17 June 2017

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara's People in the Trees was one of the best books I read last year, so I had been looking forward to this. I had been forewarned, thankfully, of how devastating it was going to be, which is -- maximally. The best comparison I can think of is the film (I haven't read the book, though I suspect it's comparable) The Piano Teacher. It is brutal and awful and very very difficult. It completely unzips you emotionally. Is it worth it?

Well, to me, yes, it was. I am pretty squeamish about violence and cruelty in books/movies. I quit watching Game of Thrones, and walked out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can handle atrocity better in books, but I refuse, for instance, to read anything else by Gillian Flynn after reading Dark Places. So it's not like I'm a glutton for punishment, or immune to the emotional suffering that these kinds of things inflict. I'm pretty highly vulnerable to it, so if I'm going to subject myself, there needs to be serious payoff.

I started this blogpost intending to muse on the curious fact that this kind of grueling tale seems increasingly popular, both in "high" culture (Knausgaard, Ferrante) and in more mainstream stuff, but I don't really have anything to say about that, at least not yet. I am interested in what makes the calculus of cost/benefit pay off, ie, why I found this book genuinely rewarding and pleasurable, as opposed to my intense hatred for what to me seems like the torture porn of a lot of comparatively milder things. But I guess I don't want to delve that deeply into my own psyche, at least not publicly, in that way right now, aside from a few remarks. I will say though, that I think that People in the Trees produces that suffering more purposefully than A Little Life does. By this I mean that in the earlier novel, the awfulness is more clearly in the service of a broader reflection on modernity, science, and forms of knowledge, which to many may seem more noble and justifiable than what this later book, I think, is doing.

A Little Life has been called the Great Gay American Novel, an important Bildungsroman, and a powerful portrayal of (gay male) friendships. All of those descriptions seem pretty wrong-headed to me.* Actually, this is arguably one of the novel's flaws -- it seems to start out intending to be one of those things, but after a few hundred pages, it changes its mind and does something else entirely. Instead, it becomes a fairly relentless and intense story of trauma and recovery (or lack thereof). What makes it so incredible to me, I guess, is that it's a remarkable, uncannily accurate portrayal of self-loathing, but more specifically, of the ways it can exist within the confines of a relationship that is wonderfully warm and intimate. In other words, it's about how devastatingly awful human affective attachments can be, but also how absolutely marvelous -- both utter hell and something akin to grace.

This is not exactly a recommendation. I can't recommend this novel, not only because it is in fact flawed in many ways (it's too long, too lurid, and too idealistic), but also because I can't in good conscience advocate that anyone subject themselves to it. But I also cannot help enthusiastically telling you that I absolutely loved it.

* Tanya Agathocleous has a really interesting and smart reading of it in relation to those descriptors, and to queer futurity, though be forewarned that it is very heavy on spoilers, so best saved for after reading the novel, or for after resolutely deciding not to read it: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/life-narrative-end-times/

15 April 2017


The less you know about Colossal going into it, the better. Which is to say that if you haven't seen it, you should maybe stop reading now and come back when you have, though what I have to say about it doesn't contain any actual spoilers. It's just that it's a creative and unexpected movie that continuously keeps you guessing, and the surprise element is one of its great pleasures (as many people have noted, Anne Hathaway's performance is another one). I don't intend to review the movie overall so much as to get out a few of the things I've been muddling over since seeing it (and try, again, to be better about keeping this blog).

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie is that it represents both the pleasures and the pitfalls of heavy drinking with genuine nuance. Unlike Trainwreck, which admits that staying up late and getting drunk can be awfully fun but ultimately insists that the heroine get rid of all the booze in her possession in order to be redeemed*, Colossal acknowledges the damage alcohol can wreak, and the need for limits, while also criticizing the tendency to moralize those limits (and highlighting the gendered ways that such moralizing tends to play out). It doesn't offer a simple solution - the movie's final scene is brilliantly ambiguous in this regard - and I love it for that. 

Overall, this is a really satisfying female-empowerment story. It treads a very fine line between showing you some of the ways in which sexism structures the main character's experiences without letting it dictate the narrative arc, or effectively disempower her altogether. Sometimes, arguably, this means bending away from realism. But it's so welcome and so satisfying to see a woman winning in a way that doesn't feel blatantly idealistic and contrived. This means that sometimes she doesn't win. This also means that sometimes what it means to win turns out to be something other than you (have been taught by Hollywood to) expect. That's how life works. It's refreshing to see a film that gets that.

I have more ambivalent feelings about the way that South Korea figures in to the movie as an uneasy combination of symbol and real place. It literally becomes an arena for (white) Americans to work out their issues, and sustains massive damage in the process. An elegant metaphor for actual political/economic/affective processes, but is the film critiquing them or repeating them? A bit of both? I do think that the movie insists upon South Korea's tangible reality as an actual place with actual people, and not just a tragedy that you see on tv, in important ways. I think that the monster movie aspect is loving homage and thoughtful hybrid rather than cultural appropriation. But I also want to hear what other smart people think about it (especially people of color), and I don't think it's my place to make a firm pronouncement on the matter. To my surprise, a brief google search turned up nothing (well, for some reason, it did turn up a lot of articles about the Gilmore Girls, which I haven't seen but I gather has some very problematic representations of Asians). I will probably be considered a killjoy for even raising the question when the movie is doing such awesome things re: gender, but them's the breaks. 

In the meantime though, you should totally go see the movie. It's not perfect or even mind-blowingly amazing (there's a whole other conversation to be had about how weirdly passive the minor characters are - like, I get that they're minor, but they are so blatantly without agency that it kind of boggles the mind), but, like Bad Moms, which I unfortunately didn't write about here, it's one of those rare movies that seems to be imagining someone like me as the audience while still being relatively mainstream. So go give it some money.

* There were a lot of things that I liked about that movie, but it turns out that that's what stuck with me, and apparently I can't forgive it.