A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara.

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Doubleday, New York, 2015. Electronic Kindle edition. F; 6/16.

Lots of critics and prize juries love this long second novel, but there are a few vocal dissenters. It’s controversial. I was at first strangely unimpressed but then quickly captivated by Yanagihara’s beautiful writing. I wrote in my notes that I found it graceful, my current keyword for high praise. But in the end after quite a bit of back and forth I have to side with the dissenters. Given the ambitious goal I think the author set, I ended up disappointed.  The style although at times brilliant was raggedly inconsistent, the content finally tiresome, the point of view vacant, and the main character without dramatic conviction for me. If they awarded points for difficulty like they do in diving I could see being impressed, but if you go for success at one of the great human issues and fail even by a bit, it’s quite a bit worse than succeeding at something light and breezy.

We start with four young men, good friends fresh out of university, each struggling as people do at that time of life to find love and make a career.  In the early going they are charmingly, enviably, and credibly secure in their rectangular friendship. They all eventually gain career success (actor, architect, graphic artist, lawyer) and at some point establish relationships, eventually two of them with one another. All good.

Under the influence of certain people, circumstances, art experience (and/or alcohol or drugs), as I quietly congratulate myself for… just feeling happy, I at some point realize no, something is the matter here. It’s too much. I don’t think I’m anhedonic especially, maybe I have an over-developed sense of too-good-to-be-true. Anyway I give myself the benefit of the doubt that it was simultaneous with me already starting, after quite a nice literary experience in approximately the first third of this story, to feel uncomfortable in that way, that I ran across a critique entitled Choking on Super-Excellence Yet? in which the author described her fatigue at all the superlatives in the lives of these four guys. It helped inform for me one of the things already worrying me about this novel.

They become respectively a spectacularly successful movie star, one of the most sought-after architects in the world, a painter whose shows turn the art world upside down, and a lawyer who also sings like an angel, plays in his spare time professional-level classical piano, was begged by his math profs in graduate school to become a mathematician, gets adopted by a kindly and adoring Ivy League law professor, and as a litigator absolutely never loses a case, makes more money than God, travels to every envied location on the planet, hobnobs with the social and professional elite, all in the middle of glorious New York.

That lawyer, Jude, is the central character who (we are expected to appreciate) balances as a dramatic vehicle his inconceivable polymathism with being physically and psychologically troubled based on dreadful events in childhood, first hinted at and then gradually revealed.

If there’s too much super-excellence there’s also too much horrible misery. Too much to maintain credibility for me. The part of me that had been captivated by the writing and was only just tipping over into being not quite okay with going on imagining myself living Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and being as able as Jude, had trouble with his being violently beaten up in the story’s present. My feeling bad about that had more to do with a sort of reverse version of choking on super-excellence than with genuine sympathy with somebody real in my imagination. No! I was saying, this awful abuse can’t be happening. It’s horrible all right, but it just isn’t real. Like the guy would be dead, but also as a character whatever shreds of credibility were left after getting falsely high on all his successes were finally cancelled out when I read about his frail crippled body getting kicked and thrown down several flights of concrete stairs. Nobody is that good, and at the same time takes that much vicious abuse.

So, giving up on Jude as someone/something real, I tried to figure out what Yanagihara thought she was doing. I ended up deciding she was aiming for a portrait of Evil, capital E. The things that happen and happened to Jude are capital B Bad, and they harm him. But I can’t escape believing that someone who really wanted to come face-to-face with the black abstract Devil Him/Herself should have focused on the perpetrators. They (Brother Luke, Dr. Traylor, Caleb) are where Evil resides, aren’t they?  They appear in the story, but they are cardboard cutouts compared to Jude, who is their victim with his crippling disability and hating himself in spite of his achievements. And so it’s hard not to feel that the emotional message and tone of this story (if it’s about Evil) doesn’t confront the real problem but focuses on its consequence: Poor Jude. Poor self-injurious sexually child-abused intentionally run-over by a car otherwise ideal but not-real Jude. Poor Troubled Humanity. Fundamentally, poor ME.

A bit I guess like my reaction to Maud’s Line I sense the kindly guiding hand of prize juries drawing my attention to what a bad time I’m having (and if for some reason I’m feeling good I’d better understand I shouldn’t be) at the hands of (here insert whichever celebrated cause we are championing) pedophilia, self-injury, racism, obscure misdiagnosed illness, laziness, greed, bad diet, drug-resistant bacteria, helicopter parenting…

That kind of thing doesn’t measure up to my idea of great fiction. I want brilliant Hanya Yanagihara to celebrate with her exuberant talent genuine credible characters whose lives as she describes them enthrall me even if they are terrifying. If we are going to try to approach Evil, I want Iago, Count Dracula, Lucifer, or even Hannibal Lecter. Not gesturing (as though I were an adolescent in need of moral reeducation) toward pedophilia and self-injury as if by proscribing them we might be able to straighten things out. If this long and difficult book had contained even one credible character, I wouldn’t have had to skip whole tedious paragraphs and pages at the end because I was fed up with not-credible Jude grinding away with self-loathing and suffering that, poor boy, wasn’t his fault.

5.8/8.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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