‘One must have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell without laughing’ Oscar Wilde
Since its’ publication ‘A Little Life’ has been hailed by some as a masterpiece, a life-changing novel of raw emotional power. To others it is a bonkers middle-class sob story, overwritten, corny and often lacking in logic. Yanagihara’s tome (and it is a tome, at 700+ pages) is both of these things and more. It is, to be blunt, a camp classic.
Stay with me on this.
When I say ‘camp’ I am not saying that this book is an all-singing, all-dancing, legs in the air, dumb with lipstick, blind with mascara scream-a-thon. Which, of course, we would all love. But camp is, and always has been, much more than that. For some, it is a necessary armour in a hostile world – not for nothing are the best drag queens called ‘fierce’. Camp can be a witty, subversive view of the world. Camp can also be a style which values artifice over nature or authenticity…where too much is never enough.
Briefly, ‘A Little Life’ chronicles the post-graduate lives of four friends – Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm – as they make their way in life. They each achieve great success at their chosen profession and life seems sweet…but there is something rotten at the heart of this American dream. From the start it becomes apparent that Jude has ‘issues’. He has mysterious marks on his body; he sometimes needs a wheelchair, and he cuts himself. Again. And again. And again. And he becomes the breaking heart of the novel.
Hanya Yanagihara is a good writer. I was gripped by the fetid claustrophobia of her first novel, ‘The People in the Trees’ in which we follow (via an unreliable narrator) the story of Dr Norton Perina’s discovery of a lost Micronesian tribe and his subsequent relationship with it. While disturbing, it is also a dizzyingly submersive read in which the sounds, smells, tastes of the dense, damp forests and its people are almost palpable.
In ‘A Little Life’ Yanagihara makes Jude the unreliable narrator in his own story, lying to his friends, afraid of the truth, afraid of revealing just what it is which makes him a blood-letting masochist. The results of this narrative take the reader on a roller coaster ride, cross cutting incidents from Jude’s past with the sickening results. Be warned, there are parts of this novel which are hard to read – just one of the reasons why the novel ‘A Little Life’ most put me in mind of was Brett Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’ – but I’ll come back to that later.
And oh, the pain! Even as we enter the second half of the book, ‘The Happy Years’, we know – feel- the agony cannot be over, for Jude’s tale is indeed a very modern tragedy. ‘The Happy Years’ ends with the cruellest of twists and we become only too aware that there can only be one possible ending.
‘I wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror, I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste. I wanted the reader to really press up against that as much as possible and if I tiptoed into it a couple of places, well, I couldn’t really stop it.’ (Interview with Yanagihara, The Guardian 26/07/15)
If Yanagihara’s first novel was claustrophobic and steamy, in this she closes the greenhouse door and whacks the temperature up to full. It is a novel with true pain and horror at its heart but her hothouse scribbling produced, within this reader at least, mild hysteria: I rarely physically react while reading a novel, the last (and only time) I remember doing this was while reading ‘American Psycho’, during which I found my hand raised to my mouth with disgust at what I was reading.
‘A Little Life’ made me laugh.
At just over half way through the book, we have learned of the terrible incidents of Jude’s early life, a cacophony of abuse and control and then…and then we discover the secret of his dodgy legs. Now, I don’t believe I am an unsympathetic person. I enjoy a good weep watching a soap opera or even the ‘Those we have lost’ sections at the BAFTA awards…and don’t get me started on Russell T Davies era Doctor Who…but by this point in the novel we have lived through so much misery, so many awful situations that we leap across one of Yanagihara’s ‘boundaries’ from melodrama (‘The Jeopardies of Jude’, anyone?) into grand excess. One image that comes to mind as I write this is a scene from the film ‘Airplane!’ when a woman becomes hysterical and is slapped around the face to calm her down…and as the camera pulls back we see a queue of ever exaggerated aggressors waiting to have a go. Taken literally, it is quite disturbing but the exaggeration makes it very, very funny.
‘One must distinguish between naive and deliberate camp. Pure camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be camp (‘Camping’) is usually less satisfying…the pure examples of camp are unintentional; they are dead-serious’ Susan Sontag ‘Notes on Camp’
On the whole ‘A Little Life’ works because, at heart, it is dead-serious.
Some have taken the novel to task over its’ realism, or lack of. Would a young orphan really be sent to live within the walls of an all-male monastery? Glittering careers are conjured out of nothing and, given the time frame of the novel and it’s setting (New York) what of AIDS and its impact on gay men? This misses the point entirely. ‘A Little Life’ is not meant to be ‘realistic’. In this I find myself going back to ‘American Psycho’. Easton Ellis’ satire on 1980s greed with its slavish listing of consumer durables, cut and paste city boys and outlandishly gruesome, sickeningly misogynist murder scenes seems to me to be cut from the same OTT cloth. And, just as ‘American Psycho’ was accused of being a misogynist book because it’s lead character was a misogynist, so some have seen ‘A Little Life’, as being ‘The most ambitious chronicle of the soul and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged in many years’. But ‘A Little Life’ doesn’t contain gay men – it has men who have sex with (at least in theory) with men, which is an important distinction. Surely, if a novel is to ‘represent’ the lives of gay men then it should, to some degree, sum up the common gay experience: the feelings, emotions, sex life, lusts, issues and attitudes and all with honesty. But again, this is to miss the point – ‘A Little Life’ doesn’t aim to represent reality, be it straight, gay, bi or whatever.
If ‘American Psycho’ was a vicious satire on 80’s greed, what is ‘A Little Life’? It is clearly not a ‘gay’ novel. The core narrative of the novel is too serious, too dark for it to be a satire, so is it a parable on adulthood and friendship, as Yanagihara suggests?
‘In the end you are really left on your own. If you look at the friends who come in and out of Jude’s life and how they are not able to really save him – that part is, I think, an accurate reflection of my adult life and no doubt a lot of peoples’’
Ultimately, ‘A Little Life’ is hard to pin down. It is an addictive, if sometimes queasy read but I can’t ignore the feeling that Yanagihara’s overheating of ‘everything’ effectively wraps the soul of the novel in drag, masking its intensions. Maybe, as Sontag would have it, the fact that Yanagihara set out to intentionally write an overheated novel, means that it can never be truly satisfying?