Hanya Yanagihara asks a good question: when we say a novel is ‘brave,’ what do we mean? Her answer in a nutshell:
“I sometimes wonder if what we’re really trying to praise is not the subject matter or the politics or even the aesthetics of the book, but the author’s ability, or even just willingness, to be impolite, to be messy, to be extravagant on the page. A novel can be perfect in its structure, in its logic, in its composure, but the most memorable novels, the most electrifying, are the ones that understand the necessity of imperfection, of ragged edges, of being distasteful, of making mistakes, of being demanding of the reader.”
She’s right, I believe, but there’s more to it than that. The dictum about a novel’s imperfections, its ragged edges, applies not only to its structure–the way that the book is written–but also to the ideas the book presents. By her own standards, Ms. Yanagihara is very brave, indeed. She pushed the plot and the details of A Little Life just as far as they would go. She alienated many of her readers by doing so. If the novel was, as she says, at its simplest, a love story, does that make the ideas she was presenting worth the risks she took? Was she saying anything about love that we had not read before? I admire the novel a great deal, but I do not have a wholly-affirmative answer to the last question.
One of the most serious criticisms of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is that despite its breathtaking alpha-omegic structure and its capture of the ever-merging and shifting language of the unconscious, the novel breaks down in communication with its readers to an indefensible degree. Yanagihara’s extraordinary depiction of violence, perhaps most particularly in the torture of Jude by his boyfriend Caleb and the earlier torture of Jude by Dr. Traylor (sections of the novel I did not find it necessary to mention in my review last year), also breaks down communication with its audience to a great degree. Many readers felt repelled and unjustly manipulated by A Little Life‘s insistent violence, just as other readers were mystified and repelled by Joyce’s unfathomable erudition.
The difference is that, beneath Joyce’s stated aim to drive all the academics crazy for the next hundred years, in his convoluted language, his endless puns and portmanteau words, he was trying to show us and suggest to us how the uncontrollable human mind, from its beginning to the end of its existence, actually works in this world, a task few writers, or none, had ever attempted before.
Yanagihara’s scope, despite the admirable intensity of its presentation, is smaller. She’s trying to show us that, even under the most extraordinary pressures, love can endure; our deepest affections can survive. Oddly, however, the survival of love and its capacity to endure are shown to us best by Willem and Harold, not by Jude St. Francis. Jude, I think we can say, is a man who is worthy of love, as we all are. Our worthiness to be loved cannot be driven out of us. Was it necessary to depict not one or two but three profoundly violent relationships to make that point? Yanagihara evidently thought so but, in the end, what gets destroyed by such abuse, she seems to say, is not our worthiness to be loved, but our ability to receive it and allow it to animate our lives. This is the meaning of Jude’s life. But is his life something we haven’t seen before? Is its meaning something we haven’t heard before? On the surface, perhaps, especially to those who are unfamiliar as yet with the cruelty of humans to each other, but below the surface, is Jude any different from any other character (or real person) we’ve ever met who rejects love, denies it, will not allow it to enter his life? I think not.