Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Why I won't finish reading A Little Life
For a # of reasons I've stopped reading Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, at about 125 pp., which was enough to let me be certain I did not want to slog through about 525 or so more. Noting her complete reticence about disclosing anything in the author's note other than that she lives in NYC, I looked her up via Wikipedia, which let me to read Daniel Mendelsohn's long, critical review of ALL in the NYTBR; I can't speak w/ the same confidence as Mendelsohn on this, as I obviously did not finish reading ALL, but he raises two key points w/ which I completely agree and that I touched on in yesterday's post (meaning = these flaws become obvious at the start of the novel). We expect two things (at least) in a contemporary, naturalist novel: first, verisimilitude, which we don't get here at all. I think she has very little sense about how 4 guys, college roommates and friends who continue to have a close relationship as a foursome through grad school and beyond, actually speak with or behave w/ one another. A key example, the one who emerges as the central character in the novel, Jude, never ever in the least tells any of this best friends about the trauma that determined the course of his life - including, apparently, leading to a crippling injury that leaves him walking with the aid of braces and in constant pain. I get it that she's trying to show that guys don't talk about their "feelings," or at least not readily, but seriously the only reason he would keep his past a secret to his closest friends would be to build narrative tension. There are other examples as well (e.g., Jude's incredible and ridiculous list of accomplishments). Second, we expect some kind of narrative or dramatic arc, and this novel is entirely told in back story, and feels like a string of incidents connected only by the fact that they involve one or more of the 4 main characters. So what's the tension in the novel, what's the crisis, what problem needs to be resolved, how are the characters growing and changing? We see and feel none of this. Not that every novel needs to follow the same pathway, but more typically we would follow the characters over the course of their lives, starting with their meeting in college; or, we would begin at a crisis point, say with Jude in medical crisis and forced for the first time to discuss his childhood trauma. Or something. I can't comment on this not having finished reading the novel but Mendelsohn writes convincingly about HY's overwhelming her readers w/ incident upon incident of abuse - much, much more than she needs to make her point and in fact at the danger of seeming sensational and unrealistic. Was there no one who could help Jude, even in the slightest? He also raises a point w/ which I have to disagree, complaining about the clumsiness of HY's prose. Of course in 700pp there will be some passages that fall flat (here's where an editor could have helped), but there are also some quite beautiful passages and observations about the street life, the sounds, the aromas, the apartments, the work spaces in contemporary NYC. In other words, she's potentially a good writer but this novel needed significant editing and re-thinking, tho who am I to say?