Reading Notes: A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara

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a little life - hanya yanagihara - book cover

[EDIT: After learning a bit more about the author, I find that I can no longer recommend this book to anyone, at all.

When author Hanya Yanagihara was asked if she did any research into the effects of abuse, so that she could accurately portray Jude’s psychological state as a survivor of abuse, she replied, “I didn’t do any research.” In my opinion, this alone renders A Little Life completely vulgar. For an artist depicting abuse to do nothing in the way of studying abuse, to dedicate literally zero attention to abuse and actual victims of abuse – to instead imagine the effects that abuse might have, without verifying that those musings are rooted in truth – feels incredibly disrespectful.

It makes me wonder why someone who doesn’t have first-hand experience with abuse and who took no time to research abuse and its effects would write a novel about graphic abuse.

In an article that mentions Yanagihara’s childhood experiences with viewing cadavers at a morgue, she’s quoted as saying “Disease really fascinates me, what an invader can do to the host body from an imperial perspective but also as an infection…” and “I love discovering how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live.” I understand that a fascination with disease and bodily functions is important for medical reasons, but because I know Yanagihara wrote A Little Life after doing no research, her comment is straight-up appalling. It reinforces my perception that she wrote this novel for the sole purpose of entertaining her fascination with how much a person can suffer. I find it crass and sensationalist, in the same way that films that depict graphic and gratuitous violence against women are crass and sensationalist. Life is terrible enough and abuse survivors don’t exist for anyone’s amusement; the world doesn’t need torture porn disguised as art, especially not when the artist has made so little effort in examining readily available facts or at least personal interviews that might inform a story about abuse.

Perhaps I’m reading into her comments. I haven’t spoken to Yanagihara personally and asked whether she meant to write a novel about graphic abuse that ends in suicide for her personal enjoyment. But given what she’s said in interviews, it makes me sick to know this book was written by her, and I strongly suggest you do not read it.]

I recently finished reading A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara, thanks to this not-recommendation on Tumblr.

(While I’m not actually acquainted with Lottie in real life (or online), I trust her literary tastes, based on the fact that she’s responsible for my reading The Song of Achilles: A Novel by Madeline Miller and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, both of which are GORGEOUS.)

And while this book at times rendered me catatonically devastated, ultimately, it didn’t leave me sunk in a depression about the pointlessness of life, &c., &c. that so many other readers have mentioned experiencing. In fact, it made me feel hopeful, and mortal, and grateful, and all “The Tail End,” and soul-achingly in love with Augustus.

Perhaps that’s a reflection on my own cynical optimism about life (or optimistic cynicism?) – that it truly is pointless, that death will greet all of us someday, that there will be pain and suffering, that it will be tiring, that there are small, wonderful, precious moments, that loving other people is the best way to make your life feel full, that nothing is fair – perhaps if you’ve already accepted that goodness and suffering do not balance each other out, that they merely coexist, maybe you will enjoy this book. (I suspect you will appreciate it, either way.)

In any case, I’ve taken up the habit of writing down words I don’t know and passages I like when I’m reading. So in the spirit of Maggie Mason’s “Best Parts” posts over at Mighty Girl, here are my reading notes from A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara.

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malfeasancen. – the performance by a public official of an act that is legally unjustified, harmful, or contrary to law; wrongdoing (used especially of an act in violation of a public trust)

uxoriousnessn. – excessive fondness of or submission to a wife

venaladj. – capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration; open to corrupt influence and especially bribery

vituperativeadj. – uttering or given to censure; containing or characterized by verbal abuse

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QUOTES & EXCERPTS (full of spoilers)


However, race seemed less and less a defining characteristic when one was six years out of college, and those people who still nursed it as the core of their identity came across as somehow childish and faintly pathetic, as if clinging to a youthful fascination with Amnesty International or the tuba: an outdated and embarrassing preoccupation with something that reached its potent apotheosis in college applications.

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In the evenings, when a group of them lay splayed in someone’s room (a candle burning, a joint burning as well), the conversation often turned to his classmates’ childhoods, which they had barely left but about which they were curiously nostalgic and certainly obsessed. They recounted what seemed like every detail of them, though he was never sure if the goal was to compare with one another their similarities or to boast of their differences, because they seemed to take equal pleasure in both.

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But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not “I love him” but “How is he?” The world, overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle course of terrors.

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“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

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“I won’t say a word. I’ll see you tomorrow. And Jude – ” But he didn’t, or couldn’t, say anything else. “I know,” he said. “I know, Willem. I feel the same way.” “I love you,” said Willem, and then he was gone before he had to respond. He never knew what to say when Willem said that to him, and yet he always longed for him to say it.

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The next day at work, he received an arrangement of roses the size of a gardenia bush, with a note in Andy’s angry blocky handwriting that read: JUDE – I’M SO FUCKING EMBARRASSED I CAN BARELY WRITE THIS NOTE.

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Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

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As you got older, you realized that the qualities you valued in the people you slept with or dated weren’t necessarily the ones you wanted to live with, or be with, or plod through your days with.

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He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.

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But mostly, I missed watching you two together; I missed watching you watch him, and him watch you; I missed how thoughtful you were with each other, missed how thoughtlessly, sincerely affectionate you were with him; missed watching you listen to each other, the way you both did so intently.

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I was with him, and you and Julia were behind us. You were talking about, oh, I don’t know – insects? Wildflowers? You two always found something to discuss, you both loved being outdoors, both loved animals: I loved this about both of you, even though I couldn’t understand it. And then you touched his shoulder and moved in front of him and knelt and retied one of his shoelaces that had come undone, and then fell back in step with Julia.

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