Apr. 8th, 2016

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A book has never made me want to make bacteria cookies more.

Book #2: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

This book is just hard to talk really about. I mean, I read the People in the Trees, Yanagihara's previous book, and that one (with its super misogynist paradise-despoiling child-molesting narrator) was hard, too. I found it thorny and beautifully written and unpleasant and it stuck with me for years. I recommended it to no one, but talked about it with many people. Which'd be about how I feel about A Little Life. I passed up my hold from the library twice before taking it out, and the wait was wise; and then I read it, and I mean, it was a singular experience. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences I've ever had. I'm still not sure I'd recommend it.

So the basic story, if you don't already know it: the book focuses on the lives of four friends at the outset who meet at a small northeastern US university, and then move to New York, all around the same time: a biracial, fairly affluent guy who doesn't know his place with anything yet (Malcolm); a driven Haitian-American artist who really wants to establish a name for himself but has complex issues with his race at the outset (JB); a white struggling actor whose ranch-hand family out west has all recently died around the outset of the book (Willem); and a disabled, ambiguously racial, secretive aspiring lawyer with huge, huge backstory trauma issues (Jude). It's basically their lives from around 20 through their early 50s.

Now then: you can level a lot of criticisms at this book that I will grant you. The story devolves away from really focusing on all of them to focusing more on Jude and Willem, and Jude most of all. It loses track of JB and particularly Malcolm for long stretches, after it sells you the quartet at the outset. It'd be better if it kept a broader focus - I will grant this. Everyone ends up being ridiculously successful to frankly ludicrous degrees - I will not argue. Jude's friends stick through some of his behaviour that simply should have been alienating at least some of them, perhaps particularly his doctor friend, Andy, who should have cut Jude off or tried to get him committed or something - I will accept it. The terrible, horrible backstory for Jude and the depictions of his abuse and his adult responses to that abuse are fairly extreme and hard to read - yes, I will say, they definitely are. Somehow, the New York portrayed in the book is stuck in a perpetual 2007 - I will nod my head to you in sympathy for your urban frustration. And on and on - you think Yanagihara's prose gets too purple sometimes? Sure. You dislike the message Yanagihara says she was trying to convey with the book? Yeah, it's pretty reprehensible.

But despite all that. Despite everything the book missteps on. To me, this is still one of the most important books that I have ever read. Why? Because Jude is basically me. I don't have his baroque tortured backstory, and I am fervently thankful for that. And I never did any cutting, which Jude loves to the bits he carves himself into. But the portrayal of Jude, and of the effects he has on the people around him, is just astounding. He would say or think things or behave in ways that were shockingly familiar. And shocking is the right word, because that kind of character identification has never once happened to me ever, for this part of me. She nailed the internal psyche of an adult who overcame significant childhood trauma and is trying to live with it as an adult. Just nailed it cold, with the secrets and the strategies and the compartmentalization and the constant nagging surety that people see you the exact unrealistic way you see yourself and everything. It is a fantastic writing achievement.

And if that is not enough: for all his difficulties, for all that Jude struggles with himself and tests repeatedly all the bonds he makes with his friends and eventual family, he gets to build a life. A realistic life in many ways, too, considering where he starts as an adult - he doesn't leave his past behind, because he can't. It's still there. But he builds a career he takes pride in and is ferociously good at, and he makes friends who care for him unfathomably deeply, and he finds a place he loves to live in, and he gets a sizable amount of wealth. He even finds love, both from adoptive parents, and eventually from a romantic partner. And with all this, he gets to a place where a late section titled the Happy Years actually seems possible.

This, too, is staggering: it is a message of hope and of beauty, and indeed of love of various kinds, delivered in a way that is effective for feeling so true. And that takes really grappling with so much ugliness and knowing the depths that he traversed to get himself to a spot where it could happen. No one writes characters like Jude - you don't know their stories and you don't get their lives wrought in this much detail, with this much love. There is a care here that cannot be dismissed. It is a painful and difficult book to read, and I can't recommend that you do. But if this book will resonate with you, then it has the potential to reshape your worldview and make you feel less alone. Like I said, it's singular. It's one little life, portrayed in detail. But it's also a whole lot more.

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