Well, it’s January 1, and last year was so busy with both writing and editing work that I didn’t get to tend to this blog as much as I should have. So here’s a little recap.
Thinking back to the two best books of 2015 for me, I read both of them in ebook format—I read very, very few print books last year and didn’t tend to finish them. So that is a big shift for me. I still like being surrounded by books and have a hard time letting them go, but I’ve entirely stopped going to the library and bookstores, habits that I’ve had for most of my life. I suspect I’m not the only one.
The two books that jumped out at me as being amazingly memorable in 2015 were Oliver Sacks‘s autobiography On the Move, which I reviewed here (https://gabriellawest.net/2015/06/29/review-on-the-move-a-life-by-oliver-sacks/), and Hanya Yanagihara‘s novel A Little Life (Doubleday; $14.99, Kindle). Both were long, satisfying reads, even on the Kindle; both were so good that I didn’t want them to end.
After finishing A Little Life last fall, I came to the conclusion that this was the great American novel! This amused me, because several famous male writers, particularly Norman Mailer, used to publicly agonize over hitting that rather unattainable target. But Yanagihara, this female Asian-American New Yorker, seems to have written a book that struck a chord with the reading public (just read the impassioned reviews on Amazon!) and that gracefully navigated topics such as life, love, fame, sex, and death, not to mention gender and class. However, where the book turns radical is that it’s an unrelenting look at sexual abuse and the after-effects of trauma on one character, Jude. And not in a clinical way: we are in Jude’s head, suffering along with him, for the entire book. This provoked empathy and sadness, as well as extreme frustration and discomfort for some readers.
Here’s my review:
This was a long book that started out as a paean to friendship (four struggling young professionals—Willem, an actor; Jude, a lawyer; JB, an artist; and Malcom, an architect—in NYC and their apparently unshakable bonds) and ended up being, to my mind, a story that suggests that the main character, Jude, has been so brutally damaged that only a perfect, devoted love will save him. Which he gets for a while. It takes a long time for Willem and Jude to transition from friendship to love, but it is definitely the carrot that draws the reader through this difficult book.
I was impressed that the cover image is a photograph by Peter Hujar called “Orgasmic Man.” That made me trust Yanagihara right there, that she is coming from a place where she understands art and queer history. (The image at first glance seems to be of a man wincing in pain, but in fact, of course, he’s in what is supposed to be a moment of bliss.)
While the book isn’t very outwardly “political,” in fact is set in a cleverly nondescript present over the course of thirty years, the details of Jude’s sexual abuse as an abandoned, exploited kid and subsequent anguish/low self-esteem/cutting are piercing and true. Another irony that’s slowly revealed: he isn’t able to enjoy sex and he never does, even with the one person he adores. He cuts himself frequently and is unable to open up about his past. The last part of the book is tragic because the one person whom he’s revealed himself to has died and he simply can’t open up to anyone else, even long-standing friends and mentors.
The book takes Jude on an arc from self-possessed young lawyer to lonely, suicidal guy, to the happy years with Willem where he is as “together” as he’s going to be, and then, after the dreadful loss, he falls apart and becomes childllike and feral, slowly disappearing. But by then I had experienced so much of his past that I understand his ultimate decision very well.
I’m sure there are people who rely on their friends to get by after wretched pasts. But this engrossing novel does jibe with my own experience that being loved, at a deeper level of intimacy, is necessary for survival. I liked the progressive attitude towards sexuality in this book, the sophisticated understanding of sexual fluidity. But I do think A Little Life has a fairly traditional message at heart.
Yanagihara has said that she tried to make the novel as generous as possible in the sense that the reader can really feel intimacy with the characters. She has succeeded marvellously in this. I read it over two days and felt pulled immediately into the characters’ world. It was a little hard to transition back to my world!
A book like this doesn’t come along every day.
(I gave it five stars.)