Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

On the book jacket of A Little Life is the face a man who looks like he is suffering. So many people have recommended it that I overrode my reluctance to tackle a 720-page novel that looks like it might be full of pain. Now I'll add my praise to that already heaped upon Hanya Yanagihara for this sad story that I love so very, very much.

I found Yanagihara's first novel, The People in the Trees, intellectually compelling. A Little Life is better. It's emotionally compelling. Unlike the repulsive characters in The People in the Trees, A Little Life is full of people that I would be honoured to spend time with in real life. (There are also a few who are true villains, whom I'd never want to meet.)

Jude St. Francis and three other guys meet in college and remain close for the rest of their lives. They come from mixed ethnic backgrounds and have diverse sexual identities and career paths. The focus on their remarkable bonds of friendship that last over decades is one of the reasons that this book so wonderful. There are mysterious, heartbreaking circumstances in Jude's past that are slowly revealed, propelling the plot forward. The main story, however, is that of people's ordinary lives and the importance of human connections.

"And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved ___. It was the fact of him, of course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day."

There was a part that reminded me of the excellent essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed (Meaghan Daum, ed.):

"But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one's status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt."

Here's another example of Yanagihara's introspective style:

"He found himself doubting therapy - its promises, its premises - for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it."

Details about food preparation are always a hook for me. In the following passage, Harold has asked Jude to teach him to cook.

"And so he did. [...] My main problem, it emerged, was a lack of patience, my inability to accept tedium. I'd wander away to look for something to read and forget that I was leaving the risotto to glue itself into a sticky glop, or I'd forget to turn the carrots in their puddle of olive oil and come back to find them seared to the bottom of the pan. (So much of cooking, it seemed, was petting and bathing and monitoring and flipping and turning and soothing: demands I associated with human infancy.)"

A Little Life is currently on the Man Booker shortlist. The only other title on the list that I've read so far is Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I'm glad I'm not a judge choosing between these two because they are both outstanding. The winner will be announced on October 13.

1 comment:

theresa said...

Good review! And yes, "emotionally compelling" is exactly right.