Book Review, Compilation Fiction, Contemporary, Contemporary American, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Hanya Yanagihara, LGBT, Literature, Loss, Monthly Review

Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)
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Adelaide Anne Procter, Book Review, Charles Dickens, Compilation Fiction, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, George Augustus Sala, Hesba Stretton, Literature, London Literati, Short Story, Victorian, Victorian Celebration, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 24

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens is actually a compilation work, with contributions from Hesba Stretton, George Augustus Sala, Adelaide Anne Procter, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell.  Each writer, including Dickens (who wrote the opening and closing segments, as well as a middle segment) writes one “chapter” of the tale.  The premise is that a group of people have come to a well-known haunted house to stay for a period of time, experience whatever supernatural elements might be there to experience, then regroup at the end of their stay to share their stories.  Each author represents a specific person within the tale and, while the genre is supposed to be that of the ghost story, most of the individual pieces fall flat of that.  The conclusion, too, is saccharine and unnecessary – it reminds the reader that, though we came for ghost stories, what we leave with is a mirthful Christmas story.


Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

Because this is a compilation of separate short stories, one would not expect much character growth and development (short stories are, after all, more about the theme/event/plot than they are about the characters).  Still, because they were interconnected via the primary story (a group of folks coming together to the same house), there could have been at least a bit of time spent developing those guests, so as to better understand the stories they ultimately told.  Gaskell’s story, being the longest, did allow for some characterization and what was done, was done well.  The characters remain generally flat throughout, but they are recognizable characters – a mother who would act like a mother, a father who acts like a father, etc.  Still, when coming to this collection, it cannot be for its interesting characters because they just are not very interesting (and this could be even more acceptable if the stories themselves were thrilling ghost stories, because then there is something else to entertain and occupy the reader, but….). 


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Dickens, Gaskell, and Collins are clearly the masters here, but in my opinion Dickens was in fact out-shone by the other two in this one.  Dickens’s portions read too much like someone trying to write a thriller but not quite knowing how (it felt like someone mimicking Poe – getting the general mechanics right, but not quite being Poe).  Gaskell’s piece is the longest, and her narrative brilliance – use of dialect in particular- are clear.  Collins has the best paced and most appropriately toned prose which, from the author of The Woman in White, probably should have been expected.  Salas’s writing seemed pompous, arrogant, and long-winded; it was funny, at times, but a bit too self-serving.  The inclusion of Procter’s verse added a nice element to the overall scheme, and a nice break from the various competing proses.  The verse itself was haunting and reminded me quite a bit of the pace and scheme of Poe’s “The Raven.”  Stretton’s short piece was perhaps the most enjoyable, because it was so well-written and more intricately layered than the rest. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Dickens himself was reportedly underwhelmed and disappointed by his peers’ contributing portions of this serial Christmas tale.  I believe his hope was that each of the authors would put into print a certain fear or terror particular to each of them, as Dickens’s story did.  The “haunting,” then, would be something personal and, while not necessarily supernatural, could still be understandably frightening.  Like Dickens, I was left disappointed by the end-result of this ambition. For Dickens, the fear was in revisiting his impoverished youth, the death of his father and the fear of never escaping the “ghost of [his] own childhood.”  Gaskell’s story revolved around betrayal by blood – the loss of a child and lover to the darker elements of humanity.  Again, understandably frightening in its way.  Sala’s story was a dream within a dream within a dream, but while the dream could have been unnerving, there seemed little that was truly frightening about it, supernatural or otherwise.  Wilkie Collins’s story is the one in this compilation which could actually be considered a “suspense” or “thriller” story.  Hesba Stretton’s story, too, while not necessarily scary, is romantic, somewhat suspenseful, and well-accomplished overall.  When considering the group of tales in this compilation, it is Stretton’s which leaves me wanting to read more of her work.  Ultimately, though it is called “The Haunted House,” this compilation of ghost stories is not really a ‘Halloween’-type read.  If one reads this collection as a study of these individual writers, their thoughts, and what they considered haunting, then it is quite interesting.  But as a ghost story, it is no extraordinary achievement, possibly because Dickens (and presumably the other writers) was a skeptic and found the popular interest in the supernatural rather silly.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Victorian Literature, London Literati, Creative/Fictional Autobiography, Short Story, Compilation Fiction.

Notable Quotes:

“The women (their noses in a chronic state of excoriation from smelling-salts), were always primed and loaded for a swoon, and ready to go off with hair-triggers.” – Dickens

“On some subjects it is better to have a silent understanding than an expressed opinion.” – Stretton

“No star is ever lost we once have seen, / We always may be what we might have been.” – Procter

“The hopes that, lost, in some far distance seem, / May be the truer life, and this the dream.” – Procter

“No other ghost has haunted the boy’s room, my friends, since I have occupied it, than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence, the ghost of my own airy belief.” – Dickens

“What ardently we wish we long believe.” – Gaskell

“But the broken-hearted go home, to be comforted of God.” – Gaskell


–The Haunted House is Book #5 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

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