A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Are you happy? he once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).

I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last, as if Willem had been offering him a dish he didn’t want to eat.

A Little Life starts as the story of four friends living in New York City. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm met at college and have remained friends into their late twenties. Jude and Willem are renting an apartment together. Malcolm’s living at home and JB’s living in a ‘massive, filthy loft in Little Italy’.

JB is an artist but is working as a receptionist at an art magazine in Soho trying to convince them to feature him. Early on in the novel he begins to take photographs of their group, photographs that will eventually make him very successful although that success will come at a price. Willem is an actor, waiting tables at the beginning of the novel but, like JB, he will go on to become incredibly successful. Malcolm works for Ratstar Architects, a position he only took to please his parents. He wants to create buildings and makes small, detailed models. He will also go on to be incredibly successful. Jude is an assistant prosecutor in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Guess what? He will also go on to be incredibly successful. However, Jude becomes the focus of the novel as his background and the consequences of it are far more complex than those of the other characters.

They were talking but Jude’s eyes were closed, and Willem knew – from the constant, hummingbird-flutter of his eyelids and the way his hand was curled into a fist so tight that Willem could see the ocean-green threads of his veins jumping under the back of his hand – that he was in pain. He knew from how rigid Jude was holding his legs, which were resting atop a box of books, that the pain was severe, and he knew too that there was nothing he could do for him. If he said, “Jude, let me get you some aspirin,” Jude would say, “I’m fine, Willem, I don’t need anything,” and if he said, “Jude, why don’t you lie down,” Jude would say, “Willem. I’m fine. Stop worrying.” So finally, he did what they had all learned over the years to do when Jude’s legs were hurting him, which was to make some excuse, get up, and leave the room, so Jude could lie perfectly still and wait for the pain to pass without having to make conversation or expend energy pretending that everything was fine and that he was just tired, or had cramp, or whatever feeble explanation he was able to invent.

 Jude has problems with his legs that stem from a car incident. The nature of this incident isn’t related until late on in the book but it is revealed early in the novel that Jude was abandoned by some bins as a baby and discovered by monks who took him in and brought him up whilst systematically abusing him. Jude’s friends know little about his upbringing, only Andy, his doctor, knows the details of his childhood. Andy treats Jude for the long-term injuries inflicted by the abuse and for Jude’s self-harming which is frequent and often very severe.

As well as his close friends, Jude develops a strong relationship with his university tutor, Harold Stein. Jude begins working for Harold as a research assistant. Eventually he’s invited for dinner and then, along with Willem, JB and Malcolm, to their house on Cape Cod. Over the years, visits become a ritual and finally, Harold and his wife, Julia, adopt Jude as their adult son.

A Little Life is a harrowing read. The abuse inflicted upon Jude and the abuse he inflicts upon himself is brutal and relentless. The detail Yanagihara writes in gives the novel an overwhelming, claustrophobic feel. As a reader, you are entombed in Jude’s world, watching and feeling his suffering but unable to do anything about it. You are placed in the same position as his friends and it’s a heart-breaking position to be in.

But it’s the portrayal of these friendships that are key to the novel’s success: Yanagihara details the shifts as the men get older and become successful in each of their fields. She shows what happens as romantic relationships form and priorities change. The friendships revolve around Jude, the absence of knowledge about his childhood creating a magnetic effect that draws them to him and keep them orbiting, wondering at the contents of the void and trying to support him through the damage inflicted upon him.

There’s been a lot of discussion about this novel on Twitter recently and it’s interesting to see the range of reactions. A Little Life is clearly not for everyone. It is harrowing, it is intense, it is an experience. It details an unusual life. What I think is particularly impressive is that Yanagihara has taken four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through.

My problem with the novel is that once again, a brilliant female novelist is being lauded for a brilliant book written about men (see also Hilary Mantel and A.M. Homes). I have no doubt that if A Little Life had a cast of four female characters reviews would have made comparisons to Sex and the City and heavyweight prize panels wouldn’t have been anywhere near as keen to shortlist it. It’s been interesting on a similar note to see people criticize Yanagihara for having completed the first draft of this 720 page book in 18 months. Last year when Kashuo Ishiguro revealed that he drafted the 270 page, Booker Prize winning, The Remains of the Day in three weeks, he was a genius and everyone else should quit trying.

Despite my concern, there’s no doubt that A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s rare for me to become so absorbed in a novel that I feel as though I’ve lived it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing it and I couldn’t read anything else for days after either, there was no space left in my brain.

A Little Life moves the idea of what the Great American Novel is on to something a little more representative of actual people. Yes, Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm are all living the American Dream but – at last – we have moved beyond the realm of the white middle class. I look forward to seeing Hanya Yanagihara celebrated on the cover of Time magazine.

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

Inter-Media

A few pieces I’ve enjoyed/found interesting in the last month.

Books wise the focus continues on the lack of coverage of books by women and on diversity in publishing. Syl Saller writes, ‘Why women-only initiatives are vital for the arts‘ followed by Alison Flood’s piece, ‘Publisher finds that writers’ influences are mostly male‘ both in The Guardian. The publisher is Sarah Davis-Gough of Tramp Press. Also quoted in the article is Deborah Smith, translator and publisher at Tilted Axis Press. On the And Other Books blog, she explains why Tilted Axis are having a year of publishing women. A woman much in the media of late is Harper Lee. Glynnis MacNichol writes ‘Harper Lee: the ‘great lie’ she didn’t write Mockingbird rears its head again‘ looking not just at Lee but other women who’s authorship has also been questioned.

Kerry Hudson gets angry and offers some solutions on the Writers’ Centre, Norwich’s website, ‘Lost Stories, Unheard Voices – Diversity in Literature‘. (Do read the piece by Nikesh Shukla that’s linked to at the bottom of that page also, you’ll be astonished.) In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Barker, author of The Incarnations, looks at her own experience as someone mixed-race English and Chinese, raised in Britain but writing about China; ‘Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

It’s unlikely you haven’t noticed that the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced this week. Dawn Foster wrote, ‘Summer’s here – so it’s time to grab a Booker and start reading‘ in The Independent and there are excellent interviews with longlisted authors Hanya Yanagihara and Anna Smaill.

In other recent topics, Roxane Gay writes about the outpouring for Cecil the Lion while Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland and the 681 other black people killed by police in the USA so far this year. Aisha Mirza asks, ‘London’s super-diversity is a joy. Why would you ever want to leave?‘ in The Guardian.

While Nina Stibbe looks at her experience of moving to the countryside in The Independent, ‘When village life turns nasty: An author reveals the dark heart of the English countryside‘ and Hazel Davis looks at the power of online friendships in Standard Issue, ‘iFriends‘.

Lots of good things on The Pool, as always. Sali Hughes writes, ‘A magazine cover that can make the world better for women‘, ‘“Housing benefit saved me as a teenager”‘ and ‘Hasn’t lying about your age gotten really old?‘. Lauren Laverne asks ‘Is work/life balance a big, fat waste of time?‘, ‘Who’s looking after all those successful men’s kids?‘ and ‘Too busy to sleep?‘. Sam Baker met Amy Poehler and I’m not remotely envious. Honest. Anna James looks at the 10 ways J.K. Rowling changed our lives and Alexandra Heminsley celebrates marketing campaigns finally realising ‘Exercise is not about getting skinny‘.

There’s been a number of other articles about women’s bodies recently. Eva Wiseman looks at the damage done to children through anti-obesity messages, ‘Learning to love our bodies‘ in The Observer. Lindy West writes, ‘My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time‘ in The Guardian and Shelley Harris says, ‘This Woman Can‘ on her blog in relation to Daisy Buchanan’s ‘A Letter I Wrote To Myself About Getting Fat‘ on her blog.

Elizabeth Day’s ‘Stop Calling Women ‘Lovely’!‘ for Elle UK makes me want to punch the air and shout ‘Fuck, yes!’

And being Yorkshire born and bred and having left and returned to the county twice, I love Sophie Heawood’s piece ‘I’ve lived half my life in London, but I’ll always be a Yorkshire lass at heart‘ in The Guardian.

In the Media: 24th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

The Cannes Film Festival’s been in the spotlight (haha) this week for turning women away from a screening because they were wearing flat shoes. Heels as compulsory footwear for women may or may not (depending which day it is someone asks) be part of their dress policy. Helen O’Hara writes ‘How the 2015 Cannes Film Festival became all about women‘  while Laura Craik asks, ‘Is the tyranny of high heels finally over?‘ both in The Pool. Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Can’t do heels? Don’t do Cannes‘ in The Guardian, while Elizabeth Semmelhack wrote, ‘Shoes That Put Women in Their Place‘ in The New York Times

The other big feminist story was about ‘wife bonuses’ after Wednesday Martin wrote a piece for the New York Times called, ‘Poor Little Rich Women‘. Amanda Marcotte asked, ‘What’s Wrong With “Wife Bonuses”?‘ in Slate

Awards this week went to the five 2015 Best Young Australian Novelists, three of whom are women, all of whom are women of colour – hurrah for progress. Also in Australia, the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award was revealed, four of the five shortlisted writers are women. The O. Henry Prize Stories for 2015 were announced. Of the twenty selected, fifteen were by women. You can read those by Dina Nayeri, Molly Antopol and Lynne Sharon Schwartz by clicking on their names.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

Photograph by Kwesi Abbensetts

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 3rd May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

There’s an election in the UK this week. As you’d expect, there’s been a number of articles about it, policies and where the previous coalition has left us. Huffington Post have been running a ‘Beyond the Ballot’ series. Contributions include: Vivienne Westwood, ‘The Housing Crisis – Politicians Are Criminals‘ and Denise Robertson, ‘Today, There Are No Housing Lifelines for People Who Fall on Hard Times‘. Media Diversified also have a series called ‘Other Voices’. Contributions include, Maya Goodfellow ‘Why aren’t politicians talking about racial discrimination in the job market?‘ and ‘Letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean, is this what the Tories mean by ‘British values’?‘ and ‘The pro-Tory business letter: a reminder that politics shouldn’t be dominated by a privileged few

Elsewhere, Zoe Williams wrote ‘10 big misconceptions politicians have about women‘ in The Pool; Deborah Orr, ‘Scotland is sending a curveball down Westminster way – and it’s not just Labour that will get hit‘ in The Guardian; Gaby Hinsliff, ‘We floating voters may be unenthused but we’re definitely not unprincipled‘ in The Guardian; Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote, ‘Why I’m thinking about spoiling my ballot‘ in the New Statesman; Laura Waddell, ‘Pink Vacuum Politics‘ on Libertine’ Suzanne Moore, ‘Parliament? Over the years I’ve met several powerful men there who have no idea of boundaries‘ in the New Statesman; Hannah Pool asks, ‘Why aren’t black women voting?‘ in The Pool; Suzanne Moore, ‘I’m sick of this estate agent election‘ in The Guardian

Saturday saw the death of crime writer, Ruth Rendell. The Guardian reported her death and ran a series of articles: Val McDermid wrote, ‘No one can equal Ruth Rendell’s range or accomplishment‘; Mark Lawson, ‘Ruth Rendell and PD James: giants of detective fiction‘; Stanley Reynolds wrote her obituary; here she is ‘In Quotes‘ and if you haven’t read anything by her, The Guardian also recommend ‘Five Key Works’ while The Telegraph have, ‘The best of Ruth Rendell: 10 to read, watch and listen to‘.

And then there was that beach body ready advertisement. Responses to which ranged from Gemma Correll, ‘Hilarious Illustrations Show You How to Get “Beach Body Ready”‘ in Stylist; Hadley Freeman, ‘What is a beach body anyway?‘ in The Guardian, and Tara Costello explained, ‘Why I Stripped to Make a Statement‘ on the Huffington Post.

Congratulations to Marion Coutts on winning the Wellcome Prize. Jenny Turner writes in The Guardian as to why Coutts is her hero. The shortlist for the Encore Award was announced and includes Harriet Lane, Amanda Coe, Rebecca Hunt and Deborah Kay Davies. And Gaby Wood was ‘…made Booker’s literary director‘ reports The Bookseller.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Leesa Cross-Smith who’s the featured writer on Atticus Review. She’s interviewed and has two stories up, ‘My Lolita Experiment‘ and ‘Dandelion Light‘; another in Synaesthesia Magazine, ‘The Darl Inn‘, and her column on Real Pants this week is ‘Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? & Girlfriendships‘.

 

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music, Film and Television, Personalities:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 5th April 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

As In the Media seems to be growing by the week, I’ve divided it into more categories. Comments welcome on what you think of the change and whether you’d prefer different/more section headings.

The big news this week is the launch of The Pool, a free, online resource written by women, for women. Writer and broadcaster, Lauren Laverne and writer and former Red magazine editor, Sam Baker are the women behind it, The Guardian ran a piece about the site earlier in the week. ‘Drops’ of content are released during the day; each piece tells you approximately how long it will take you to read/listen to/watch, and you can search by content or by time if you’ve only got a few minutes.  You can also sign up for an account which allows you to save articles to your ‘scrapbook’ either to read later or refer back to.

I’ve dipped in a few times this week and I love it; it’s clearly organised with some great contributors. My picks so far would be the book section (of course), where you can read the opening of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Girl and the opening of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. There’s also an interview with Essbaum and 10 Things You Need to Know About Anne Tyler as well as an article by Baker about why good books often end up making bad films.

Elsewhere on the site, I’ve enjoyed Sam Baker’s ‘Does this mean I’m not allowed to be a LEGO any more?‘; Lauren Laverne’s blog, ‘Is being a teenager harder than ever before?‘; Sali Hughes’ ‘Why every woman needs a solo playdate‘ and ‘Is it ever OK to commit liticide?‘ (although I winced through the whole of that one); Holly Smale’s ‘Why can’t we just get over Cinderella?‘; Gaby Hinsliff’s ‘What would happen if men didn’t have the vote?‘; Stacey Duguid’s ‘Flares if you care‘ where Duguid goes around high street shops trying flares on like you do when you’re shopping (as opposed to raiding the magazine’s fashion cupboard); an extract from Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, and Laurene Laverne’s interviews with Caitlin Moran and Kim Gordon.

In Harper Lee news, ‘Harper Lee elder abuse allegations declared ‘unfounded’ by Alabama‘ says The Guardian.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society:

Music:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

Photograph by Jane Feng

 

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 8th March 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s International Women’s Day today and, as you might expect, there have been a number of articles written about and with regards to it. Verso Books published a reading list; in the New Statesman, Stella Creasy said, ‘On International Women’s Day, let’s ask men why progress towards equality is so slow‘; One Book Lane ran a series, ‘The #WonderWomen you need to read about this International Women’s Day‘; Rebecca Winson wrote, ‘We mustn’t forget the revolutionary roots of International Women’s Day‘ in the New Statesman; Somayra Ismailjee, wrote ‘Self-Love Amidst Marginalisation‘ on Media Diversified; Cathy on 746Books wrote, ‘Putting Irish Women Writers Back in the Picture‘ with links to the articles the Irish Times have been running for the past fortnight and their celebratory poster which you can download; Harriet Minter wrote, ‘No need for International Women’s Day? What world do you live in?‘ in The Guardian; Emily Thornberry declared, ‘We Need a New Equal Pay Act‘ in the New Statesman, and Lucy Mangan says, ‘Women take more than enough shit‘ in Stylist.

The Harper Lee story continues, Connor Sheets of AL.com wrote to her and got a response, ‘Harper Lee appears to be fully lucid: She just told me to ‘go away’ via snail mail‘.

And an absolute joy of a series in Vogue: for the whole of March, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does ‘Today I’m Wearing‘.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

Or some non-fiction:

The lists: