If you're an editor like myself, you have a lot of manuscripts to read. If you're a bookseller, you've got to stay on top of what's being published. This summer it seems like most of the editors and booksellers I know are reading A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara's second novel.
I stumbled upon A Little Life in an online comment, and then read a short sample. I was so impressed by the opening that I promptly downloaded the book. This is the beauty of e-reading. Having such a luxury at the fingertips is what retail shopping is to shopaholics. We e-readers may end up with many impulse buys that we don't cleave to, but then there are always the gems like A Little Life that we discover on our own and even imagine that nobody else has heard of these books until we mention them.
I'd certainly never heard of Yanagihara. There are so many new younger writers now. So many more than the old days when most of us could fit into George Plimpton's brownstone, when you felt (probably foolishly) that everybody of the younger generation of writers who was anybody was there. Reading this new novel, It quickly became apparent to me that Yanagihara is the real deal, a writer who sooner rather than later will emerge as one of the most important younger writers mainly because there is an extraordinary emotional depth to her work, something sadly lacking in the work of many very good younger writers, who have grown up in an alienating age of mobile phones and social apps and, most important, attenuated personal relationships.
Yanagihara's "Life" follows the careers of four college guys educated at the same school in Boston who move to New York to find their way. They are extraordinarily close and transplant their little world of collegiate, chummy Boston to career-hungry, sexually rapacious New York City. While the novel begins giving equal weight to the four, it ends up focusing on two of them: Willem, an actor who becomes famous; and Jude, a lawyer who becomes a renowned litigator. Jude is an orphan who was raised by a group of sexually predatory Jesuit brothers. He is damaged both physically and emotionally, so much so that he finds it nearly impossible to be close to his friends in any tactile or self-revelatory way. But his friends, knowing that he has suffered all kinds of emotional and physical abuse, are extraordinarily patient with him as he makes a little life for himself and struggles to find love, which he ultimately finds in a surprising yet very moving way.
Among the many remarkable qualities of this novel is its indelible portrait of physical and sexual abuse. The author spares us no details; and what I first thought were heavy-handed accounts became a dazzling and stupefying achievement. If you read this book you will never forget the stories of what Jude is forced to endure. And by reading them, it will give you a deeper understanding of this terrible injustice. Perhaps this portrayal will in its own way help bring us to a place where physical abuse and sexual molestation will be as hard to hide as murder.
While I was reading this novel, I was re-reading, The Brothers Karamazov, a novel of a length equal to A Little Life but which shares no other similarities. While toggling back and forth between them, I wondered were I one of Dostoyevsky's contemporaries would I be better able to see the flaws of what is now considered a great novel? Would I disagree with how he portrays certain aspects or holy Russia at the time the book takes place? I was reading "Brothers" at a distance of more than 100 years and within a culture very different from the one that Dostoyevsky wrote about. Because of this distance, was I seeing the book as perhaps greater than it might have appeared to a 19th century counterpart of myself: a fairly educated man reading his contemporary, Dostoyevsky, for the first time?
Because while I see A Little Life as something fine in many ways and certainly (in my mind) a much stronger contender for a book that will be read in 100 years (as opposed to a Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt novel), I didn't find myself always agreeing with the terrifically talented author's world view. But then again, who writes a perfect novel? Perhaps a novel becomes greater when it takes risks and gets dented in the process. Perhaps you come to love a great novel in the way you come to love somebody, flaws and all, as the characters in this novel love Jude despite his self-loathing, his inability to reveal himself, or to love them as openly and demonstratively as they love him. And of course Jude's great failing is that he can't accept the fact that they love him despite his scars, despite his hobbled walk, despite his knee-jerk self-destructive, self protectiveness.
But then the four principal men didn't really feel like "guys" to me. They seemed like a woman's idealized invention of guys. This is an observation more than a criticism. Back to my Dostoyevsky conceit: who a hundred years from now will be able to discern what men were like in 2015? Then again, I am a man of a similar age to the men in this novel, which while wisely avoiding anchoring itself to any world event, brings its men to middle-age by the time it ends. Unless of course the novel finishes far in the future, and its characters portrayed in their youth are actually men of today. The difficulty is that we are never told when the novel takes place (fine with me).
Sometimes Yanagihara's men talk about sports and do things that guys do, and while they were all well drawn, they seem a bit too androgynous and not in the metrosexual way. Metrosexual men aren't really different than run-of the mill non metrosexual men; they've just be given permission to be vain and narcissistic like their gay counterparts. Unfortunately, I don't think men have evolved the way women have evolved, and this is mainly because men haven't had to. A very wise lesbian once said to me (and I wasn't insulted), gay men are straight men who fuck each other. This may bring the roof down on my head, but I actually agree with it more than I disagree.
So one of the central conceits in the novel (and I don't want to put a spoiler here because this is actually an essay that is plugging A Little Life as your next "book to be read") is that a man who has lived as a healthy heterosexual eventually falls in love with another man who has been his closest friend for many years. I'm not saying this hasn't happened before, but I find this lovely construct more believable between women. It seems to me that sexuality of women is more emotionally driven and women are therefore are blessed with a sexual fluidity that men just don't have. I'm sure that biologists could give you evolutionary reasons for this and my layman opinion is that the nature of female sexuality has its own way of helping to preserve the human race. But as a man who has loved both women and men but is more wired toward men, I didn't quite buy Yanagihara's rosy view. But on the other hand, I loved it, loved the idea of this slow-burning love affair that manifests sexually many years in the future. In Yanagihara's world one's sexuality is seen as incidental. It's a world we're moving toward, but I don't think we'll see it in my lifetime.
The other curious aspect of A Little Life is that it is a novel about New York written from a very New York sensibility. I read somewhere that author has been contemplating living in Tokyo for a while. And I can't help wondering what that experience will do to her lens over "the city." Again, my frame of reference. Yanagihara grew up in Hawaii; I grew up in New York; my whole family lives on the east side of Manhattan. I am present at family dinners when everybody is talking about "the best restaurant" or "the best broadway show" and "who is the most accomplished," and "how wealthy are the wealthy." And perhaps in different circles the conversation varies but it's always about who is the best, about the highest quality versus mediocrity. I sit there (at family dinners) reflecting that in London or Paris or Rome people aren't having these kinds of quantitative conversations. Not because their culture isn't producing "the best" but because it doesn't really matter to them.
To me it's a very New York construct that Yanagihara's four men are successful to the point of being at the very top of highly competitive fields: painting, acting, architecture and lawyering. Their accomplishments are stratospheric. They go to the best, trendiest restaurants, they know good barrata they taste it, or when vegetables have been grilled to perfection. Whenever Yanagihara describes cooked or baking or eating in a restaurant I find myself cringing, partly because then she sounds like other New York centric novelists. I think these could be have been successful male characters who frequent good solid restaurants and the book wouldn't have suffered. And the smart friend of mine who lives in Cambridge (to whom I recommended the book) perhaps wouldn't have said, "God this makes me realize I could never make it New York." To which I replied, "Oh you could make it there. You could be happy there. As long as you don't care that there will always be somebody more famous, richer, smarter, more beautiful, more accomplished at a younger age, better connected than you are. And that people will be constantly talking about it."
Why should any of any of these things matter?
The problem is they do matter to New Yorkers who torture themselves because they're haven't accomplished more financially, professionally, socially. And then life intervenes with some disaster as it invariably does and they feel stupid for caring so much. But of course they never tell anybody they feel stupid.
And so, wickedly, in a very New York vein, I can't help but imagine some of my vaunted novelist colleagues from the Brooklyn enclave reading this novel and feeling competitive with it, daunted by it, jealous of it. Me, I am in awe of this woman's talent. I don't think I'll ever write a book as great as this. And I'm not being disingenuous. It's enough for me to be able to read it with the admiration and pleasure that I have. But I love to read as much -- and sometimes even more -- than I love to write. But maybe that' s my failing.