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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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.

 

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9 Comments

  1. Two very long reads – I’m a bit like you as still in the throes of War and Peace – maybe there is something about January that makes us pick up bigger books… Am looking forward to something very short and sweet after this and A Little Life at the beginning of the month.

    • I am going to go for a fun and thrilling “House of Silk” children’s book after this! I think it is the runover from the Christmas break, the lovely feeling of being able to sit and read all day and devour huge books, you sort of forget that 8 hours of work is going to get in the way of it come January/February.

    • The whole sitting down a hole/empty shell bit was very weird to begin with, but I sort of got into it as the book went on. I found it more spooky than irritating, because his passivity kept leading him into terrible situations.

  2. I have been trying to work out whether I actually want to read A Little Life or not! Most reviews I’ve read are positive even though they warn that it’s a hard book to read. This one offers a little more perspective about the process, which I needed. Although I’m still undecided!

    • Definitely worth it. i forgot to say that some of the passages about Jude’s early life are so delicately done, preserving the fiction of a choice that explained Jude’s attitudes in later life, were heartbreakingly lyrical and kept up a real dynamism in his character. If the book could have been only those best moments, with a better construction/ending, it would have been one of the best books I’d ever read.

  3. Denise,

    What a coincidence. I just finished listening to the audiobook of Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and shared my thoughts on Goodreads. If you don’t mind, here’s what I wrote:
    “Here’s a disclosure. I’d tried reading Murakami before but could not finish the book. That one was The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. This time, I listened to the audio CD’s and had determined to finish listening to the whole book and not quit. I admit, it wasn’t easy. Something lost in the translation? or in the audio performance? or both? or maybe not, maybe such is the style of Murakami’s? Tedious and redundant narratives, pseudo philosophical rumination, writing filled with clichéd dialogues and descriptions. I know I’m being politically incorrect in sharing my thoughts since Murakami is such a popular writer these days. Somebody well versed in Japanese literature please tell me, or literary scholar or literary theorists, anybody who has studied the field and done scholarly research, please enlighten me, is this literature?” My rating: 2/5 stars

    Thanks for comparing the two books and sharing your insights. But I don’t think I’ll venture out to read A Little Life, or any more Murakami. I’d rather read more of and reread Kawabata, Oe, and Ishiguro.

    • That’s such an exact way of putting it – feeling politically incorrect for not totally getting it. About half way through someone asked me what it was about and I said it was about a man who loses his wife and spends all his time sitting down a hole and they were obviously underwhelmed. I do think it was worth it in the end, but the journey was a bit of a slog and is it so wrong to ask for the surrealism and symbolism to be leavened with a bit of *enjoyment* along the way?

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