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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Andrew Smith, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Favorites, Fiction, Friendship, GLBT, LGBT, Loss, Young Adult

Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 36

Ryan Dean West is Winger, so nicknamed for the position he plays on the high school Rugby team.  He is fourteen years old and, being intellectually gifted, is already heading into his junior year of high school. He begins the new school year as a resident of Opportunity Hall, the “reject” wing of his school campus’s dormitories.  How did such a bright kid end up in exile?  Take one part smarty-pants, one part wild boy, and two parts bad judgment, and there you have it!  Living in Opportunity Hall with Chas, the school’s biggest bully, as a roommate sucks, but it is not the biggest of Winger’s problems.  And the fact that Chas’s girlfriend is totally lusting after him is bad, but still not the worst of it.  That one of Winger’s friends posts pictures of his band-aided scrotum on the internet and another is gay (how do you deal with that!?) definitely causes Winger some anxiety, but these are still not the worst of his issues.  No, the worst part is, he’s in love.  Not so bad?  Well, it is if you’re in love with your best friend.  And it’s really bad if your best friend is a girl two years older than you.  Two years might not seem like such a big deal to those of us who are now counting our birthdays in decades instead of years, but when you’re young, two years feels like a generation, especially when another guy, an older guy, your best friend, in fact, is competing with you for the same girl’s attention.  Winger is a classic coming-of-age story for the new era. It is smart, daring, honest, and dangerous.

One of my favorite things about Smith’s books has always been the characters.  Smith clearly knows and understands his characters inside and out.  No one in the story is there for the sake of being there – they are all integral to the story’s plot and progression, be it for comic relief, emotional growth, romance, sexual awakening, or whatever else.  Winger is no exception to this mastery.  The main character, Ryan Dean, is not the greatest guy in the world; in fact, he does some pretty lousy things.  But he’s growing up.  He stumbles and he learns.  He says stupid things, but reflects on them later.  We get annoyed with him, sometimes, but we root for him because we can see and remember our own journeys to adulthood reflected in his.  The bullies, too, Chas and Casey Palmer, are equally rounded – they are not all bad, and they are not just there because every protagonist needs an antagonist.  They have their stories and histories, too, and they are equally important to this world that Smith has created.  Although the story focuses on the students, Winger and his friends, Smith also captures the best and worst of adulthood.  There are teachers (Mr. Wellins!) who live in their own little obsessive worlds, trying to make their students see what they see in the things they love; there are absent parents and clueless mentors; there are even unlikely romances between creepy hall directors who ultimately let their residents down in the worst possible way.  This mixed bag of characters, their individualities, and their interconnectedness with one another and with the main story itself all help to create a story world that is believable and engaging, hilarious and terrifying – just like life.

When you have a favorite writer, the anticipation that builds when waiting to read his or her new book is a peculiar experience.  You know you love what they do, but part of you is always dreadfully afraid that the new book might disappoint.  When you’re a self-identified “reader,” there are few things more terrifying and heart-breaking than to be let-down by your favorite writer – it is a fear that few people can know or understand.  So, headed into this reading experience, having loved every single one of Andrew Smith’s published works to date, had me simultaneously nervous and excited.  I discovered Smith when I received an advanced copy of his book Stick from the publisher, for review.  Immediately after finishing it, I bought every one of his books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them.  Smith has a distinct voice, a poignant style, and a raw and daring point of view.  It is remarkable, then, having already known what Smith was capable of, that Winger has blown my head right off.  Smith clearly cares deeply for this story – the language and style are creative and distinctive, without being distracting.  Smith understands people, but it takes a great storyteller to metamorphose that understanding into a readable, enjoyable story.  He does this in traditional ways, sure, but he also adds unique signatures to his prose and form.  For example, Winger carries on conversations with himself – something we probably all do – but has it ever been so realistically employed in prose?  I don’t think so.  The cartoons, too, add a fun element to the narrative, but also add to the reader’s understanding of the main character/narrator’s personality.  Sometimes his deepest feelings, though caricatured through comic, come across most pointedly in his drawings.  The dialogue, the jokes, the sarcasm, and the descriptions, too, are without flaw.

This year, I have been fortunate enough to have read some great young adult fiction from some of the most popular, award-wining writers.  Although the YA genre is not my particular specialty, I do enjoy it and read it often; in the last 5 months, I’ve read works by Rick Yancey, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Cassandra Clare, and Rick Riordan. I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees, all of their books and have found much to praise about each writer.  But Andrew Smith stands unequivocally head-and-shoulders above the rest, and Winger is in a league of its own.  It is not uncommon to read blurbs and reviews that claim such-and-such book is THE book of the year – for whatever reason.  I have made a point, on this blog, to write my unbiased opinions of books, based on my own criteria – the things that work for me when reading a story.  I’m not sure I’ve ever, in a review, suggested that anyone go out and buy a book.  But there’s a time for everything, and this is that time.  Winger is the first book this year to capture my attention from the start and hold it to the end.  It’s the first story to tug at my heart, my soul, and my funny bone, and to make me believe that this story and the characters in it are real.  If you’re a lover of YA fiction or coming-of-age stories, or if you are, like me, someone who just loves a good story and will dabble wherever you need to in order to find it, then, for crying out loud, go experience Andrew Smith’s Winger.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, violence).

Interest:  Coming of Age, YA, Boarding School, Friendship, Loss, LGBT, Bullying.

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was . . . things expand and contract – like breathing, but you could never fill your lungs up with the same air twice” (7).

“Getting through my world was like trying to swim in a pool of warm mayonnaise while carrying two bowling balls” (328).

“I wrote this all down, and I tried to make everything happen the exact same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it – real time – with all the confusion, the pressure, and the wonder, too” (411).

“Things get tough. And you’re supposed to grow up. And it’s all a bunch of bullshit” (411).

“It felt like it was going to snow, and the clouds hung so low and white that I couldn’t even see the tops of trees around me. It looked like there was a pillow over the face of the world” (423).

“Almost nothing at all is ever about sex, unless you never grow up, that is. It’s about love, and, maybe, not having it” (438).

“The same words that make the horrible things come also tell the quieter things about love” (439).

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