“...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired,”
December 4, 2015 7:20 AM Subscribe
Debate erupts as Hanya Yanagihara's editor takes on critic over bad review of A Little Life. [The Guardian] The editor of Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel A Little Life has taken to the pages of the New York Review of Books to defend his author from a review that claimed the novel “duped” its readers “into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain”.
- A Striptease Among Pals by Daniel Mendelsohn [The New York Review of Books]
Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and the National book award in the US, the novel tells the story of four college friends in New York, one of whom, Jude, is revealed to have had an “unspeakable” childhood. It has split reviewers: the New Yorker said it “feels elemental, irreducible – and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it”, while Alex Preston in the Observer called it “a devastating read that will leave your heart, like the Grinch’s, a few sizes larger”. But writing in the New York Review of Books this month, the critic and author Daniel Mendelsohn found that “the abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one”, and that “Yanagihara’s novel has duped many into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain”.Related:
- A Striptease Among Pals by Daniel Mendelsohn [The New York Review of Books]
But all “closure” isn’t necessarily mawkish: it’s what gives stories aesthetic and ethical significance. The passage that struck me as significant, by contrast, was one in which the nice law professor expounds one day in class on the difference between “what is fair and what is just, and, as important, between what is fair and what is necessary.” For a novel in the realistic tradition to be effective, it must obey some kind of aesthetic necessity—not least, that of even a faint verisimilitude. The abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one.‘Too Hard…To Take’, Gerald Howard, reply by Daniel Mendelsohn [The New York Review of Books]
I don’t object to Daniel Mendelsohn’s disliking my author Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life [NYR, December 3]. Fair’s fair in the critical sweepstakes, and it is a challenging and demanding book that asks a lot of its readers in respect to stamina and facing up to some ugly (imagined) facts. What I do object to, however, is his implication that my author has somehow, to use his word, “duped” its readers into feeling the emotions of pity and terror and sadness and compassion.- The Subversive Brilliance of “A Little Life” by Jon Micaud [The New Yorker]
But the clearest sign that “A Little Life” will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, “A Little Life” becomes a surprisingly subversive novel—one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery. And having upset our expectations once, Yanagihara does it again, by refusing us the consolations we have come to expect from stories that take such a dark turn.- Scar tissue: Is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara more than the sum of its parts? by Alex Clark [New Statesman]
The problem is not what the novel makes you feel but what it makes you think. In my case, I felt engaged, compelled to read further, caught up in something; I also felt dismay, disbelief, pity, horror. But at the end of 736 pages, many of which I suspect could have been edited out without compromising the novel’s directness or its power, my thoughts revolved around the creation and prosecution of the novel, why Yanagihara had written it in the way that she had.- A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here by Garth Greenwell [The Atlantic]
To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering. Again and again A Little Life conveys Jude’s sense of himself through elaborate metaphor: he is “a scrap of bloodied, muddied cloth,” “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled,” “a scooped out husk.” His memories are “hyenas,” his fear “a flock of flapping bats,” his self-hatred a “beast.” This language infects those closest to him, so that for Willem, learning about his childhood is “plunging an arm into the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.” In its sometimes grueling descriptions of Jude’s self-harm and his perceptions of his own body, the book reminds readers of the long filiation between gay art and the freakish, the abnormal, the extreme—those aspects of queer culture we’ve been encouraged to forget in an era that’s increasingly embracing gay marriage and homonormativity.- How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara [Vulture.com]
One of the things I wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never gets better. I also wanted the narrative to have a slight sleight-of-hand quality: The reader would begin thinking it a fairly standard post-college New York City book (a literary subgenre I happen to love), and then, as the story progressed, would sense it was becoming something else, something unexpected.- A Stubborn Lack of Redemption, an interview with Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life by Adalena Kavanagh [Electric Literature]
AK: The way you reveal Jude’s childhood is relentless and seems to mirror Jude’s inability to forget what happened to him, despite the immense success he achieves in his life. In this way you resist the comfortable narrative arc of abuse followed by healing. Jude resists therapy, to the frustration of his friends and family (and this reader!), and one of the main questions the book seems to address is whether talk therapy works—what do you think the limits of therapy are?- Sessions with a Poker by Christian Lorentzen [London Review of Books]
HY: One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better. And, relatedly, to explore this idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. I do believe that really, we can sustain only a finite amount of suffering. That amount varies from person to person and is different, sometimes wildly so, in nature; what might destroy one person may not another. So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself, and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition — and Jude’s — that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.
‘Yanagihara’s rendering of Jude’s abuse never feels excessive or sensationalist,’ the novelist Jon Michaud wrote. Excess, however, seems to be the point. Yanagihara has said that she sees Jude as a survivor for whom recovery from abuse is impossible. As for sensationalism, it’s true that there’s a sterile quality to her descriptions of Jude’s abuse: the phrase used is always ‘had sex’, and the only reference to male anatomy I caught in the book’s 700 pages is a joke among grad students about ‘micro-penises’. Yanagihara’s prose at the start is clean and serviceable, if dull. Her go-to flourish is the simile: the skin on Jude’s back is ‘an awful, unnatural topography, the skin stretched as glossy and taut as a roasted duck’; one of his wounds is ‘like a foetus’s mouth’; the friends themselves are ‘a fleet of parrots shaking their bright-coloured feathers at one another, presenting themselves to their peers without fear or guile’. Another of Yanagihara’s tics is to provide arbitrary credentials for characters who enter the story and vanish within the space of a sentence: ‘Julia’s father, a retired pulmonologist, and brother, an art history professor’. But as the book plunges on through its ahistorical decades the style becomes more and more breathless, perhaps a reflection of its swelling romantic theme. While Jude’s ‘level of suffering is extraordinary, it’s not, technically, implausible,’ Yanagihara has said. ‘Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love.’- How ‘A Little Life’ Became a Sleeper Hit by Jennifer Maloney [The Wallstreet Journal]
On Twitter, readers have said “A Little Life” is so painful that at times they have had to put it down, weeping. They have called it “upsetting,” “harrowing” and “traumatic.” But many also say it’s the best book they have ever read. Natalie Cantrell, a 26-year-old production manager in Austin, Texas, posted a message on Twitter as she sat crying in the airport on the way home from a weekend with her husband in Savannah, Ga. She had just finished the book. Christine Hennessey, who works at an advertising firm in Wilmington, N.C., read it with her book club and joined a Facebook group a friend had formed “for folks who read it, were devastated by it, and needed to talk about it,” she said. “I had no idea I could produce so many tears,” she wrote on her blog. “Maybe this is a strange sort of recommendation—‘Read this book! You’ll never be the same! It will break your heart into a thousand pieces!’”- Why Is the Intensely Bleak A Little Life Filled With Luscious Culinary Detail? [Slate]
There are the gougères Jude makes for a party at his apartment on Lispenard Street. There is sourdough bread and there are herbed shortbreads. There is walnut cake and persimmon cake and carrot cake and crab cakes. There are beautiful cookies. There are roasted figs served over ice cream and topped with honey. There is broiled halibut trout “stuffed with other stuff.” To drink we have limonata, water, prosecco, and iced tea. We have grilled corn with zucchini and tomatoes. We have poached eggs. We have ramps. (“I’m going to the farmers’ market to pick up those ramps.”) But the food in A Little Life is not all illusory and tempting and deadly. Consider Harold, Jude’s adoptive father. He’s among the book’s most believable voices, and one of his traits is “a tendency to make Thanksgiving more complicated than it needed to be.” Up until the end of the book, he always seems to fall short of his culinary ambitions, botching all the elaborate recipes he gamely attempts. But as Willem observes, Harold’s obsession isn’t really about the food—it’s about Jude. “It’s his way of telling you he cares about you enough to try to impress you,” says Willem, “without actually saying he cares about you.” This is a vision of cooking as caring, not as fairy tale temptation, and it is one of the few comforts of A Little Life. Though the promised feast—the cottage in the forest, the Thanksgiving dinner—may never materialize, at least Harold tries to make it real.
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