Manuel Betancourt

Hanya Yanagihara & A Little Life at #MashReads

June 20, 2015 · in Books

"Orgasmic Man" (1969) by Peter Hujar which covers Yanagihara's novel

“Orgasmic Man” (detail) (1969) by Peter Hujar which covers Yanagihara’s novel, A Little Life

My favorite book so far this year is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a novel I’ve grown to describe as a sudden gentle caress in the dark: unexpected, frightening, moving, and discomforting though not altogether unwelcome. Yanagihara’s mammoth novel (it clocks in at 700+ pages, though I slogged through it digitally and only belatedly realized how lengthy it is) follows the lives of four friends who eventually migrate to New York City: Malcolm, Willem, JB and Jude, the latter guarding a past he’d rather soon forget.

I was lucky enough to take part in Mashable’s June #MashReads gathering this past Friday and got to hear Yanagihara chat about her book for over an hour. Needless to say, it was bliss. And not just because the discussion was equal parts book club (we talked about our feelings about the book and its characters), classroom (discussing its title, its literary lineage) and group therapy (it was unsurprisingly cathartic to hear my own feelings of being bludgeoned emotionally by the book repeatedly echoed by the crowd), but because Yanagihara gives good quote. In explaining why Willem & Jude remain in Manhattan she quipped, “Brooklyn is for people who are self-assured” which is as great an insight on the two endlessly self-conscious characters as well as on that New York City borough itself.

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Photo: Manuel Betancourt

I was much too enthralled to write down every thing we discussed (follow the #Mashreads hashtag and the A Little Life Twitter account for some choice quotes though!) but I did want to single out 5 insights that I had to jot down and that might give you a sense of the lively discussion we had. [Minor SPOILERS below]

1. On the novel’s tone. She described it as one existing between fairy tale and naturalism, two “unalike forms” (one exaggerated, timeless and placeless, focused on moral abstractions, the other grounded in the minutia of details, focused on day to day concerns). This explains the absence of Reagan & AIDS and Bush & 9/11; in wanting to craft a novel that conceivably takes place always in the present (something she acknowledges she didn’t quite achieve, admitting she pictured it starting off in 2009 and moving into the future), she hoped to keep the reader from holding on too tightly to the very aspects of timeliness (food trends, artwork, politics) that otherwise characterize the naturalist novel. She’d elaborated on this in her interview with Mashable where she noted that in reading the book, “You enter into a suspended zone — and either you want to be in that zone or you don’t.”

2. “It’s an American novel.” Not in that it is indebted to any specific American novel (certainly not Moby Dick, which she’s yet to read though she’s heard good things!), but in that it is a story about success, about the “American Dream.” Jude’s story could only happen — and perhaps could only be told! — in the vastness of the United States. This American aesthetic, ruthless, ambitious, almost inordinately focused on a specific vision of success (a Manhattan apartment, a show at the Whitney, a film award, money in the bank) is what fuels the novel even as it attempts to give voice to, yes, a “little life,” the type that may have otherwise not made it to the pages of a novel. It is, of course, a novel about reinvention so the New York City setting, where many of us flock to search for a new family, for people to call our own, further exacerbates that American sensibility that runs through Jude’s story.

That cover is a viral meme waiting to explode.

That cover is a viral meme in the making.

3. The book’s cover. Yanagihara chose the book cover herself and loves telling the story behind the Peter Hujar photo that graces it. Taken in 1969 yet only made public in 1987 when Hujar – a member of the downtown gay scene – died of AIDS complications, the photo is titled “The Orgasmic Man.” I asked how the origin of the photo added to the effect of the novel. After praising Hujar (“better than Mapplethorpe!”), she said that the picture “is difficult to read and difficult to ignore, hopefully like the novel itself.” Indeed, the arresting image (which Yanagihara hoped would seize you upon first encounter), is erotic and intense, blending a feeling of eroticism and pain, perhaps suggesting both or either. That it connects Jude & co. with another NYC homosocial artistic scene further highlights how, while she’d rather think of Jude as a character with a complicated story to tell who “is also gay,” her quartet of boys cannot help but call up an entire underground NYC history of gay melodrama, male artistry, and homosexual community, even (or especially) because Yanagihara never identifies it/them by name.

4. Jude’s ethnicity. It’s mostly a mystery throughout the novel and yet Yanagihara, who was so candid about her process (“the novel came to me whole” she noted early on), dispelled any rumors and shared with us that in her mind (and if only she could find a good sketch artist!) Jude is part Middle-Eastern, part Latino, with maybe some White in there too. Suddenly, JB’s attraction to him made all the more sense. Over the course of the conversation, Yanagihara also mentioned that there were plenty of details about these characters (whom she finds herself still writing scenes for, a habit she knows she needs to break soon), that didn’t make it into the novel itself. She also admitted to identifying with JB the most which has made readers’ antipathy towards that showboating self-absorbed artist a tad hard to navigate.

5. The novel’s length. The book is intentionally oppressive and claustrophobic, though it doesn’t begin that way. She refers to its ombré effect, starting quite light and fun and only slowly turning darker and darker. The claustrophobia and oppressiveness are effects of its choice of characters (we are, after all, in an almost all-male environment) and choice of pace (those long chapters are meant to not give you an exit). She enjoys hearing that this molasses-like pace actually adds to the novel’s overall effect; she was glad to hear that early details that recur at the end made readers feel as nostalgic as the characters themselves.

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Yanagihara signing books after the talk

If you haven’t yet picked up A Little Life (and feel you’re up for the exhaustive if rewarding ride it provides), I cannot recommend it enough. That the books feels like emotional cutting is no surprise; that it feels like such a triumph because of it is nothing short of a revelation. Perhaps Yanagihara sums it up best: “I don’t think this is an optimistic book but there’s a lot of love in the book.”