Something that didn’t seem to exist when I did GCSE and A-level English Lit, is the “compare and contrast” question. This currently seems to form a staple of my children’s essay writing experience, ie taking two authors/books with a tenuous link and sitting there stumped for hours working out how to segue them into one seamless commentary.
I thought about this over the last two weeks, when I found myself reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Both were very long books (not unusual in publishing these days), and both had scenes in that I found too horrific to read to the end (quite unusual for me).
I can see why A Little Life divided critics. It’s the story of 4 friends, from college age to middle age, focusing on one character in particular, Jude St Francis.
The opening is a bit slow; the four friends start out rather devoid of individual characteristics, and it is only slowly that we learn that Willem has a brother who died in childhood, and that something awful has happened to Jude in the past, from his physical and mental scars.
Once it gets going, the tension as Jude’s story is skilfully handled. The slow revelations of his back story are almost unbearable. Also, the story moves to focus on Jude’s struggle to live a normal life, and the extent to which his refusal to completely do so affect those who love him.
When I was fourteen, I read Deborah Moggach’s Porky, about a girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the terrible consequences it has on her ability to form intimate relationships as an adult. I remember thinking, “Why is she behaving like that? Why can’t she just do X? Everything would be OK if she did that.”
I imagine that says something about one’s perception of how easy it is to change when one is young. Would it have been easier for me to change myself at that age, or did I just think it would be, because I hadn’t experienced the difficulty of trying to break habits?
So I would disagree with what The New Statesman had to say about A Little Life, which was:
“Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.”
There was amazing tension in the question of whether those who loved Jude would ultimately be able to accept him, and as well as being more moved by the depiction of Jude’s abuse than almost any other book I have read, I was also moved by the struggles of those around Jude when they realised that they could not heal him as they thought he deserved to be healed. I would say that this, in an age where every television programme is either written or edited to portray a positive “journey” counts as “something new,” or at least as a timely reminder.
I did, however, find two things about A Little Life very frustrating. Firstly, it was unnecessarily long, with people meandering around doing utterly banal everyday things. There was also too much repetitive and interminable piledriving home about what various people were thinking and feeling.
Also, after the big reveal about the culmination of Jude’s backstory, which ironically I couldn’t read, I rather lost interest in the book. There was a noticeable lack of the character development you would expect to occur naturalistically over thirty odd years of the characters’ lives. More fundamentally, I do like a traditional end to a story ie for all the decisions a character has made over their destiny to lead to a revelation, which is not the same as a solution or a healing, about themselves. There was no revelation, and the events seemed to peter out into a series of happenings, leaking direction and purpose as they went.
Thank you to all of you who recommended Murakami books for me :-)
Following my underwhelmed reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World, I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle much more satisfying because of the stronger “real” strand that ran alongside the surreal/fantasy strand. Again, this was a book that was too long, although its problem was that it took a while to get going rather than going on too long. It’s the story of Toru Okada, whose wife disappears, and his quest to get her back, which involves him meeting an oddball cast of characters along the way, and his encounters with various dangers and downright unpleasantness.
The straightforward narrative, which strangely had a similar theme to A Little Life, was essentially very simple, but made more mysterious and lyrical by the surreal quest. I found that this made it a bit of an inside-out story, which, for those of you who know what happens in it, is not an idle comparison.