I first heard about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara back in the spring when Teresa from Shelf Love ranted about it at a blogger get together here in Washington when Simon Thomas was in town. Her main challenge with the book, if I remember correctly, was that the constant stream of awfulness in one character’s life stretched her ability to suspend disbelief. Being a bit of a literal reader myself, her description of A Little Life and the drumbeat of horrific things that happened to main character Jude, made me think that I would be similarly annoyed. But after the novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize I began to wonder if I should read it. By the time Simon Savidge and Frances of Nonsuch Book and I discussed it on The Readers in September I had heard enough about the book (most of it good) that I decided I wanted to read it. So much so that I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out as I had intended to do. It even floated way to the top of my TBR pile despite having purchased over 200 books this summer. I thought that knowing Teresa’s complaints about the book might inoculate me from disliking it.
As I began the book I fully expected to be put through the emotional wringer. Instead my initial thoughts were how tedious it was. Four friends at an unnamed college in Boston (probably Harvard) is the kind of thing I would normally eat up, but I just found it kind of boring. It got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the bad stuff to start happening just to alleviate my boredom. That may sound a bit flip and harsh, but frankly it is Yanagihara’s fault. Teresa was exactly right, the amount of awful in Jude’s life defies belief. To the point were one is completely desensitized and it starts feeling like cartoon violence and virtually impossible to take seriously. The only moment in the book I felt any sort of sadness was when one of the characters dies. And the final 20 pages made me think that if Yanagihara had let her editor do his job, it could have actually been a decent book–but that is cold comfort after reading 720 pages.
As I have written about before, I can overlook unlikely occurrences or inaccurate details in a novel as long as the writing is good. But good writing is pretty much absent from A Little Life. Added to the implausibility of all the horrors that befell Jude was a cavalcade of implausible events and one dimensional characters that makes it seem like all of the characters in the book exist solely so they can interact with Jude. Despite Yanagihara throwing in all sorts of detail about most of the characters, none of it feels like real back story, or makes one think for even a moment that any of them exist when they aren’t on the page with Jude.
So much of A Little Life reads like something a high school student might think up. I’m not saying the prose is that bad (but in parts it is), but so many things sound like something a breathless teenager who hadn’t really experienced much of the world would think up. And I am not even talking about the violent parts. I am so tempted to catalog all of the ways in which Yanagihara makes shit up just so she can have a vehicle (and I’m not talking about the one that ran over Jude) to write about a feeling or advance the plot. The one situation that most annoyed me was that Jude was raised in a monastery. Abandoned in a dumpster as a newborn he falls into the hands of some good Christian brothers who take him in, and because the authorities can’t place the baby immediately, he ends up staying there for about 10 years. Even if there is a real life example of this happening at some point in modern history, it is implausible enough that the author should have known better than to include it. A monastery might be a place where a young mind can learn Latin, and mathematics, and piano, and how to sing German lieder, and a million other things (all of which come up repeatedly later in the story and forms the operational foundation of Jude’s later life and accomplishments) but it is hardly the place where a baby could be raised. What about all those years of crying and feeding and shitty diapers? The good monks put up with all of that because they knew one day they would get to rape him? No, no, and no. There are a million different ways and reasons that that infant would have been placed somewhere else (regardless of his mixed race appearance). Even if the state authorities somehow never found a foster family for Jude, the Catholic church has an extensive network of social services that they either run themselves or have access to. If nothing else they would have sent him to some Dickensian orphanage run by a bunch of mean old nuns.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m convinced that Yanagihara had Jude get a graduate degree in pure mathematics purely so she could use the Axiom of the Empty Set as a metaphor. It’s also amazing that this genius gets his math degree at MIT at the same time he is getting a law degree from another school (probably Harvard) and working two jobs–one of course as a semi-skilled baker, which allows us to understand how he can do a lot of wonderful, complicated baking later in life.
Years ago I came across a blog about a gay lawyer and his gay lawyer-in-training boyfriend and their totally perfect life. I think I first found it because they lived in Minneapolis (my home town) but had met in DC (my current hometown) and went to lots of classical music events. At first I thought it was great. But the more I read the more it seemed like it had to be made up. The blogger had created such a magical world of cultural events, sporting events, church going, the most loving family that ever existed, and endless wholesome meals of baked chicken-oh, and did I mention the perfect dog? It all seemed like someone’s very time consuming fantasy. After a while even the comments on the blog started to seem too good to be true. Here is how the blog writer described himself.
I am a lawyer, born and reared in the Twin Cities. Family is everything to me. My mother I adore and my father I worship (my father is also a lawyer). I have two older brothers whom I love dearly: one, 39, is married and has a young son and daughter and works as a financial analyst; the other is 36 and single and works as a civil engineer. My brothers and I were dispersed for years while being schooled and while establishing careers (Boston, Palo Alto, London, New York; Ames, Fort Collins, Denver; Princeton, Vienna, Washington, D.C., Boston), but we are all home now—and, it is my hope, we are all home for good. The newest member of my family is Joshua, whom I met in Washington while I was in my last year of law school and while Josh was in his last year of undergraduate studies. We immediately became inseparable and have faced the world together practically from the day we met. We have recently returned to the Twin Cities from Boston, where Josh gained his Juris Doctor. We have many interests and participate in numerous and diverse activities, yet we are mostly homebodies, playing sports, reading history tomes (and passionately discussing them) and spending time with family.
For a long time this blog drove me crazy. I knew there was something fake about it but couldn’t prove anything. After ignoring the blog for several years someone else discovered that it was allegedly the creation of a middle-aged, female flutist who is also a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist. As I read A Little Life I kept thinking of that fake blog and how much the two had in common (minus all the rape). When I explained briefly to John my problems with Yanagihara’s book he said “That sounds like Andrew and Joshua”. Yes it does. Completely and totally made up and completely and totally implausible.
Some reviewers have complained about the ahistorical quality of the book. All this stuff happening in New York City and no mention of 9/11? To me, that is a non-issue. I don’t mind that she sets the lives of these characters against nothing but their own world. What I do have a problem with, however, is that her characters live in a world that denies the existence of any sort of change or progress when it comes to psychology, medicine, and the legal and social focus on child rape in the Catholic church to name just a few things. I don’t think Yanagihara was making some larger comment on the interior worlds of her characters. I think she is either incapable of writing nuance or was unwilling to upset the naive, immature fantasy she cooked up in her head. The latter would also explain whey she wouldn’t let her editor do his job.
The book is 720 pages and I could write so much more about what pissed me off about it but I feel like I have already given Hanya Yanagihara a little too much of my own life.