Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.

10 responses to “Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

  1. A writer whose family name translates from the Japanese into WillowFields or WillowPlains was what initially drew me to the book. The back-stories of each of the characters – comprehensive and detailed – no doubt explains some significant part of the 720 pages. The central story/character – as harrowing as it was – as kind of “rabbit-in-the-headlights” caught by its horror as I felt – was none-the-less believable. I’ve recently been reading some classic (Mike LEW) books on child sex abuse recovery – which to some extent explains the fascination Hanya Y’s book would have to a sizeable proportion of the reading public – especially for those who have come out of related theft of child-hood innocence! It’s some time since I read it – I don’t think I have recommended it to anyone – I’m not sure how I would do that – but if anyone finds it and reads it (from book reviews or listening to the writer speak to it – or finds it via the recommendation of others) then I might speak about my response. (As it seems I have done here.)

    • Hi Jim. Fascination is an interesting word in this context, and I think it’s accurate. Fascination is different from the kind of witnessing attention HY calls for, but it seems to me that it’s what the book actually invites. Or at least doesn’t actively discourage

  2. I am glad you have read this book and posted a balanced review. After reading an extensive review in the LRB I decided not to read it. I felt that the obsessive detail of the kinds of sexual abuse Jude was subjected to and the similar detail of his self harm were quite excessive and possibly designed to attract readers with a creepy interest in sado/masochistic behaviour. Now I’m glad I took this decision although I have got flack from some friends who think I have wimped out.

    And thank goodness I am no longer in a book group. Yours sounds remarkably civilized.

    • Thanks Gert. Actually the sexual abuse isn’t given in obsessive detail. It’s the psychological manipulation and later the self harm that are viscerally there (as one of our guys said). I don’t know about civilised, but I wouldn’t swap my book group for quids.

  3. As always I enjoy your reading group reports and this was particularly interesting. I haven’t been driven to read this book – though I recollect it pretty much got rave reviews on Jennifer Byrne’s Bookclub? I would read it if my reading group decided to do it, but somehow I suspect they won’t.

    I did love Charlotte Wood’s comment – partly tongue in cheek or not. I can usually stick with grim stuff. It would be the writing, and my engagement with it that decided whether I stuck with it, I think, not the length. Still, a shorter book does appeal overall!

    • Hi Sue. I don’t take notes, so my reports on the group are always a bit skimpy. There were a couple of moments in this meeting when I wished it was being recorded. Although there were no big disagreements about this book in our group, we seem to be in a tiny minority. I’m not urging you to read it, but would be interested to hear your take on it.

  4. Pingback: The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train | Me fail? I fly!

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