I can’t review A Little Life for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I can, on a semi-objective level, admit that it’s a well-written book—good prose, interesting characters, a compulsive readability that lets me speed through hundred page chunks in one sitting, the works. My issues with the book, I know, are less craft-based than they are philosophical/ideological—which is not to say I don’t have craft issues because OH BOY DO I, but those are kind of drowned out by the sheer visceral asdf;kjl keyboard smash that is my frustration with Hanya Yanagihira.
Why so? Ooh boy. Buckle up kids because, as my humanities TAs used to say, it is time to unpack this shit.
(major cws for sexual assault, suicide, and self-harm ahead)
But first, let’s backtrack a little. I first heard of A Little Life in 2015, when my creative writing professor took the opportunity to mention it every other class, shortly to be followed by multiple classmates telling me how powerful it was, how beautiful and devastating and wow, Cynthia, why haven’t you read it yet? Every other bookstore I went, it was on the front shelf, neat little blurb stuck next to it with the same words—”amazing! Heartbreaking! Unflinchingly honest!” And so, being as susceptible to such positive publicity as any other person and not wanting to be stuck in the literary dust, I put A Little Life on my mental to-do list. It was the school year and I was writing my thesis and A Little Life, with its 720 pages of promised devastation and heartbreak, was not something I really wanted to deal with. Then school ended, and I meant to get to it, I really did, but I couldn’t find an eBook version and I didn’t want to buy a book and I sure as hell didn’t want to lug it and all its 720 pages to Spain, so it rested there, a perpetual entry on my back burner.
And then I got back from Spain, and I went to my local library, missing the feel and heft of printed words after months of reading on my Kindle, and there was A Little Life, which I’d been meaning to read for over a year.
So I checked it out, and I read it.
I was excited to read this book. It started out really, really well, and I was excited to see where it would go. Around page 200, I was still enjoying myself, but I was also starting to have doubts. Don’t you think, I asked my friend over Facebook, that some parts of this story are…melodramatic? My friend said no; I, needing to know that my aesthetic judgments weren’t completely off-base, went onto Goodreads and found all my complaints and amorphous reservations confirmed and given eloquent form to. Thank God, I thought, someone agrees.
And then a review mentioned Electric Literature’s interview with Hanya Yanagihira and I got curious and Googled it, and that’s when everything became indelibly, irrevocably biased.
Where to begin, really? Is it the fact that Hanya Yanagihira, despite being a woman and not a gay man, is being praised for writing the “great gay novel?” Was it when, 600 pages or so into the book, the characters named “Black Henry Young” and “Asian Henry Young”—initially charming in a collegiate way—are still differentiated by their ethnicities? Was it when the black and biracial characters from the friend group were, despite being billed as protagonists, shortly sidelined after their introductions, their struggles with race mostly swept under the rug? Was it when Yanagihira in a Vulture interview talked about deliberately wanting to creating a narrative where redemption was impossible, with a character so broken that despite any mental health care he could have gotten, his story arc would always end in suicide? Because you know, oh, True Art is Angsty, and it doesn’t matter how implausible/Deus Angst Machina some of your tragedies eventually become, because that’s just how life works!
Okay, let’s be real. It was the mental health thing. It was a lot of things, but it ALWAYS the mental health thing. Like, I know death of the author and all that, but she just…ugh. In the Electric Literature interview, Yanagihira’s asked what research she did for the character of Jude, a disabled man and sexual abuse survivor. Her response?
“No, I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed.”
Oh man. Oh man oh man oh man.
I know death of the author’s supposed to apply here, New Criticism and judging a work by its own merits or whatnot, but here’s the thing: if I want to learn about quantum physics, I’m not going to talk to some stranger on street. If I’m reading sci-fi and your spaceships start disobeying the laws of gravity with no viable excuse or explanation, I’m going to notice. Same thing when it comes to writing people you don’t know: contrary to what Yanagihira may claim, imagination and lack of fetishization is not enough to let you write someone of another sexuality/gender/race. We don’t live in some magical post-racial, post-everything world; these things count, they shade your worldview in a thousand tiny unsaid ways, and it’s really, really obvious when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Tl;dr, if you haven’t personally experienced what it’s like to be something and you’re not willing to do the research to learn about it, then you shouldn’t be writing about it.
And just ugh. The Electric Literature interview is just so full of gems like this. There’s a lot of questionable material in the book, too — see, for example
because oh of course, you know, PTSD is now not a mental illness and there are no alternatives to self-harm! Hooray! — but they still don’t hold a candle to the condensed WTF of the interview. Let’s just have a look, shall we? In non-chronological order, because I don’t want to go back and give this interview more page views:
“Male friendship, by which I mean a friendship between two men, is by its very nature different in scope and breadth than one between two women, or between a woman and a man.”
Just some casual reinforcement of the gender binary there, not much else going on. Move along now.
“I don’t believe in it—talk therapy, that is.”
Well, yeah. Neither does half the medical community, either. That’s why we’ve built on it, why we have cognitive behavior therapy, why we have rational emotive behavioral therapy, art therapy, group therapy, eclectic psychotherapy, desensitization…do I need to go on? Do all these therapies, at some point or another, require talking? Well, yes, but they’re also miles away from the stereotypical lie-on-a-couch-and-talk-about-your-feelings image Yanagihira seems to have in mind. “I don’t believe in therapy,” please. Good job at reducing years of research and data to a quaint fairytale because you know, social sciences aren’t “real science” anyways.
Fun fact? My psychological training consists of an AP Psychology Princeton Review book and a lot of Wikipedia and I know this. Do better.
“I tried to keep this in mind in A Little Life when I wrote the characters who make Jude’s life so awful—Caleb and Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor. They were always much more complicated people to me than they are to him; he sees them one way, of course, and so he should. But I tried to make all of them a little more mysterious to the reader, to suggest that there were other lives they led, that they were someone else entirely to the other people in their life. Caleb, especially, should come across as someone with nuance”
Brother Luke is a pedophile who prostitutes a nine-year-old boy for three years. Caleb is an abusive rapist who pushes his boyfriend down a flight of stairs. Dr. Traylor is a pedophile AND he intentionally runs over a child with his car. But they are not, as Yanagihira wants to remind you, monsters; that term is reductive, a 2D caricature of what life truly is.
Listen. I know John Wayne Gacy Jr. had a tough childhood and that Ted Bundy didn’t like his mother or whatever, but I don’t give a shit: they still raped and killed multiple people. Adolf Hitler was nice to dogs and wanted to be a painter, but hey, you could probably say that about some of the millions of people he killed. Assholes aren’t assholes 24/7; yeah, fine, but that doesn’t mean we have to emphasize with them. It’s called the banality of evil and Hannah Arendt got there and did it more chillingly in 1963 with Eichmann in Jerusalem.
For fuck’s sake, Yanagihira. In a culture where women get blamed for being raped and people fetishize school shooters, this is your contribution? Evil people have lives too? Really?
“To try to preemptively shield yourself from an experience—to say, in essence, this book is about something that I fear is going to really upset me, so I’d better protect myself by not exposing myself to it at all—is not only limiting, but also means you might be preventing yourself from experiencing something else, something you thought you never would, or never have.”
Hanya Yanagihira does not believe in trigger warnings, y’all. She also assumes that all her readers are neurotypical and that it’s cowardly to avoid reliving (“experiencing” in her words) their own sexual trauma over and over again.
“But in Asia, suicide isn’t viewed in the same way. Or it wasn’t, for many years. Here, we associate suicide with despair. There, you might say that the cause can be, sometimes, culturally sanctioned.”
Okay. So in East Asia, “culturally sanctioned” suicide isn’t done out of a concern for individual suffering; it’s because your country demands it or it’s for some nebulous ‘’greater good” or you’ve fucked up real bad and you don’t want to bring that shame to your family. Apples to oranges. Also, yes, let’s bring back harakiri, along with female infanticide and widow burning and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, because you know! Those are all great and wonderful ideas and are not at all challenged in the countries they’re associated with.
The terrible thing about this for me is because Hanya Yanagihira is a high-profile Asian writer, she’s going to be taken as speaking for all Asian people. And it’s inevitable, that’s what happens when you’re a minority in America, but it also irks me because I—as an aspiring Asian-American writer—just disagree with it. So. Much.
“[I]f you’re a woman and you’re sexually assaulted, it takes away nothing of your right to womanhood—I don’t think men feel the same way.”
…you know what? I’m not going to comment on this.
In conclusion: 720 pages of misery porn, written from the perspective of someone who didn’t even bother to research sexual assault, who treats mental health and suicide as thought experiments, who specifically set out to write angst for angst’s sake, and whose depictions of violence never quite lose the sour aftertaste of voyeurism. Yanagihira can write, I’ll give her that; I just wish what she’d written wasn’t this book.