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/

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