Book Review

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

a few weeks ago I read an excellent novel

written mid-September

A little life.

A big book.

It’s trite to say but, y’know, it is a big chunk of literature. A massive, heaving, pounding, powerful, joyful, sorrowful mass of a novel.

It’s brilliant, though it’s absurd.

It’s harrowing, yet it’s hilarious.

It’s relentless and it’s cruel, it’s gritty and it’s realistic, but it’s also fantastical, idealistic, perfect, ideal, whole.

It’s discursive and digressive and exploratory and achingly fucking beautiful – A Little Life repeatedly left me grasping my chest as I hyperventilated through tears as I read and walked on my way to my dull job in this dull eternal half-world of the tail-end (is it the tail-end? It might not be!) of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I cared more about Jude St Francis and Willem Ragnarsson over the past couple of weeks than I cared about anyone or anything else

-it feels like a couple of weeks, but at most it’s ten days… ten days when, again, nothing happened to me, again again again this descends into nothing, into not even abstract; I’m so bored I can barely function, and I don’t know if that’s much of an improvement on being too depressed to do so-

I read the first hundred pages of A Little Life on the last Monday of August. I was on the Toronto islands again, again on the nude beach. I stood – as I love to do – navel-deep in Lake Ontario and I read and I stood and I paced and I let the waters and the currents roll over me; sometimes there would be the wake of a boat or a yacht or a jet ski and it would rock me where I stood, feet planted in the sand, and A Little Life would get wet.

From that first day, my once-pristine copy of A Little Life began to be destroyed.

90 minutes/two hours stood in the water left pages sodden, being next to the beach left damp sand sprinkled throughout its pages, then when I put the book back in my bag my dog dug a big hole next to it and sprayed a LOT of sand inside the bag and therefore the book.

There was a slight tear on the back cover that happened while the book was damp and it slid against something sharp (a bottleopener?) inside my bag.

As I read the book over the subsequent weeks, I kept thinking I should cover it in sticky-backed plastic the way I have covered the copy of the Bible that I took with me on my camino many years ago. That’s the only book I’ve ever covered and that book is an object that means more to me than it does to most other people with my hopeless and pessimistic regard towards spirituality; there are, of course, millions of people who take greater meaning than I from their bible. I love that particular volume, that penguin classics massive paperback I have carried from classroom to library from house to house from bed to bed from lover to lover from idea of literary project to the next. A Little Life is the first book since that Bible that I had wanted to cover in plastic.

///

I’m trying to convey the way I felt about A Little Life.

It’s not the best novel I’ve ever read… I don’t believe it’s faultless or without flaws. 

In many ways it’s a bad book.

It opens with the implication that it will tell the story of four peers as they navigate life, but as it progresses, quickly the relative page count of each of these characters shifts and… it doesn’t feel like this was necessarily planned.

Like, I could believe that Yanagihara had intended for the novel to more equally hold the lives of these four people, but they found themselves overwhelmed by the story of a particular character (Jude St Francis).

Where the book is really bad is on class and its ridiculous pretence that each of its four characters (and absolutely all of their friends/peers) achieves phenomenal success in their fields and I don’t think it’s realistic for the average person that everyone they know achieves their dreams. And, yes, at elite universities and colleges there will be groups of friends within which everybody does achieve their wonderful dreams, but many of those people would have arrived to the university pool with connections already, and it is inconceivable that two people who came from nothing would get to live the life fantastic, right? Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know, lol, I’m very unsuccessful (with the notable exception of that time I was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019, an achievement that is getting further away with each passing week).

I spend my days reading books, walking through suburban streets which are allegedly the centre of a major international city and then I arrive at work and I spend 10/12/15 hours bouncing between extensive email threads with middle class party goers or over privileged artsy types or whatever else I have to deal with and I just I just find it so so boring.

Like, nothing happens.

Things used to happen to me, things still happen to other people.

What kind of things would I want to happen?

I’d love to do something I regret.

I just remember that blistering feeling in the fucking gut when you’ve done something you know is absolutely fucking indefensible and when your body is electric with the charge of delicious guilt.

Earlier today I had to speak to a police officer as I tried and failed to download data from the company CCTV hard drive, and I didn’t need to feel any worry at all because there is literally nothing I’ve done in this country for which I could be arrested, which made me feel very lame.

I don’t know.

Maybe I feel all life is little when you look at it.

I remember feeling horror, I remember feeling shame.

I recognized a lot of things in A Little Life.

And I wish I fucking hadn’t

-it’s a beautiful novel.

If its structure, if its use of time, if its evocation of personal growth and psychological ageing; if these things were perfect it wouldn’t be so beautiful.

This is a novel with huge aspirations and huge fucking confidence and I think anything (everything?) that is arrogant deserves to fail and in many ways this novel does.

Why is the plot so distressing? Why is there so much abuse?

It’s not a difficult read in terms of language it’s not a difficult read in terms of plot.

But it’s a difficult read in its emotional potency

it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. 

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