say Yanagihara may overshoot in this matter, though it could as easily be argued that their talents are part of the group’s mutual attraction; I’m also willing to say I can live with it. I don’t think A Little Life is a book you go to for perfection, but for the tidal narrative pull that can drag you past the imperfect parts as they do in Hardy and Dickens.
If you stick it out, or if, like me, you found yourself immersed in the story to the point that it follows you around and envelops you for the time you’re reading it, by all means hang in until the end; it’s here that Yanagihara shows her hand, and accomplishes something that I don’t know that I’ve seen done before in fiction. Part of her range as a writer is that she can write convincingly of great acts of loyalty and generosity, and the book is never just a parade of monstrosities. The closest I can come to characterizing what she accomplishes is this: decades ago a critic (whose name I wish I could remember and quote) wrote of “King Lear” that the question in “Lear” is not whether evil can defeat good, for it certainly can, but to ask whether the good is truly, ineluctably, the good. How Yanagihara constructs and demonstrates her answer to this question does require her “Lear”-like storms and buffetings. She desolates us; but the lights we have seen we also will not forget.
I leave you to your decisions.