Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hanya Yanagihara, 'A Little Life'

has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I am not one of those who reads every book on the shortlist, though I usually read one or two, plus the winner, because I know I will fail, and if reading ceases to be a joy and becomes a chore, then why do it? I do have my reading tasks (we firstborns are goal-oriented, and I am very Type A) - a chapter a day of non-fiction (currently 'The Third Reich, A New History', by Michael Burleigh, lorra laughs, NOT), one of something in French (currently 'Congo, une histoire' by David van Reybrouck, translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin, interesting) and, when I can, something in Russian, currently an odd little fable called in English 'The Garnet Bracelet', by Alexander Kuprin, seems to be about love. Oh well. Although some writers subvert the "system" by having very long or very short chapters, or no chapters at all. The swine. And then after I've read all that I indulge myself with fiction in English. I have my to-read list, both of print books and on the Kindle, about 30 of them at the moment. It stays fairly static, approximately one in and one out. When I see something reviewed that interests me, or a mention in another book, I write it in a notebook and buy or download two from that list a month. But every now and then I see a book mentioned that catches my interest, and I download it and put it to the front of the queue. One such was 'A Little Life'.

Boy did I not know what I was getting into. For a start it's 700 pages long (you can't tell so immediately on a Kindle) so took a while. It's about four young men starting out in New York, and their lives thereafter. It's deliberately non-specific as to when it takes place, clearly from about 30 years ago until about now, but there are no events, no politics, no 9/11, not even any named artists who are "real" (a lot of it takes place in the art world), so it is kind of affectless. There are four of them, but gradually two of them fade into the background (in one case with a bang), then there is a significant plot development with the third, and this leaves the fourth. The one no one, not even those closest to him, knows anything about. No spoiler to say that he suffered horrific abuse throughout his childhood, and that this is why he cannot form relationships. Three of them are creatives - an artist, an architect and an actor - but not this one. He likes mathematics for its purity, and the law for its rigour.

It's not flawless - two of them are from very modest backgrounds, but somehow end up wealthy and living in fabulous apartments, just what all ambitious young people who go to New York think is going to happen, and it never does, and some of them get taken up by rich benefactors, which also never happens. But hey, maybe that's the can-do of American life. I wouldn't really know. We Europeans know that our background and culture define us. That is our misfortune, perhaps. It's a bit implausible like that. And would someone with the emotional and physical health problems that Jude St Francis (how about THAT for a name?) has really be able to have such a brilliant career in law? Well, perhaps.

It's quite gay, but it's not a "gay novel". I think younger writers are more like that - sexuality as a continuum, not a state. Perhaps. I seem to be saying "perhaps" a lot about this book.

There's a good review here. Its headline says "subversive brilliance", and I think that's right. "Of course", children who have been abused grow up like - what, exactly? What do the first fifteen years of your life say about the rest of it? "Of course" people who have been abused look for love in the arms of an abuser. Except that they don't, not always, and sometimes they may find it in the arms of someone who actually loves them. Oddly for a book with an abused child as its centre, this book is about happiness, and friendship, and love. And here, the greatest of these is friendship.

This book made me think about friendship, and about kindness, and decide that without these two there is not much that is worth while in this life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Getting this - bought the Tyler today. Rather amazed that there has been no place on the list for the O'Hagan. He must have offended the establishment somehow.