A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

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The majority of this review will be in the spoiler section – down below – because I need to talk about this book, ramble and rave and rant.

Without spoilers – let me say this book is excellent. It’s thick, but it manages to flow smoothly from one section to the next.

There is a hook that will dig pretty deep into your subconscious, the mysterious past of one of the main characters, that will gently pull you, then drag you, then rip you out of the water as you struggle to regain your sense of reality. This mystery – and my burning need to KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, even as I knew that it would be awful and make me cry and I might regret finding out – is what truly made this book stand out from the crowd.

Like all the characters in the book, who also don’t know the secret the one guy keeps buried, but also got hints, that dared to imagine yet couldn’t quite ask outright, you are deeply, deeply compelled to reveal this mystery – even as you subconsciously shield yourself from it. There must be some psychology about this reflex – the need to know mixed with the instinct to remain ignorant. The reason we can’t help but look at car crashes, the ways it plays with our minds, the ways tragedy changes our view of things. It’s such a push and pull.

This book is a car crash you can not look away from.

And like a car crash, you will be forced to reflect on your life as you witness the decimation of others. Even though you most likely don’t know them – even though it doesn’t touch you directly – it is a shared fragility, our humanity. And how we think depends on where we are in the equation. Who are you in the scenario – The one driving the crashed car? The one driving by the scene? The one at fault in the accident? The one who walked away? The one would couldn’t? The one brought in to clean up the mess? The one who tries to get everyone around it moving again? The one who will report it? The one to examine the corpses? Inform the families? Cry at the funeral? The one who will remember that once they knew that person and now they are gone and be shaken by it? The one who will turn over to find an empty bed because of it? The one who will defend the guilty party in court? The one who will judge them? The one who will see only a singular mistake that cost so much or the one who will see only a slaughter that deserves retribution? And even as this web of interconnections spreads out and unites us all – it also thins out and we know the scene will be cleared, the departed put to rest, the fates of those affected will be altered but continue on, to new fates. And we will never forget. Or often forget. Or forget immediately. And all of those responses are correct.

This book is not, mind you, about a car crash. I mean it is. But it’s not.

This is a book about people. And how we are nothing to almost everyone, and yet how we are everything to ourselves and the few people whose lives intimately touch ours. It’s about how we get to know people and how we are never known. It’s sad and beautiful, because we are all such complicated messes. Our insecurities are deep and profound and stick with us throughout life, like a deep layer of skin we can never shed. It doesn’t matter how our personal insecurities compare to others – whether they are warranted, earned, deserved, or simply there. They are huge and they dictate our lives and are the shadow our bright suns fall into and escape from each day.

If you haven’t read it – well, you may not want to. Look at the cover. If that cover appeals to you – then you should read it. If you look at that face and think, “My God, what is this the cover image?” then perhaps it’s not. The book cover is perfect – a handsome face contorted in pleasure or in pain? Is that beautiful? Is that ugly? We always smile for pictures – or at least try to look attractively neutral. We are composed and presented – but we really can’t see what others see – what we look like when we’re caught in a moment. We don’t see ourselves when we’re lost in thought or crying or laughing or staring at a computer screen. So many things shape who we are. Our bodies. Our genetics. Our upbringing. Our experiences. We are inside and out, always.

Rating: 5 Stars.

So – let’s just… ditch the metaphors and get right into the mess.

Follow me to spoiler land…

So…

Trigger Warnings.

I guess this is the sort of book that warrants one. I do not object to such things – and sometimes think the shoulder shrug way people can often dismiss them is very callous. To warn of content does not mean to close the door. It is just a label, conveying what is inside.

This book has a lot of cutting. A lot of self harm.

It also has rape. A lot of rape. Violence. Abuse. Pedophilia.

It does not describe the rape or the violence in detail, but it does not shy away from stating them. It does linger more on the self harm – but that seems fitting to the story as it is happening in real time, so to speak, and is the lens through which all the other trauma is examined. The body horror is used for this as well, though I am uncertain body horror is the correct label for it. Our main character’s body is deeply damaged – from injury as well as self harm – and it is horrible, but it’s not written to gross us out  but to cause us to reflect on our own bodies and how much they are entangled in our identities and sense of self.

Listen, a lot of people have read this book and taken away completely different things from it. Some saw it as a statement on the beauty of kindness. Some saw it as tragedy porn. Others saw it as a testament to the gay experience. People are prone to project themselves onto certain characters and thus relate to them more. Reading is a complicated business and the large majority of every story always resides in your head. So what I read and what you read are always gonna be different. But this is my blog so obviously, it’s just my opinion here.

“None of them really wanted to listen to someone else’s story anyway; they only wanted to tell their own.” 

With all that said – let’s talk about Jude.

The cover image for this book is a photograph by Peter Hujar, called Orgasmic Man. The entire time I read this book, and continually closed it to breath, staring down at the cover, I did not realize it was a picture of a man in sexual climax. Of course, now that I do know – it’s all I see. I still see the anguished man of my original interpretation, but I also see the torrent of body chemistry and release, of blinding surrender. How can I see both? Which is true?

Who is Jude? Is he the lies he tells everyone? Or is he something inbetween?

Jude trauma is Schrödinger’s cat. Jude is simultaneously always his past and current self at the same time. One could argue there isn’t much more to Jude than his trauma – there certainly wasn’t much to him in this book. What does Jude like? What does Jude enjoy? What are Jude’s dreams or aspirations? Jude doesn’t really have those things – because he’s stuck, forever, with the weight of his past. He enjoys life through his friends and their experiences. He soaks up their normality and wears it like a disguise to hide himself.  As a lawyer, he buries himself in the lives of others and the structure of the justice system. Forever discovering and helping determine the balance of justice is a sadly poetic professional choice, I suppose.

Willem.

Willem is your “handsome” character. The good looking, amiable dude. I could never get a handle on Willem, as he seemed as far away from his feelings as actors seem from reality. Maybe that was the point. He struggles along, but in many ways he coasts. It takes him a while to get into the groove of his life – and it wasn’t surprising to me that he did finally flourish as an actor because of my own personal belief that all actors are secretly very insecure about their personalities and jumping into characters is the only way they really feel fulfilled and realized as a human. This is a very cliche stereotype and I know it – but what can I say?  Stereotypes are around for reasons.

I originally had more to say about Willem but ultimately he left me as cold as his Nordic parents.

JB.

Oh, JB! My disaster of a human, how I loved thee. JB was a mess. Spoiled, coddled, and forever tormented by the process of creation, JB was my favorite character. This is not to say that I liked his character, because I liked none of the characters. But I did enjoy reading about JB more. He has interests that interested me. He enjoyed parties and socializing and colorful things. He made horrible choices and was punished for them. Whether the punishment fit the crime might arguably be one of the major themes of this entire book.

Malcolm.

I guess he was in the story. I remember liking him a great deal at the beginning of the story and then sort of forgetting he was in the book towards the end.

Now let’s talk about society.

Though I was depressingly spellbound by the horrors of Jude’s past, his sad origins, the physical, sexual, and mental abuse he suffered – I was ultimately drawn into another aspect of the story more. That of secrets. Of how some secrets, once told, will change everything. How Jude was, sadly, correct in that his secret past would completely re-write everyone’s view of him. Completely. And how they still wouldn’t understand. So did it make it better, or worse, that he finally told?

The jury is still out for me on that one. And that, my friends, is the reason this book gets five stars and not three or four. Because it left me with a very unsettling quandary on human nature. It is in our nature to reach out, to want to know others. It is also in our nature to reveal ourselves to others, to crave being known. But there are ends of the spectrum to this, extremes, where to know or to reveal is trickier business.

There’s a reason men didn’t come back from the world wars and sit down with their spouses or kids or parents and share with them the horrors they’d experienced. The horrors they’d engaged in. There are some things that are impossible to relate to – you only know if you know, and even then… it’s difficult to categorize or claim consistency in. It was horrible. It was human. These are the commonalities.

We seem to accept the silence of war – maybe because we all know it happened. We know enough to paint a picture. We know you were there and what happened, in general.  We know enough to know we don’t want to know, I guess. We know that mental, physical, and sexual abuse happened during the wars – all wars – but we don’t talk about that in school or at home, we tend to focus on generals and battles and uniforms and maps. It makes us very uncomfortable, imagining human beings killing each other. Abusing each other. Doing what, we generally agree as a society, is very bad indeed. And in this we show how tenuous our identities are. As individuals, as a collective. We distance ourselves as quickly as we can, even when we know it’s everywhere. Even when we know the person next to us may have been a perpetrator or a victim. Even when we know we were.

My issue with this has always been… does it have to be this way?

Our silence is our solution but also our problem. And we have a problem.

I mean… everyone should be talking about this. At home. In schools. In churches. We should become comfortable with the conversation, with the statistics, with the resources available… so we can know what to do. So we can know what to look for. So we can, at some point, start tipping these numbers in the other direction.

We need to talk about ourselves and our capacity to hurt others. Mental abuse. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. These things are intertwined with humanity and too much of our civilization is built on ignoring our faults. We have arbitrary rules. Ages in which we have decided information can be presented. Ages in which we must stay silent and ages at which it is too late to tell.

We need to start talking about things that make us uncomfortable.

In this past decade, I have witnessed two events that have given me hope.

The first was the legalization of gay marriage in the United States – and with it, an understood integration of LGBTQA+ individuals, histories, and experiences into the public eye. I mean, we’re not there yet – but it’s… still… amazing. It’s amazing to me that I knew there were tons of LGBTQA+ people in the world and always had been and yet I had never really considered equal rights as something that would happen. I had accepted their oppression. My oppression. And now it seems strange that I lived that way. I have before and after – two contradicting images that now overlap to create who I am.

Here’s a fun fact. In 2017, the average population of LGBTQA+ folks in America was about 5%, but… the general population assumes it’s closer to 20%. Now, whether this is due to the fact there is increased visibility in the gay community – or whether this is due to the fact that a lot more people wash over the edges when it comes to sexuality is unknown.

This says to me that what people do and say, or what we know and what we report, are two different things – and that’s basically humanity in a nutshell.

I expect the numbers of the LGBTQA+ population to increase, dramatically, in the next decade or two – because we’re saying it out loud now. Because we’ve added more boxes to chose from. Because there was a tipping point and we’re slowing going in a new direction – a better one – and being more honest about things we shushed up for generations.

The second big event was the Me Too Movement. Though this originally started in 2006, it hit its peak in 2017. Widespread media coverage, celebrities, politicians, and other highly visible public entities came together to open discuss sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.  This acted as a catalyst – and millions of people started to suddenly tell their stories, long kept secrets, about their own experiences. They shared them publicly. They shared them in articles and blogs and posts and rants and tweets.

This was another thing we knew was happening. That we knew had been happening for generations, maybe forever, and it just seemed… stationary. But suddenly it moved and everyone felt like they could help change it. That they could speak. And they did.

Those statistics, that had always been available, suddenly seemed real and savage and horrible and close to us. One in three. One in three. It changed everything.

We looked around at groups of women – girls, mothers, grandmothers, ladies, doctors, cadets, generals, teachers – women, women. One in three. That meant… her. And her. And her and her and her and probably her and maybe her and oh god, so many. And it also, of course, took a second for us to go… but if there are so many than who… who… and our eyes shifted to men.

I don’t know how we will define this later. What we will point to. But I do know it changed things – it opened our mouths, our eyes, our minds. It made us notice things we’d ignored. It made a lot of us believe first, instead of doubt. It ran through our mental interiors and pointed to a lot of drawers and dark corners and asked us to “Remember this?” and then it flung open locked doors and said “You remember this.” And we did. And I don’t think anyone has forgotten – even though it’s not in the news every day any more, it changed the discourse. It changed our reactions.

So… what will it take for us to look at child abuse in the same way?

We need to start talking.

 

Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Originally published: 2015
Nominations: Booker Prize, National Book Award for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction
Genres: Novel, Bildungsroman, Domestic Fiction

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