Warning: this contains plot spoilers (although I don’t believe A Little Life is the sort of book that spoilers necessarily affect reading).
Despite earlier writing I wouldn’t be reviewing this novel because it was too ugly, I’ve changed my mind. Although I intend to merely look at three aspects that interest me relating to – per my last post – values, with a passing glance at aesthetics. (The best, complete, review I have found for the novel is Jon Michaud’s The Subversive Brilliance of ‘A Little Life’ in The New Yorker.)
Before starting, however, a little problem. One aim of this blog was not to have the divisive (even if incisive) political content of my previous blog, and it, largely, won’t, however, as life and art can’t be separated – a view I will noodle-around over time – and given politics and philosophy, (economics, for that matter) are part of life … well, you see my problem. To remain true to ‘thine own self’ – this is an arts blog – a squidgeon of politics is unavoidable. If you are ideologically bound to identity politics, or if you wrongly – oh so wrongly – simple-headedly equate individualism with selfishness, then this will be maddening (as it would be edifying if you were to stick it out), so if you feel yourself getting all huffy puffy, let my 51 years in the world give you the small sum of wisdom earned, it’s not worth falling out with yours truly over, please; just step back, go get a stiff drink, smoke a joint, chill, and if you can be bothered tune into my next post, which will be back to levity. That said, given the subject matter of this novel, this was always going to be a dark post, sorry.
[Challenge: if you get to a part of my analysis you disagree with, or are offended by, even, put into words in comments exactly what it is you find offensive. I reckon you’ll have some deal of trouble.]
I had better define what I meant by ‘ugly’. I found the novel – and it’s a big novel, over 700 pages – was a long, hard slog to read. I started it September 2016 and finished January 2017. I’ve kept a reading log for eighteen years, and that’s the longest time it’s taken me to read a novel over that time (and, I suspect, ever). My reference of ugly was due to the high word count dealing with the childhood abuse of A Little Life’s central character, Jude. He was sexually (and other ways) abused by the monks where he was brought up in a monastery, then was pimped out to hundreds of men by one of those monks who took him away from the monastery until the monk was caught by the police, and then continued being abused in juvenile care by carers and counsellors, and then abused again, viciously and coldly, by a paedophile doctor who picked him up after he escaped from care. It was that doctor who also maimed him in an injury, the debilitating effects of which further form Jude’s character in his adulthood. And then there were the many sections dealing with Jude’s self-harming by cutting himself with razors throughout his adult life as his coping mechanism. I found the reading of these sections extreme, harrowing and unrelenting; I am almost tempted to say they were overdone – some critics have, scathingly – but have no knowledge for saying that: no doubt Yanagihara is well researched. Many times I almost stopped reading, or didn’t pick up the book for weeks, I couldn’t, it was such an evil read, but I’m glad I stuck it out for it’s an okay written book, overall, and brave on numerous fronts. Those are what I want to deal with.
There’s a central conflict Yanagihara brings out in Jude’s life that I’ve not seen commented on in reviews, and she deliberately does not resolve it, as Jude can’t – because Jude can’t – for it’s what leads to his ultimate suicide. It’s a conflict over the notion of a Self and a Self’s purpose-and-meaning-in-life, and is, I think, one of three areas Yanagihara is battling against what has become the anti-individualist-Establishment ethic of our literature from the mid-twentieth century (my opinion). It relates directly to individualism versus collectivism, altruism\otherism versus ‘to thine own self be true’, with the author, unusually, by letting the unresolved conflict lead to her protagonist’s suicide, nodding her head, perhaps, in favour of the former. I think Jude’s rationalisation of how he is to survive and live an adult life comes down to these passages which dance around one another (as Willem and Jude’s lives do):
“No,” Willem said, after they’d all stopped laughing. “I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – “because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
He had known, ever since the hospital, that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be a more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others; that, to him, was always the most compelling argument.
There are two ways of looking at this, surely (as there are two interpretations, literal and figurative, of Jude’s premise).
That all these monstrous men – and they are all men – who have abused Jude in his childhood for their own base gratification is an indictment on a self-centric ethic. That is Jude’s epiphany: that, turn it around, he can [only] survive by altruism (figurative), or love (literally staying alive for his friends, against his will), sacrificing his life in the service and existence of others to the obliteration of his own existence (which he so desperately wants).
Okay, but let me then make this point. How is telling adult Jude he exists only in the service of others, his life has no meaning outside of that, a fix? Answer: it’s not. That’s precisely Jude’s problem; finding a meaning for his Self, a reason for him to carry on existing. He cuts himself to forget his Self. And then after his partner, Willem, is killed in a car crash he cannot find a reason in his Self for living on. He is denied completing himself into a fulfilled, untroubled mind comfortable in his own skin. That ‘is’ his tragedy: denying his own identity and the permission to live for himself, and nothing else, because what the abuse has done is make him hate himself so thoroughly he doesn’t want to live. His adult life is a continual effort to forget his own existence; and so his false (tragic) epiphany to lose his Self in the service of others, wholly. Noting Yanagihara still holds up love and altruism as values; even through the periods that Jude treats his friends despicably to drive them away – another form of his self-harm – as he falls into his final breakdown, all they want him to do is live, and so because they love him they choose to put up with his awful behaviour over a long period of time; I will never say this is anything but worthy. My point is the most important word in that previous sentence was choose. Out of love, a value – or altruism-from-empathy re strangers – they chose to take his bad treatment.
Art is life. It’s impossible not to recognise the values involved here. Empathy is good. Without empathy we are monsters – they have a name, sociopaths; they were among the monsters that abused child Jude. Voluntary self-sacrifice can be good; noble even. These are good traits in us. That’s why I get so mad with those who believe my advocacy of societies based on individualism is the negation of those values. It’s not. But when self-sacrifice is expressed, as here, as symptoms of self-hatred, then this self-sacrifice is a death, or at least a death wish (of the individual and of existence. A negation of Self, which it literally becomes for Jude). And similarly, in societies where self-sacrifice for the common good is demanded and enforced by the state, not a matter of individual volition, choice, that is a death, also, and such a state can only have one name: totalitarian – and that goes equally for our social democracies with their huge states dedicated to surveillance and redistribution, as for under communism or fascism. I’m sorry, but that word contains it, and no other word does. Living in that society is a death of every individual life, as tangible as Jude’s non-existence without a centre or purpose; without I is I. And, albeit it’s not for me to explicate here, it’s the (stunningly) anti-individualistic ethic of our literature, and informs its aesthetic; it’s the subjectivist emoting soup our literature has been mired since Proust and the Bloomsbury set, as enjoyable as much of that literature is. Again, I’m not saying it’s a literature without value, I have lived in that literature – it’s my culture and tradition [despite I’m forcibly separated from it by a draconian copyright (another post)] – since I was early introduced to books, BUT, it misses so much of life, and certainly experience and contrarian reasoning and values along the entire breadth of the political spectrum, even for Trump’s Deplorables, who are not the Philistines they have been childishly vilified as, particularly by the writerly class and publishing channel (without need of a mention for Hollywood’s hypocrisy). Trump might be deplorable, and he’s a total economic Luddite who could well destroy a fortress America, I don’t like the man, but those hard pressed lives living in the rust belt that voted Trump in are not Trump. And they are not the dumb hicks they’re haughtily patronised as. Indeed, some significant areas that voted Trump in 2016, voted Obama in 2008 – explain that? (If everything-Trump has one sin, it’s boredom. I’m so bored with all that tribal nonsense.)
Whoops. I seem to have tripped over myself. You see, for me, the absolute freedom of my Self to choose my path through life, provided I’m harming no one – to hell with rules and (save me) mob morality or the ruling Catholics in the Fortress of Legislation – has always been axiomatic and a priori: that [choice] is the highest value. [It’s why I can’t stand wowsers.] Without that [freedom] there is no love, there is no notion of altruism, because both of those are only possible if built on a Self (not the negation of self which, sadly, Jude became destined (by himself) for). The notion of self-sacrifice has no meaning if you don’t have a life of value (to yourself) to sacrifice. … Okay, I realise I’m a dinosaur. Point made, some might say that was a rather long bow; onward …
One last point on content. A Little Life is gutsy in many areas: with its brutish look at childhood abuse (although this is reasonably well dealt with in literature); of self-harm (I’ve not seen this dealt with in a novel, or not as the major motif it is here); and how it deals with not so much gay relationships (increasingly well-trodden ground in literature) but bisexuality on the behalf of Willem and some other of the characters: I’m on untravelled ground, but I suspect there would be few novels dealing with this theme to the extent it does. (Noting the topics of bisexuality and homosexuality are different – do I need to say that?)
Also of interest is that I believe there is a brave aesthetic rebellion going on. There’s a huge amount of tell in Yangihara’s prose, not show, when we are taken directly to Jude’s thinking and reasoning for his actions for page after page as he tries (but never succeeds) to figure out how to lead an adult life. I love exposition as much as narrative, so I found this endearing, if not attractive, and it hasn’t harmed the novel critically for it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2015, and that year won three other major prizes. Mind, I’ve for a long time been suspect on the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra pushed via agents through the publishing channel. GOD I HATE THE PUBLISHING CHANNEL where agents have far too much sway in the setting of a monotone, faith based aesthetics (and then publishers). I’ve even read in at least one piece of critical thought (no notes/links, sorry) that show should be taken right through to an author not telling the reader the physical characteristics of their characters, whom are to be known only by action. Piffle; that’s nonsense. And I’d further pitch in that if we apply show don’t tell bureaucratically we lose a good bevy of those earnest Russians as well as the irascible Mr Vonnegut. I’ll return to this topic at a future date (I’ve [even] just completed a novel manuscript partly based on [breaking] it, and a lot of other must-does and don’ts).
Okay; big breath in, expel … Here we go. Here we go. Trigger warning.
I don’t want to belabour the next point, as my nascent readership will be decimated. But this next is important, indeed, one of the most important issues in Art today, and for artistic expression (which is free expression), so it must be broached.
Yanagihara is making a political statement with this novel: you bet she is, and she’s shouting it from every page. The book starts by introducing us to her four major characters; four men having finished their education together at a prestigious New England college and beginning to make lives for themselves in the world, with, after the first 50 pages, the story then turning, ever so slowly, its focus on Jude. To state clearly; Yanagihara is a woman writer who has taken on the task of presenting us with almost exclusively male characters, and of different ethnicities. Indeed the only women in the book are hangers-on: girlfriends and wives of Malcolm, and former girlfriends of Willem who barely get a mention. The only significant female character, Julia, is paper thin, with all the important emotions and narrative centred around and channelled through her husband, Harold, vis a vis their adoption of the adult Jude. Yanagihara thus claims for herself, and better, manages ably, the right to write outside of her own skin, her own gender, and of her own experience – in doing so she chooses artistic expression over busy-body-bounded-liberty: gloriously, she refuses to be jailed by those monsters, (some call them snowflakes, but I don’t like tags because that’s what they do) who would confine her to the cell of her own identity of race and gender.
This was hard fought for ground for women writers (and thereby for all writers – so for me to write female characters also, or Maori). In my top ten novels/series of all time would be English writer Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the lives and trauma of men through WWI. It was controversial at the time, but Barker put her ethic simply:
“I got increasingly frustrated; I mean Virago rightly foregrounded the experience of women, and all the [three] novels were obliged to be from a female viewpoint, but I just felt in the end if you know you can do men and women why would you choose to restrict yourself to one or the other? I know I wanted to write men and I knew I wanted to write about the war.”
Open Book; BBC4 Radio; 27 August, 2015.]
That’s why it grieves me that Gramsci’s (Google him) long [destructive, life denying, death wish] march through the culture would take Barker’s, Yanagihara’s, and my own, ability to express ourselves as we wish, through the characters we wish, without constraint or straitjacket, away from us, again, because that is the aim of cultural Marxism’s dead end of identity politics, which is policed ruthlessly from Twitter to the ivory towers of the Humanities by shaming and umbrage taking.
The essence of Identity’s attack on literature – and thereby free expression – is that once you write outside your own identity you must be writing from preconceived notions (so you shouldn’t write). American (female) author Lionel Shriver is the only writer I know of to publicly speak out on this at the end of last year, her speech summed up well by New Zealand blogger Kiwiwit:
Shriver was asked to address the Brisbane Writers Festival on the topic of ‘fiction and identity politics’. The audience undoubtedly thought she would stick to the typical left-wing script about how important it is for authors to make careful deference to identity politics in their fiction, but they were to be disappointed. She signalled the tenor of her speech early on by stating that ‘ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.’
Shriver was, of course, referring to political correctness, but more specifically she was discussing the tendency of the left-wing to take offence any time anyone (or, at least anyone of European descent) adopts any symbol of another culture. She talked about the U.S. college that censured its students for wearing sombreros to a tequila party and the student union in the U.K. that banned its Mexican restaurant from giving out little sombreros (it seems Mexicans are particularly sensitive to appropriation of their headwear). Then she went on to discuss how writers and other artists are finding themselves subject to accusations of cultural appropriation for the mere act of creating a work that imagines the experience of someone of another culture. Shriver points out that it is the very act of appropriating other people’s experiences that defines what is fiction (and if it were otherwise, it would be called autobiography).
Shriver said that ‘the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with’. She is right – much contemporary fiction has become anodyne drivel – and I think she is bang on with the cause. Many contemporary writers seem much more concerned with convincing us of their bien pensant credentials than with telling a good story.
Shriver’s speech, drew a response from a woman in the audience named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who (surprise, surprise) took offence at what Shriver said and equated her views with those of Australian nationalist politician Pauline Hanson. The Guardian gave Abdel-Magied equal space to air her objections and it is worth reading her article, if only to appreciate the perverted logic of those who, in the name of redressing historical wrongs, seek to deny fiction writers the very freedom to create.
In this novel Hanya is saying go to hell with your curbs on free expression, artistic and otherwise, and I’m with her. More, Art should be with her, but by and large, it’s not. Art has been missing in the free speech debate for decades. Witness writer after writer who signed up in protest against Charlie Hebdo’s right to write satire, its right to goddamned write, after the massacre of its journalists by jihardis. [I was speechless with rage at the time.] Witness the antipathy toward Shriver for daring to denounce the politics of identity, from Abdel-Magied at the festival through to Chocolat author, Joanne Harris, on Twitter, (I’ll deal with that in a future post, because I took Harris up on it). Incidentally, Pauline Hanson is terrible, really, really awful, but the common-ground between her and Shriver’s speech is nothing at all: the comparison, therefore, contemptible, loathsome and undeserved – but that’s exactly how Identity polices: it’s as vicious and underhanded as it is ill-conceived.
Summary: identity politics in attempting to be a totalising view of every aspect of life, art, politics and philosophy, has turned into an ethic of pure, unrefined totalitarianism. Yes, that word again. It is a virus in our culture, gutting our culture from within. And, thus, free lives. Further, ironically, instead of allowing the celebration of culture, ethnicity – noting race (which you don’t get a choice in) and ethnicity are not the same – and difference, Identity weaponises them. Instead of a laissaz-faire celebration and joy which might be possible to have in the interplay of cultures, [C]ulture is instead used by the new puritanism crawling out of cultural Marxism to police and punish us for thought crimes. Well those puritans can go to hell – I’ve never had time for religion (and yes, that had a lot to do with being brought up Exclusive Brethren).
Given the above, it is no surprise to me that many of A Little Life’s reviews have been scathing for her breach of show don’t tell:
The Irish Times
“This may be an obvious criticism to level against a 700-page book, but it is too long. Yanagihara’s descriptions are never gratuitous, but as the multitude of metaphors for Jude’s suffering stacked up I grew desensitised.
And her daring to imagine lives outside her arbitrary identity:
The New York Times
“Yanagihara’s success in creating a deeply afflicted protagonist is offset by placing him in a world so unrealized it almost seems allegorical, with characters so flatly drawn they seem more representative of people than the actual thing. This leaves the reader, at the end, wondering if she has been foolish for taking seriously something that was merely a contrivance all along.”
Or, to get to the point, a review by author, Brad Vance:
I will tell you this. If the world is waiting for the Great Gay Novel, it won’t be yet another tale of rich people in Manhattan, who can literally afford to be flexisexual, who live in a cosmopolitan, non-judgmental world. It will be set in North Carolina where its main character works at a fucking Waffle House and has to face the pressures of school, family, church and state, all arrayed against him or her. It will be set in Uganda, where gay love is truly worthy of operatic descriptions of misfortune, considering that you can be killed for it.
Sigh. Actually, Brad, the word is bisexual, but yeah, apparently experience as gay has no validity unless you’re a repressed minority or living in Trump’s Deplorable Hinterland. The experience of gays in the West’s big metropolises, New York (population?), LA (population?), San Francisco (population?); London (population?); Paris (population?), doesn’t count. Got it.
[Unrelated: it occurs to me I’m keeping this blog for my sanity. As with my stillborn (in terms of publishing) writing. I’m wondering, thus, if it’s akin to Jude’s cutting himself. Fanciful? Albeit I’ve possibly already destroyed my audience, as small as it was. .. Or perhaps not, we’ll see.]
Anyway. A doff of my cap to Hanya. That’s one fearsome, sobering read; but well done. And as for me placing her book cover in the feature part of this post, then Hanya’s image merely tacked on below, at the end (and noting it’s not necessary to do so), you bet that’s political, also, as you’ll find out in my next post, Me, Myself & Elena Ferrante. Although that post will be much lighter/happier, as promised. Promise. [I think.] Regarding the placement of her photograph, I suspect from my reading of A Little Life, Hanya wouldn’t want it any other way.