The 2016 Tournament of Books - Day Six

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Day Six

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara vs. The New World by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz

I’m going to start by saying that I loved A Little Life and The New World left me cold. The New World was a short book, a book with some interesting ideas, a book with some beautiful prose, but it never came together in an interesting way. This is a book - and there have been many recently and probably plenty more in the works - where ideas that once were the geeky province of genre fiction are now treated seriously, with attention paid to the prose and incorporating these ideas into a “literary” novel. I read some of these books and some are good and some are bad, but I had a problem that I’ve found that many other readers I know do not have - I’ve read it before. By which I mean that I’ve read a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the course of my life. Reading something like The New World, it’s not clever or interesting - I’ve seen those ideas elsewhere, read about them explored differently, better, worse, in greater depth. Which means that they have to impress me with how they put it together, with the prose, and the book just doesn’t. It never manages to be more than an interesting idea with good prose that never quite coheres.

A Little Life is a book that I know has divided people, and I have plenty of quibbles with the book, but I think it’s a magnificent work of genius that moved me to tears. Literally, I was sobbing at the end of this book. When I wrote about Our Souls at Night the other day I mentioned that one of the reasons why I voted for that book was that I was truly moved by the book, that the characters managed to elicit emotion in an honest and thoughtful way. But by the end of A Little Life, I was bawling in a way that very books have ever caused me to do.

Now that’s not to say that I think the book is flawless. It’s long and like any book that’s this long (The hardcover edition I had was 720 pages) if I were the editor I would have suggested cutting some sections. I for example could have dealt with less of the abuse that the main character survived as a child. But overall, I found it to be an empathic look at a single character over a period of decades.

I do have a number of questions that I’d like to pose to Yanagihara. For example I do wonder whether the intention was always for the book to be about Jude and a handful of people around him, or if the intention was to be about a group of friends, about this milieu of young people in New York City, but in the process of writing the book, Jude took over. I don’t the know the answer but I am curious. The first chunk of the book which focuses on the many friends reads differently than the majority of the book which focuses on Jude.

It’s been interesting to read the commentary about the book. Sometimes I feel as though when I read commentary that I read a very different book than they did. I cannot call this book “Li’l Life” as some people do, simply because of the reason for the book’s title just makes me unable to do so.

But I’ve been fascinated at the notion that people find the book exhausting and overwhelming and so many of the other words that people have used to describe the book, and the way that people talk about Jude and his depression and self-loathing have made me think about myself and my own life. I suffer from depression and have for quite a long time, and I consider the book to be one of the best fictional portraits of depression that I’ve read in a very long time.

I wonder if that has affected my reading of the book. There are many of the passages in the book where Jude is internally berating himself, the fear he has that people are about to reject or abandon him, his constant uncertainty over so many aspects of his life, the fear of being discovered as a failure and rejected once people learn who he really is. I wonder if so many of the people who read the book find it to be exhausting and straining their empathy–which seems to be what many have said or suggested–while I think, yeah, that sounds like a typical Thursday for me.

I’m being flippant, but I do wonder if that’s true.

Yanagihara manages to convey this complicated sense of self that Jude possesses, the way that he can seem so well adjusted and so capable one minute but wracked by insecurity, tormented by suicidal thoughts, the anguish he has and the ways he tries to endure every day. I’m not saying that it wasn’t exhausting, but it was also very familiar to me. I’ve been through that. I go through that. This is my life. So where others might see the anguish and this never ending stream of pain to be gratuitous, I do wonder whether my perspective means that I read it very differently than the average reader.

This question seems particularly important given the fact that there are TV shows about sex crimes and serial killers and TV shows filled with rape and this kind of trauma and abuse is out there in pop culture. I would much rather that such trauma be treated in this fashion, to show over decades, the pain and anguish and damage that it does to victims. I think that’s much preferable to caring about the pain and suffering of victims for a few minutes and then cutting to commercial and then at the end of the hour, everything’s better.

It’s notable that the victim is a man and his circle of friends are all cis men. I wonder if this plays a role in how people read it and how people respond to it. Would a woman who had gone through this be read differently? If a woman had gone through it would her friends have had a better sense of what had happened, what it meant and how they could have helped? Because I do think that if Jude were a woman and all her friends were women, then it would have been a different book. Not just that we would read it differently but realistically speaking, women would have perceived and responded to a someone who went through sexual abuse, who was traumatized and seems asexual in a different way where the guys in this book just shrug and as long as Jude is no danger to himself or anyone else, it’s no one’s business but his. 

Or maybe I’m wrong. I could be wrong.

But beyond that there are so many interesting moments in the book. The scene where Willem realizes that he’s famous - because he’s always gone to events and known people but it was because his old roommates was the person’s brother or some other 3-4 degrees of separation that exists among young people in a city. Or Willem’s youth and his relationship with his brother. Jude’s descriptions of mathematics and why it fascinates him. There are some incredible scenes and passage sin the book, which I do love.

One aspect of the book that I continue to ponder is the title and the cover art. The cover is a photograph by Peter Hujar, which depicts not a man in pain as many people have said, but a man at the point of orgasm. The title comes from what Jude was told when he was being abused, that he should show “a little life” when he’s being pimped out.

Anyway, I think the book is not perfect, but when I sat there, sobbing as I read the last section, none of those quibbles meant anything. This is an amazing book and I loved it.

My Winner:  A Little Life

Over at the Tournament:  A Little Life (though the judge was not a fan of the book and actually writes near the end “I personally think it’s probably better that you don’t read A Little Life.”)


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