Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of those books that someone recommends passionately, with italics and exclamation marks, "You have to read this!" Then you do read it, struggle for days or months with the book hangover and wish you could think of something more articulate to tell your other friends, but it's no use. "You have to read this!"

The book's title feels like a bad joke, because the characters are colossal, but not because they are extraordinary. Their lives are monumental because Hanya Yanagihara has written them that way. She has drawn them with the miniscule detail that a Flemish painter lavishes on intricate lace collars and cuffs. She has explored their everyday heroism and their private mortifications. I feel that I know these fictional characters better than I know my own siblings (which of course says something about my own family dynamics, but you get the point.)  Some clever soul designed tote bags bearing the names of the four main characters and probably sold them at book signings and what-not. I have no doubt one could walk around in a great many places with this tote bag and have strangers running up and exclaiming, "Omigod, was that not an amazing book?"

Some critics have compared A Little Life to Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children or Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Yes, it's a story of college friends and what becomes of them after graduation, but the superficial similarity ends there. (That's not to denigrate either of the two latter books; I admired them both.)

JB is a painter, the son of Haitian immigrants who had thrived in the US; he struggles with his ethnic background just as he struggles to accept his own success when it comes.
He liked to pretend he was one of them, but he knew he was not. Sometimes there would be Haitians on the train, and he---his hearing, suddenly wolflike, distinguishing from the murmur around him the slurpy, singy sound of their Creole---would find himself looking toward them, to the two men with round faces like his father's, or to the two women with soft snubbed noses like his mother's. He always hoped that he might be presented with a completely organic reason to speak to them---maybe they'd be arguing about directions somewhere, and he might be able to insert himself and provide the answer---but there never was. Sometimes they would let their eyes scan across the seats, still talking to each other, and he would tense, ready his face to smile, but they never seemed to recognize him as one of their own. Which he wasn't, of course. Even he knew he had more in common with Asian Henry Young, with Malcolm, with Willem, or even with Jude, than he had with them. Just look at him: at Court Square he disembarked and walked the three blocks to the former bottle factory where he now shared studio space with three other people. Did real Haitians have studio space? Would it even occur to real Haitians to leave their large rent-free apartment, where they could have theoretically carved out their own corner to paint and doodle, only to get on a subway and travel half an hour (think how much work could be accomplished in those thirty minutes!) to a sunny dirty space? No, of course not. To conceive of such a luxury, you needed an American mind.
Compared to the other three, JB had enjoyed a comfortable, even lavish childhood, which, he notes, has left him relatively jaded.
He had been to Paris with his mother in junior high, and again with his class in high school, and between his sophomore and junior years of college, but it wasn't until he had seen Jude's and Willem's faces that he was able to most vividly realize not just the beauty of the city but its promise of enchantments. He envied this in them, this ability they had (though he realized that in Jude's case at least, it was a reward for a long and punitive childhood) to still be awestruck, the faith they maintained that life, adulthood, would keep presenting them with astonishing experiences, that their marvelous years were not behind them. 
Jude, arguably the story's central character, is a walking wound, both physically and emotionally. When he pairs up with a man who proves to be an abuser, the author gives us an uncomfortably sharp look at the dynamic that draws them together.
There is a sort of symmetry to his pairing with Caleb that makes sense: they are the damaged and the damager, the sliding heap of garbage and the jackal sniffing through it. They exist only to themselves---he has met no one in Caleb's life, and he has not introduced Caleb to anyone in his.
In a letter to Harold and Julia, the friends who adopted Jude as an adult, Willem discusses the challenge of coping with Jude's Janus-like personality---self-loathing on one hand, and a competent, successful lawyer and beloved friend on the other.
Equally difficult was my (and your) attempts to get him to abandon certain ideas about himself: about how he looked, and what he deserved, and what he was worth, and who he was. I have still never met anyone as neatly or severely bifurcated as he: someone who could be so utterly confident in some realms and so utterly despondent in others.
Beneath his tailored suits, Jude's limbs bear the marks of razor blades; he compulsively self-harms. His friends try as gently as possible to help him. They ask him to hand over the razor blades; they beg him to promise to call them when the compulsion strikes. They ask him why he does it at all.
"Jude," I said, "why do you do this to yourself?" For a long time, he was quiet, and I was quiet too. I listened to the sea.
Finally, he said, "A few reasons."
"Like what?"
"Sometimes it's because I feel so awful, or ashamed, and I need to make physical what I feel," he began, and glanced at me before looking down again. "And sometimes it's because I feel so many things and I need to feel nothing at all---it helps clear them away. And sometimes it's because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn't."
In his relationship with Harold (his adoptive father and former law school professor) and Julia, Jude sees the workings of a loving, healthy, strong relationship. Much as they nurture him, they also present the image of something that seems purely unattainable.
He is always reminded of a visit to Harold and Julia's he'd made years ago, when he had come down with a terrible cold and had wound up spending most of the weekend on the living-room sofa, wrapped in a blanket and sliding in and out of sleep. That Saturday evening, they had watched a movie together, and at one point, Harold and Julia had begun talking about the Truro house's kitchen renovation. He half dozed, listening to their quiet talk, which had been so dull that he couldn't follow any of the details but had also filled him with a great sense of peace: it had seemed to him the ideal expression of an adult relationship, to have someone with whom you could discuss the mechanics of a shared existence.
Willem, who becomes a successful actor, becomes Jude's confidante and then lover over time. It's through him that we learn much of Jude's history. Willem reflects on couples, especially those who live with each other's psychic injuries.
As you got older, you realized that the qualities you valued in the people you slept with or dated weren't necessarily the ones you wanted to live with, or be with, or plod through your days with. If you were smart, and if you were lucky, you learned this and accepted this. You figured out what was most important to you and you looked for it, and you learned to be realistic. They all chose differently: Roman had chosen beauty, sweetness, pliability; Malcolm, he thought, had chosen reliability, and competence (Sophie was intimidatingly efficient), and aesthetic compatibility. And he? He had chosen friendship. Conversation. Kindness. Intelligence. When he was in his thirties, he had looked at certain people's relationships and asked the question that had (and continued to) fuel countless dinner-party conversations: What's going on there? Now, though, as an almost-forty-eight-year-old, he saw people's relationships as reflections of their keenest yet most inarticulable desires, their hopes and insecurities taking shape physically, in the form of another person. Now he looked at couples---in restaurants, on the street, at parties---and wondered: Why are you together? What did you identify as essential to you? What's missing in you that you want someone else to provide? He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.
I suppose some might suggest that this novel is unremittingly bleak, but I would disagree. Hanyagihara has done exactly what Willem mentioned:  recognized the best of what her characters have to offer (amidst their scars) and chosen to value it.  

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