Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: A Little Life

A Little Life A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A central hallmark of genre fiction is that it takes some fundamental aspect of its reality as a given. In fantasy, we get magic, and we aren’t usually invited to question why it’s there, only what it’s doing in any particular instance. In mystery we get an impulse toward solution. Our detective may have a motive, but ultimately the world of the novel depends upon the axiom that we want to understand the unknown. And romance takes it as foundational that people love one another and will endure a great deal to arrive at that love.

A Little Life is not genre fiction, but it gives us a concept of friendship that is as central (and unexplained) as gravity. The four friends at the heart of this grow from young adults into successful actors, architects, artists, and lawyers. They endure emotional and personal setbacks, get married, develop professional relationships, and reveal one another’s hidden pasts to each other. But no matter how complicated their lives get, they remain tied to each other.

That’s an affirming notion, but it starts to wear thin 400 or so pages into this massive work. Jude is an appealing but deeply scarred man. He needs his friends, and they’re there for him. Always. Really. Always. The closest is Willem, an actor who becomes a major star, a man whose face is on Times Square billboards and who goes on location to exotic locales. Willem has girlfriends and, presumably, a circle of colleagues who matter to him, but he’ll always drop everything to help Jude. And then suddenly, that becomes literal as the two become lovers with little to anticipate that major shift. Even as lovers, though, theirs is less a romance than a friendship taken to its ultimate stage. Even as it becomes sex-free, it remains an extension of this mysterious quality called “friendship.”

There’s real power here in many places. Jude endures far more than anyone should have to, and he slowly peels back the awful abuse he suffered as a child. He’s haunted in ways that can never be dismissed, and the intensity of his self-loathing comes through in the many (did I say many) scenes in which he either cuts himself or imagines cutting himself. Yanagihara often writes with grace, and Jude’s suffering emerges as incandescent. Even as he’s surrounded by his friends – an ideal cast of them, including an always-there-for-him-doctor, a brilliant legal mentor who actually adopts him, and a landlord/neighbor who becomes a regular guardian – he can never dismiss the shadow of his horrifying childhood.

In a way that becomes increasingly troubling, though, the novel never seems to confront history outside its insular space. We never hear, for instance, of the political backdrop, of technological changes, or of pop culture touchstones. This is a book that spans more than 40 years, but it’s never clear which 40 years those are. In one tiny detail, Brother Luke, on the run with Jude when Jude is only nine, makes sure to take his computer whenever he leaves the hotel room. But then, thirty years later, Willem’s agent is concerned that his coming out as gay will hurt his movie career. (A newspaper article even calls Willem the highest profile actor to date to admit to being in a homosexual relationship.) I’ve tried to triangulate those dates, but I can’t make them fit: Child molester religious brothers on the run could not have had portable computers – ones that context implies would have internet access – until at least the early 21st century. From the other end, though, it’s already a handful of years since an actor like Ian McKellin (another “serious” actor who doesn’t typically play romantic leads) can come out without trouble. How then do we squeeze thirty years in between 2001 and 2015?

And that’s not just a petty concern either. This book depends upon history to give it depth, but it gestures only vaguely toward that history. The same impulse that fetishizes friendship, that so greedily (and, to be fair, gratefully) takes friends as the necessary bodies in orbit about the self, can lead to a kind of narcissism, a sense that nothing beyond the self matters. The absence of historical setting is one thing, but so are the interests of the others around them. J.B. is a purportedly gifted artist, someone they all know will go on to do great things. He does, producing at least five major shows of his work…each of which consists of large-scale paintings of the original group of friends. (And, tellingly, each exhibition pares down its subjects; the second-to-last is only Willem and Jude, recast as archetypal friends Frog and Toad from the Arnold Lobel stories. The last is called simply “Jude Alone.”) Malcolm is a gifted architect, supposedly doing great things around the world, but the only work we ever get described are the apartments and homes he designs for Willem and Jude. Andy is a deeply gifted doctor. He can heal burned skin, treat advanced infections, even amputate limbs. But his own work is so secondary that, though I might have missed it, we never even learn what his specialty is. Even Richard, who comes along later, announces that he owns three or four buildings in New York, but still seems always to be next door to Jude when Jude needs him. My point is that, for all their supposed success, we don’t see any of these people achieve anything that isn’t directly related to our central protagonists.

Put differently, this is a New York novel, but it’s a New York novel in the way Seinfeld was a New York show. It presents a New York that you can make your own, a vast city that provides you with niches where you see only the same small circle of people and you can craft your life around your preferences. To its credit, Seinfeld acknowledged that irony; love it or hate it, the notorious final episode was an indictment of the show (and of us, its viewers) for taking other people so lightly and with such detached amusement. This novel is more like Friends in that regard; it’s more a story that never feels it has to interrogate the privilege at the heart of its New York experience.

I don’t want to dismiss the whole of this too lightly. There’s no question that it explores Jude’s pain and need to self-harm in ways that go beyond what mass market fiction has done. There’s a bravery in Yanagihara’s exploration of this physical and emotional pain, and there’s a power too. (I wouldn’t finish a 700 page novel if I didn’t find something compelling in it.) And Yanagihara has the capacity to articulate rare emotions – and complex rationalizations – that challenge in interesting ways. There are many places I paused over his thoughtful summary of a character’s seemingly strange decisions.

But I can’t forgive this book entirely for its inability to challenge its own premises. For as long as it is – for all the detail we get about their dinner parties, the layout of their homes, the roster of the friends at this or that moment in the story – we hear almost nothing about the most crucial moment in their lives: the time when they first came together in college. That would mean defining the term at the heart of this, and there doesn’t seem room to do that.

So I end with my opening complaint. This is ultimately a “friendship novel,” one so wedded to its own generic premises that it never has to explain them. Tolkien has magic and Jackie Collins has love and sex; everything forms around those axioms. Yanagihara has a lot to say about suffering and about growing old, but he doesn’t show here the capacity to step even farther back and examine the premises that allow him to make those explorations.

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